Saturday, November 29, 2014

Girls Rule, Boys Drool and Babies Will Never Be Cool

I can't wait any longer. Mainly because I've got nothing else to write about. (More on that later.) Also note that much of what follows has zero salt if you believe deep down like me: to each his/her own. But that means I get mine too.

So here goes. Below is a list of things I've compiled over the years that I think parents shouldn't do. Maybe you'll laugh a little and agree (the best responses), regret things (the worst) and/or thoughtfully change some of your ways (a response I could only dream about and don't really deserve as an obscure blogger and first-time pregnant chick.)

You never know how long people have been trying to have a kid, so if it took you a month, shut it.

Other medical things to keep to yourself unless asked specifically by a genuine, inquiring mind: whether you had an epidural, a C-section, breastfed or didn't, tore (you know what I mean) and just basically any kind of delivery (or pregnancy for that matter) horror. I got pregnant thinking everything bad told to me could very well happen to me. This is obviously not true. Only some of it will. And in varying degrees, from the chillax to the magical pregnancy unicorns to the drama queens.

You cannot plan everything. From your baby's conception to its gender to its birthday to its birth.

Old wives' tales are FAKE. You can't guess the gender people are having regardless of how they're carrying, what they're craving, what a ring on a string does or what direction the parakeets are facing.

You don't own baby names.

If you don't like people touching your belly, don't have the miracle of a tiny human life inside you.

Girls are just as good as boys. Guys, if you think you have some sort of legacy to pass down, think again. And the carrying on the name thing? Ever think a family all has one name for the sake of simplicity? So relax and get over yourself. Your kid and any grandkids are your blood (and sometimes not if you're one of those angels who adopt) and will carry on exactly how much you loved them.

*quick interruption*

Boys don't drool any more than girls do but this does make them look, well, you decide.

Okay, back to it.

Why do we memorize all the numbers of our delivery day for regurgitation at people who don't really care... At 6:42 a.m. I started feeling this thing I thought was pee, got in the car at 7:14, arrived at the hospital a half hour later, walked around for this many minutes ... And this all resulted in a X-pound X-ounce, X-inches long baby. Nobody cares except your mother.

Pregnant women aren't always having a craving; we just finally feel it's okay to say we're hungry and want a burger and doughnut.

Things to consider when considering maternity photos: What are you going to do with them? Facebook doesn't really need any more along with foot announcements, months old T-shirts and gender cake Instagrams. How much will it cost? Have you started that education fund yet? Will your husband look awkward? The answer is most likely yes.

If you can avoid having a baby shower, you'll be guaranteed guilt-free 'no' RSVPs to everyone else's for the rest of your life.

Nurseries are rarely used for nursing so ixnay the nursery label for femme-cave and equip it with whatever you want like Netflix and your sewing machine or a comfy reading chair by the window and room for your yoga mat. Rock a wine rack. The kiddo's book and movie shelf can easily be yours too.

Don't act like the first birthday, first Christmas, first Easter, first trip to Disney is for them. It's for you. Be honest about it. It's okay.

Keep something, anything, for yourself.

I knew it would be hard to write about something other than parenthood for a while... It's like writing poetry about coming of age when you're 13 and a short love story when you meet the one. Or tragedy when it strikes. My head is a jumble of how I'll ever be sane again. How I read The Fault in Our Stars and cried more for the mom than the girl. I feel like when I'm alone, I'm spending quality time with my belly. I think of all the cool things I'm going to say to her (at which she won't be that impressed I know). How I secretly hope she's born a little Raven from X-Men (pictured above).

I'm officially crossing over to the light side (albeit somewhat in the shade). So if you feel you're any different than you thought you'd be at parenting or life, know you're not alone.

In conclusion, babies will never be cool but they sure do make life interesting.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Space-A and the Holograms

Mail Online
I simply could not get to Guam. At least not without going another stretch of days without waves of nausea, a fiery sunburn and more disappointment as military 'space available' flight schedules were both announced and tweaked. But let me start at the beginning if you're interested.

Cary was tottering around the ocean over here, over to southwest Honshu, Japan, then south to poor man's Hawaii (read: Guam). We had decided before he left that I would try and meet him there since he would be shoreside for a week for some special exercises, in which they did things like test giant fog machines for a professional party on the Pacific.

Base flights to Guam are happening all the time. And Guam's not that far away. I was up for it like the great, free trip to Seoul and the random, surprise trip to Hawaii when I got to see my parents. Plus, these things break up deployments like nothing else.

