Friday, September 30, 2016

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Hello, Cephalopod Coffeehouse participants!

This month I listened to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain on Audible. I had heard a review of the novel on NPR when it was published back in 2012, and was interested in reading it but, for one reason or another, never got around to it.  Thankfully, I recently saw a preview for the movie adaptation, and decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did.

The novel takes place during one day: a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game, where Billy Lynn and his other Bravo Squad mates have been invited to participate in the halftime show, where none other than Destiny's Child will be performing. The soldiers have received this rather auspicious invitation because they have been deemed heroes, thanks to an embedded Fox News crew's footage of a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and is the concluding event in their "victory tour" before they are sent back to serve another tour in Iraq.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is when the members of the Bravo Squad are given footballs and are shown into the Cowboys locker room for autographs. The depiction of these soldiers, who have literally risked their lives, kowtowing to these professional athletes is poignantly ironic. Fountain details the enormous investment made into the athletes: the planning, organization, and infrastructure needed for each game; the superior care and attention given to the players' physical needs. He also illustrates the economically depressed backgrounds of the soldiers, contrasting them with the "patrons" of the Cowboys, who can spend $1000 on a logo monogrammed leather jacket.

This book contains mature language and topics and may not be suitable for all readers. However, if, as I believe, the greatest end of a book is to engender empathy, this book is well worth your time.

Monday, September 19, 2016

You Can Do Anything With an English Degree, and other Tall Tales

Anything feels like a dead end. I am twenty one years old, newly married, and am beginning to question my life choices. The career counselor is not helping.  “You can do anything with an English degree,” she says for the second time. I am a semester away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English. I have selected this rather audacious course of study because, in the classroom, William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s spring felt like more than words on paper. They felt like everything. But now, with the prospect of actually providing for myself before me, poetry is losing some of its relevance.  “What, specifically, can I do?” I ask. The counselor gives me a wan smile that looks like defeat.
So upon graduation I keep on with the job that I got to get me through college. It is somewhat underwhelming, this job, but it is better than nothing. It is, I tell myself, something. A steady paycheck. Benefits. A place to go from 9 to 5. Still,  I buy a spiral notebook from Albertsons with plans to write a novel. I start and stop and then stuff the notebook in my nightstand, overwhelmed by all the space within its pretty lined pages.

I am twenty four years old and hauling two stuffed suitcases onto the London Underground. My husband has come to study abroad and I am along for the ride. I put together my resume, my “CV” as the Brits call it, and send it out to several temp agencies. I am called in for an interview and receive an optimistic eyebrow raise when the recruiter notices I have an English degree. He might have something for me, he says, at a publishing house near the West End. I hit up the high street for a pinstripe jacket and meet a man in a slim, trim suit who seats me in front of a computer and tells me to “format the document.” I click aimlessly through the thing for the better part of the morning until the man returns to see how I’m getting on.  Not well, apparently, if his dour expression is any indication. “What, specifically, should I do?” I ask.  He gives me a crooked smile before asking me if I wouldn’t like to take an early lunch, go on and call it a day.

So instead I find work at a hospital, doing billing for patients with private health insurance. On the weekend I go to the octagonal-shaped library in West Kensington, the one that reminds me of some primitive, makeshift spaceship, and reserve an hour on the computer. I pull up Word and attempt to write. Nothing. The blank screen stares back at me like a void. I am a reader, not a writer, I tell myself, and check out a book for my hour-long commute.
I am twenty eight years old, a new mother, and renting an apartment in northwest Indiana. My husband is a newly minted attorney. The reality of being a lawyer’s wife is not squaring with the expectation I had when he began school. It is somewhat underwhelming to dwell in an apartment with carpeted kitchen, but it is better than nothing. It is, I tell myself, something. A beginning. A starting place. An almost home. But the money is tight and the apartment is cramped and the baby is beautiful but he cries and cries and sometimes, when I can't get him to settle down, I feel like I am losing my mind. "What, specifically, can I do?" I ask. He gives another epic wail before spitting up on my shoulder.

And then, one night, when the baby is sleeping and my husband is snoring, I wake and creep into the carpeted kitchen. I switch on the light, snag a pen from the junk drawer, and place a sheet of paper on the little round kitchen table. I have waited long enough. Overwhelming or not, there is space here, on this blank page. There is room here, I think. Room of my own. Maybe my career counselor was right. Because the page before me feels like more than something. It feels like an open road. An answer. A calling. It feels like anything.