By the time he was underway and I was about to join him, I really, really wanted to see him in person.

Most people are good people, wouldn't hurt a fly or litter without feeling guilty. But when you're shooting for a seat on a Space-A flight, you suddenly wish horrible things upon other would-be travelers. Anything to simultaneously increase your chances of seeing a loved one and sticking it to the man. But no matter how hard you wish, prepare or analyze, this is what can happen - and I'm sure others have stories to boot...

Flight attempt one: Show up. Flight's cancelled. (They forgot to update the Facebook page.)

Flight attempt two: Show up. Wait. Flight's cancelled. (But there's another one in two days. Hmm.)

Flight attempt three (decided not to wait and drove an hour to the Air Force base for a flight to nearby Okinawa, where there are a bunch of flights going to Guam): Arrive on base. Kill four hours with an inhuman amount of nachos and the purchase of some comfy clothes from their huge Exchange. Wait. Roll call. (There are 20 people waiting to get on and five seats.) But I get a seat! (Pays to be traveling by yourself, so you can squeeze into that last seat while others have whole families in tow, mwooooohahahahahaha.)

Flight attempt four (a few hours after arrival in Okinawa; the wee hours of the morning): Flight's cancelled. Scramble for a room. Take taxi to base hotel.

Flight attempt five: Wake up. Check Facebook. Intended flight's cancelled. I've got a day to kill in good ol' Oki.
At this point, I commit to enjoying this Blue Zone. I hop the free shuttle to the base beach - I soon get on a first-name basis with the driver. I intend to purchase sunscreen and a towel at the beach shop, but it doesn't open for another half hour, so I make myself as comfortable as I can lying on a picnic bench with my Kindle.
Pinterest user since mine sucked.
There's one kind of beach towel in stock. It's $50. And the tiniest bottles of thick sunscreen. I get both, soon covered in expensive towel nubbles and not enough sunscreen as the day progresses and I can't resist swimming my screen off to get to the mysterious little island just out from the beach. There are tiny, electric blue fish and sea cucumbers which I can't get to throw up their innards.
In the evening I watch 22 Jump Street in the base theater while itching my sore stomach and eating a greasy slice of weird movie theater pizza.
Flight attempt six: Flight looks to be on. Shuttled to terminal for the last time hopefully. Wait. Roll call (wish bodily harm on other travelers except maybe besides the one girl with a little one who I watch Sleeping Beauty with in the lounge). I GET A SEAT!!!!! Check bags, wait and watch more Sleeping Beauty with them. Announcement: The plane is broken but they're trying to fix it and before they run into crew time - when operators need sleep. Second announcement: Plane is too broken.

Flight attempt seven: A flight has popped up, back to the Air Force base in an hour, and there's room, so I forget about attempting flight eight the next morning - and trekking in the humidity with my backpacker's backpack to the hotel in town I'd have to switch to - and take off with my nausea, sunburn and other ailments in tow.

But I may have extended my life while somewhat blue zone-ing it, and I have this "great" souvenir beach towel. And for one reason or another, the mirage that is Space-A sometimes just wasn't getting me down. Because I just wanted to tell Cary that our kid was finally on its way.

*    *    *    *

Note: Space-A isn't going to be the only hologram out there in society today. The hit 80s cartoon 'Jem and the Holograms' is going to be made into a...wait for action movie!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Annie's Girl

The very best articles I ever read are always sent from my dad.

* * * * * *

“To make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master.”

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:
What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.
Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.
Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.
And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.
Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:
That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.
Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers. . . .
I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”
[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.
But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.
Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:
A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer. 
To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play. . . . 
In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.
Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more. . . . That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.
In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:
Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop. . . . A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.
On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:
I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think. . . . .
Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative. . . . To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.
In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:
You have to be obsessed. . . . [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed. 
Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.
Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:
The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule. . . . Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch. . . . And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.
It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?
(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)
On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:
I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.
Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:
The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.
Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Awkward Savior

I'm married to the Kindle now but it wasn't love at first sight. I thought ereaders were the end of the smell of a good book, used bookstores and libraries. Maybe even publishers and journalists.

But a rolling stone...

My first was a 2nd generation given to me jointly by Cary and my parents. A little while ago, I turned it on to find the paperwhite screen resembling a broken Etch-a-Sketch. My heart sank. Panic set in.

What would I do while waiting for Cary in the car outside his work?

How would I enjoy meals out and alone when I didn't feel like cooking? (Read: heating up soup and toasting toast.)

What would I do right now?

I raced to chat online with the-most-amazing-customer-service-company-since-Nordstrom-would-take-back-tires (Amazon). And soon realized in almost no time at all, I would have a better, smaller, cooler, more efficient replacement for a steal. I promptly ordered a new case too, one that would make the electronic device I used to nervously despise look like a real book.

I made special trips to the post office to check if the new Kindle had arrived, while my old one was tucked away for safekeeping next to Cary's first iPod. When it arrived, it was Christmas morning. Really. Not like when someone uses that analogy for  'fresh powder' or a Lululemon jacket and I agree heartily but also somewhat half-so. It was my Christmas Day. One that's all about what I enjoy regardless of anyone else.

One day I'll find a bookcase I actually like that I'll fill with all my favorite reads. But until then, as we pack and haul and move and unpack and organize and clean and organize again, I'll whip out my 170 grams of reading power that connects me to any book in the world wherever I am in the world and feel content. No matter how long I have to sit in a car or how many awkward meals I do by myself or nights in a bed with only one human in it (and one canine), I don't notice as much that I'm alone.

When I carefully but in a slight rush opened the new Kindle box, I pulled out the more petite, darker electronic, that's gratifyingly not quite a Mac, and moved my hand over its surface. When I turned it on, I squealed at the perfect shine of the latest paperwhite booklight. I tested it out at the base McDonald's, waiting for Cary to get off work and save me a trip. Side note: It's strange but nifty how our NAF Atsugi McDonald's plays classical music, like, most of the time. Anyway, the hour flew by...

When I get a text from Cary that he's ready, I pocket my inanimate best friend, enjoying how this one isn't scratched and dinged yet. Over dinner, I slide the power button on again because Cary is so stressed we can't think of anything to say. The screen illuminates magically to an ideal brightness and I 'one-click purchase' another Jonathan Tropper novel, sucked into a more eloquent and interesting world.

As my friend once said at the end of the movie Gravity: The future is now.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Allyson Wonderland

J.D. Salinger's infamous story of Holden Caulfield, among others, went through
(Analog Yalanlar; also deviantart)
My parents visited this wonderland recently. The cherry blossoms finally popped, and the 'hurry up and happen' everyone feels turned into 'wait! don't go!!' I imagine it's something like fame or having a kid.

A third of our way through this tour, there are times I want to fast forward. Get back to English bookstores and the people who knew me when I was little. But there are times I want the days to stretch...and having family visit does that.

It's like taking your toddler to Disney for the first time. The Japanese vending machines are like the snack carts; it's as if heavenly light shines down on them, illuminating their shiny facades while sparkly music urges you to go ahead, enjoy some sugar, caffeine or vitamin C. The bullet train is like Space Mountain, thrilling yet soothing. The sakura (cherry blossom) trees are the stuff of storybook pictures.

River in Kyoto
Further, on ambiance: their hair was blown back by how spotless every car was - even the garbage trucks - every sidewalk, every train, as well as how wonderful the people are and the cheerful music that permeates both indoor establishments and neighborhoods.

We frolicked around Kyoto's blue-green Kamo river, and Iwakuni's Kintai Bridge at night - the trees were still in bloom and highlighted by paper lanterns, and the giant cobblestones leading into the dark water begged Cary and I to run across them. We strolled beneath bamboo forests and explored the world of Hakone, where we snacked on magical black eggs and rode a gondola across a fantastically windy, gaping canyon, then a pirate ship across a Loch Ness Monster-esque mountain lake.
Kintai Bridge
via krstarica FORUM

It really is as if Underland, Star Wars planets and Instagram were all whipped into one when God created Japan. (No joke. Dead serious. Come visit, statesiders.)

We made our way to Hiroshima. I can't put my finger on why I like this city more than Kyoto. It rained while we were there, turning the river that dissects downtown an appealing, mottled gray. It's not about Scarlet Johansson wandering lost across koi ponds; it's about this suddenly somber appreciation and a respect for the rebuilding that took place on both grand and small scales.

On the lighter said, it's home to my new favorite Japanese food: okonomiyaki. And it's the birthplace of Koyudo makeup brushes, which look like hearts and daisies more than a utensil to paint the barn.

Okonomiyaki is a real tasty mashup.
(Kaelazors's blog)
*    *    *    *

After they left, I returned to a mound of work. I should've been thrilled to have the pile-up, because freelancing usually means having too much time to eat Fritos at 10 a.m. and watch miniseries. Yet after this recent marathon of trying to harness my best column journalism, I got rejection, and then rejection. Nothing truly final, I told myself, just revisions and new leads. But I wasn't getting the scored-goal gratification of publishing that I've been needing over here. Copyediting just doesn't cut it. A byline buried in the credits and in eight point font only goes so far... Just like a personal blog's a dime a dozen if that.

I call myself a writer because that's what I do all day. But journalistically, I haven't gotten past local newspapers, travel guides and magazines the physical equivalent of TV Guide. Each time we move, I stand at the doors to the publications I admire like a Mervyn's customer. Open, open, open. Publish, publish, publish. While I wait, indefinitely, in whatever land the Navy transports us to, I guess I'll have to rely on proofreading tweets and entering speed typing contests.

Add this to your queue.
(via the review by Christopher Fowler)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Lack of Fiction

Lemonade Mouth
It was Halloween night when I first saw a tanuki. The jollier-looking raccoon sprinted in front of my car as I drove around the base flight line. I braked. 'No, tanuki-san, no!' a friend responded when I texted her that it had finally happened. (We worry they'll be hit.) It seemed like everyone had seen one but me. The slightly foggy night added to the magical mystery of it; the base was already flush with witches and colorful characters getting candy. As we enter year two over here, every holiday has now been experienced Japan-style including President's Day snow monkeys.

A group of us watched and called to the dark, fuzzy blobs perched in trees off a ridge run at Happo-One (pronounced o-nay). Every now and then one would leap from its wishbone cradle in play or fight, maybe screeching a little. It was cold and gray, and they should've been making their way to their natural hot springs that attract tourists. I learned you can get in the water with them in one spot.

Hey from Japan - Notes on Moving, Emily Cannell
I'm learning about whiskey and that earthquakes really can last longer than a burp. I've ranked the different chocolate chip cookies on base and know which bathroom stalls at the Exchange and OClub have locks that suck. I realized the Japanese national anthem, when sung, actually comes close to giving me goosebumps like ours. And Cary showed me how Butters cocks her ears and looks for Cheerios under the kitchen table when she sees you pour them into the bowl - it now never ceases to cheer me in the morning.

I finally got tickets to the Ghibli Museum, which is in a quiet Tokyo district. At the time, Mitaka was all wintry air and light, leaves underfoot. Some trees bright red in the nearby park. A friend and I walked the sidewalks and enjoyed until we saw the first wrought-iron signpost indicating we were on the right path. If you don't know, Studio Ghibli could be summed up as Japan's Disney. But it's more than that I think because it's foreign and more calm and introspective. It's the most peaceful way to make a statement that I've seen.

We looked at animation cells and a replication of Hayo Miyazaki's cluttered and inspiring office. I had a dark hot chocolate and left with a bag heavy with souvenirs and books. The details are the best, like in the films - as if they had Gaudi design Sesame Street for the outside and on the inside, a perfect cartoon screening, whimsical staircases and stained glass windows. In the theater, the ceiling is recessed into a vivid cartoon skyscape, the yellowest sun smiling down.

My Funky Worlds
Art is something I love but don't fully understand why. Why does editing text make me feel better about the world...I'm not building roads or bettering lives. Why does writing something down make me feel more complete...No one will read most of it. When I was little I watched this morning cartoon about a group of neighborhood friends who also go to sleep each night and meet up in their dreams for adventures. One of the little boy dreamers dreams of becoming a famous painter. Everyone loves everything he paints. No matter what. His work is epic. Sounds good right? But then he's on a stage, everyone going to watch him paint, and he's at a bit of a loss. He starts with a swipe of green for a tree maybe and everybody cheers. They give him a standing ovation after the next stroke. But of course none of this makes him truly happy.

To have their kid be a writer, WINK
I'd love for every word I write or comma I insert to be praised. For literary journals to clamor at perhaps a skimpy 200 words I write about how the only cold feet I've ever had for my husband is in winter when I give them to him to warm. Aw. That the paragraph I have from my 11-year-old self's journal is one of those read-it-and-weep passages. That I would be the one to bring the fiction column back to Seventeen magazine. That I would somehow live my own version of Dan Humphrey's life (link spoiler alert). That I would be like Dan says and take Fitzgerald's advice and write myself into the world somehow.

But a masterpiece without hard it really a masterpiece? Do our favorites get produced in a brush stroke? Ehh... But if an artist has poured their self into something, someone somewhere will like it, love it or at least relate to it. And that potential for connection tastes better than Mel's Lemonade.

It's hard to remember the sweetness of that fact according to myself when the day is bitter though. When life takes you away from the bliss of your true craft. It's just plain hard to get back there. To that wide-eyed kid and his dad at the air show. To the brown berry writing in her neighbor's tree, a less coordinated snow monkey, trying to bring fiction back.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Late Bloomers

Not by me or even about me, but my dad handed it to me on the beach halfway between my old home and my new.

Why do we equate genius with precocity?
Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.
“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”
He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 A.M. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.
In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.
Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief ” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”
A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.
The same was true of film, Galenson points out in his study “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.” Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.
The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were Picasso and Cézanne. He was an art lover, and he knew their stories well. Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, “Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas,” produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career—including “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.
Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.
The first day that Ben Fountain sat down to write at his kitchen table went well. He knew how the story about the stockbroker was supposed to start. But the second day, he says, he “completely freaked out.” He didn’t know how to describe things. He felt as if he were back in first grade. He didn’t have a fully formed vision, waiting to be emptied onto the page. “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a façade, haircut, clothes—just really basic things,” he says. “I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”
He began to collect articles about things he was interested in, and before long he realized that he had developed a fascination with Haiti. “The Haiti file just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Fountain says. “And I thought, O.K., here’s my novel. For a month or two I said I really don’t need to go there, I can imagine everything. But after a couple of months I thought, Yeah, you’ve got to go there, and so I went, in April or May of ’91.”
He spoke little French, let alone Haitian Creole. He had never been abroad. Nor did he know anyone in Haiti. “I got to the hotel, walked up the stairs, and there was this guy standing at the top of the stairs,” Fountain recalls. “He said, ‘My name is Pierre. You need a guide.’ I said, ‘You’re sure as hell right, I do.’ He was a very genuine person, and he realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to go see the girls, I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t want any of that other stuff,” Fountain went on. “And then it was, boom, ‘I can take you there. I can take you to this person.’ ”
Fountain was riveted by Haiti. “It’s like a laboratory, almost,” he says. “Everything that’s gone on in the last five hundred years—colonialism, race, power, politics, ecological disasters—it’s all there in very concentrated form. And also I just felt, viscerally, pretty comfortable there.” He made more trips to Haiti, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. He made friends. He invited them to visit him in Dallas. (“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house,” Fountain says.) “I mean, I was involved. I couldn’t just walk away. There’s this very nonrational, nonlinear part of the whole process. I had a pretty specific time era that I was writing about, and certain things that I needed to know. But there were other things I didn’t really need to know. I met a fellow who was with Save the Children, and he was on the Central Plateau, which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”
In “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in. “After the novel was done, I don’t know, I just felt like there was more for me, and I could keep going, keep going deeper there,” Fountain recalls. “Always there’s something—always something—here for me. How many times have I been? At least thirty times.”
Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”
But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:
The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.
Where Picasso wanted to find, not search, Cézanne said the opposite: “I seek in painting.”
An experimental innovator would go back to Haiti thirty times. That’s how that kind of mind figures out what it wants to do. When Cézanne was painting a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, he made him endure eighty sittings, over three months, before announcing the project a failure. (The result is one of that string of masterpieces in the Musée ”Orsay.) When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on a hundred and fifty occasions—before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.
Mark Twain was the same way. Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.
One of the best stories in “Brief Encounters” is called “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” It’s about an ornithologist taken hostage by the FARC guerrillas of Colombia. Like so much of Fountain’s work, it reads with an easy grace. But there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation. “I struggled with that story,” Fountain says. “I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations.” Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.
Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.
“All these qualities of his inner vision were continually hampered and obstructed by Cézanne’s incapacity to give sufficient verisimilitude to the personae of his drama,” the great English art critic Roger Fry wrote of the early Cézanne. “With all his rare endowments, he happened to lack the comparatively common gift of illustration, the gift that any draughtsman for the illustrated papers learns in a school of commercial art; whereas, to realize such visions as Cézanne’s required this gift in high degree.” In other words, the young Cézanne couldn’t draw. Of “The Banquet,” which Cézanne painted at thirty-one, Fry writes, “It is no use to deny that Cézanne has made a very poor job of it.” Fry goes on, “More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.” Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.
This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?
Not long after meeting Ben Fountain, I went to see the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the 2002 best-seller “Everything Is Illuminated.” Fountain is a graying man, slight and modest, who looks, in the words of a friend of his, like a “golf pro from Augusta, Georgia.” Foer is in his early thirties and looks barely old enough to drink. Fountain has a softness to him, as if years of struggle have worn away whatever sharp edges he once had. Foer gives the impression that if you touched him while he was in full conversational flight you would get an electric shock.
“I came to writing really by the back door,” Foer said. “My wife is a writer, and she grew up keeping journals—you know, parents said, ‘Lights out, time for bed,’ and she had a little flashlight under the covers, reading books. I don’t think I read a book until much later than other people. I just wasn’t interested in it.”
Foer went to Princeton and took a creative-writing class in his freshman year with Joyce Carol Oates. It was, he explains, “sort of on a whim, maybe out of a sense that I should have a diverse course load.” He’d never written a story before. “I didn’t really think anything of it, to be honest, but halfway through the semester I arrived to class early one day, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I have this chance to talk to you. I’m a fan of your writing.’ And it was a real revelation for me.”
Oates told him that he had the most important of writerly qualities, which was energy. He had been writing fifteen pages a week for that class, an entire story for each seminar. “Why does a dam with a crack in it leak so much?” he said, with a laugh. “There was just something in me, there was like a pressure.”
As a sophomore, he took another creative-writing class. During the following summer, he went to Europe. He wanted to find the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. After the trip, he went to Prague. There he read Kafka, as any literary undergraduate would, and sat down at his computer.
“I was just writing,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was writing until it was happening. I didn’t go with the intention of writing a book. I wrote three hundred pages in ten weeks. I really wrote. I’d never done it like that.”
It was a novel about a boy named Jonathan Safran Foer who visits the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. Those three hundred pages were the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated”—the exquisite and extraordinary novel that established Foer as one of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation. He was nineteen years old.
Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”
He began to describe his visit to Ukraine. “I went to the shtetl where my family came from. It’s called Trachimbrod, the name I use in the book. It’s a real place. But you know what’s funny? It’s the single piece of research that made its way into the book.” He wrote the first sentence, and he was proud of it, and then he went back and forth in his mind about where to go next. “I spent the first week just having this debate with myself about what to do with this first sentence. And once I made the decision, I felt liberated to just create—and it was very explosive after that.”
If you read “Everything Is Illuminated,” you end up with the same feeling you get when you read “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara”—the sense of transport you experience when a work of literature draws you into its own world. Both are works of art. It’s just that, as artists, Fountain and Foer could not be less alike. Fountain went to Haiti thirty times. Foer went to Trachimbrod just once. “I mean, it was nothing,” Foer said. “I had absolutely no experience there at all. It was just a springboard for my book. It was like an empty swimming pool that had to be filled up.” Total time spent getting inspiration for his novel: three days.
Ben Fountain did not make the decision to quit the law and become a writer all by himself. He is married and has a family. He met his wife, Sharon, when they were both in law school at Duke. When he was doing real-estate work at Akin, Gump, she was on the partner track in the tax practice at Thompson & Knight. The two actually worked in the same building in downtown Dallas. They got married in 1985, and had a son in April of 1987. Sharie, as Fountain calls her, took four months of maternity leave before returning to work. She made partner by the end of that year.
“We had our son in a day care downtown,” she recalls. “We would drive in together, one of us would take him to day care, the other one would go to work. One of us would pick him up, and then, somewhere around eight o’clock at night, we would have him bathed, in bed, and then we hadn’t even eaten yet, and we’d be looking at each other, going, ‘This is just the beginning.’ ” She made a face. “That went on for maybe a month or two, and Ben’s like, ‘I don’t know how people do this.’ We both agreed that continuing at that pace was probably going to make us all miserable. Ben said to me, ‘Do you want to stay home?’ Well, I was pretty happy in my job, and he wasn’t, so as far as I was concerned it didn’t make any sense for me to stay home. And I didn’t have anything besides practicing law that I really wanted to do, and he did. So I said, ‘Look, can we do this in a way that we can still have some day care and so you can write?’ And so we did that.”
Ben could start writing at seven-thirty in the morning because Sharie took their son to day care. He stopped working in the afternoon because that was when he had to pick him up, and then he did the shopping and the household chores. In 1989, they had a second child, a daughter. Fountain was a full-fledged North Dallas stay-at-home dad.
“When Ben first did this, we talked about the fact that it might not work, and we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’ ” Sharie recalled. To her, ten years didn’t seem unreasonable. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became twelve and then fourteen and then sixteen, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him, because, even during that long stretch when Ben had nothing published at all, she was confident that he was getting better. She was fine with the trips to Haiti, too. “I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place you haven’t at least tried to visit,” she says. She even went with him once, and on the way into town from the airport there were people burning tires in the middle of the road.
“I was making pretty decent money, and we didn’t need two incomes,” Sharie went on. She has a calm, unflappable quality about her. “I mean, it would have been nice, but we could live on one.”
Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story of Cézanne’s circle. First and foremost is always his best friend from childhood, the writer Émile Zola, who convinces the awkward misfit from the provinces to come to Paris, and who serves as his guardian and protector and coach through the long, lean years.
Here is Zola, already in Paris, in a letter to the young Cézanne back in Provence. Note the tone, more paternal than fraternal:
You ask me an odd question. Of course one can work here, as anywhere else, if one has the will. Paris offers, further, an advantage you can’t find elsewhere: the museums in which you can study the old masters from 11 to 4. This is how you must divide your time. From 6 to 11 you go to a studio to paint from a live model; you have lunch, then from 12 to 4 you copy, in the Louvre or the Luxembourg, whatever masterpiece you like. That will make up nine hours of work. I think that ought to be enough.
Zola goes on, detailing exactly how Cézanne could manage financially on a monthly stipend of a hundred and twenty-five francs:
I’ll reckon out for you what you should spend. A room at 20 francs a month; lunch at 18 sous and dinner at 22, which makes two francs a day, or 60 francs a month. . . . Then you have the studio to pay for: the Atelier Suisse, one of the least expensive, charges, I think, 10 francs. Add 10 francs for canvas, brushes, colors; that makes 100. So you’ll have 25 francs left for laundry, light, the thousand little needs that turn up.
Camille Pissarro was the next critical figure in Cézanne’s life. It was Pissarro who took Cézanne under his wing and taught him how to be a painter. For years, there would be periods in which they went off into the country and worked side by side.
Then there was Ambrose Vollard, the sponsor of Cézanne’s first one-man show, at the age of fifty-six. At the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet, Vollard hunted down Cézanne in Aix. He spotted a still-life in a tree, where it had been flung by Cézanne in disgust. He poked around the town, putting the word out that he was in the market for Cézanne’s canvases. In “Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne,” the biographer Philip Callow writes about what happened next:
Before long someone appeared at his hotel with an object wrapped in a cloth. He sold the picture for 150 francs, which inspired him to trot back to his house with the dealer to inspect several more magnificent Cézannes. Vollard paid a thousand francs for the job lot, then on the way out was nearly hit on the head by a canvas that had been overlooked, dropped out the window by the man’s wife. All the pictures had been gathering dust, half buried in a pile of junk in the attic.
All this came before Vollard agreed to sit a hundred and fifty times, from eight in the morning to eleven-thirty, without a break, for a picture that Cézanne disgustedly abandoned. Once, Vollard recounted in his memoir, he fell asleep, and toppled off the makeshift platform. Cézanne berated him, incensed: “Does an apple move?” This is called friendship.
Finally, there was Cézanne’s father, the banker Louis-Auguste. From the time Cézanne first left Aix, at the age of twenty-two, Louis-Auguste paid his bills, even when Cézanne gave every indication of being nothing more than a failed dilettante. But for Zola, Cézanne would have remained an unhappy banker’s son in Provence; but for Pissarro, he would never have learned how to paint; but for Vollard (at the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet), his canvases would have rotted away in some attic; and, but for his father, Cézanne’s long apprenticeship would have been a financial impossibility. That is an extraordinary list of patrons. The first three—Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard—would have been famous even if Cézanne never existed, and the fourth was an unusually gifted entrepreneur who left Cézanne four hundred thousand francs when he died. Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.
This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the life style of her profession and status—that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord, which is what she settled for.
But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and—in his own, querulous way—Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

Source. © Malcolm Gladwell - an essay pulled from The New Yorker and his latest book What the Dog Saw.