The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Anna Karenina

So last weekend I finally got around to opening The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a bestselling novel that has been collecting dust under my bed for the last three years—along with a myriad of other bestselling novels that, one fine day, I am going to read.  (One Fine Day—oh, how I love you!)

I can barely put this book down, though I’m forcing myself to on occasion, simply to delay the ending of it.  It’s the same logic that keeps me hanging on to a gift card for a year after I’ve received it because once I spend it, see, I won’t have it anymore.  If I finish The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I will no longer get to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and we certainly can’t have that.  Because it is (excuse the pompous word) exquisite.


The narrative alternates between the voice of a stodgy middle-aged apartment concierge (who, beneath her working class exterior, is a raging intellectual) and that of a brilliant, disillusioned twelve-year old girl who lives in the same building.  They ruminate on life and literature and art and human beings and it is just a riot.  Despite their numerous references to all things high-brow, the characters are deeply human–and hilarious–while they serve up mind-bending insights.  One of my favorites so far is a passage in which the concierge (Renee) describes a scene from Anna Karenina.  This scene finds Levin, an aristocrat who has no need to work his own fields, nevertheless choosing one day to scythe alongside his peasant workers.  Renee writes in her journal:

Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid.  A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back.  A summer rain.  Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord.  Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.


Nice, but what Renee wrote next is what got me:

This is eminently true of many happy moments in life.  Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence.  What other reaon might I have for writing this—ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it?  The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know.  This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

 “I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know.” 

Goodness, Renee is on to something.  Isn’t that precisely why we write, to figure out what we think about things?  It’s why, though few people call themselves “writers,” so many of us keep blogs, or even journals.  It’s why we write marathon texts; why we pour our hearts out in emails we know we’ll never send.  Like frumpy and frustrated Renee, we are all trying, with our varied voices and viewpoints, to learn what we never even knew we wanted to know.

And here is what I learned from this passage:  everyone is—or should be—their own kind of writer.  On some level, at some point, each of us is driven to communicate and make our own voice heard.  Some do it with words, some with pictures, others with music.  But when we are truly engaged with it our chosen medium will, like Levin’s scythe, invite us each into that “light trance” and then “move of its own accord.” That is the place where we will learn something that we neither knew nor thought we might want to know.  We can start by reading and looking and listening but, ultimately, we will get there only by writing and painting and composing.   We will get there only by doing.

So.  What do you want to know that you never knew nor thought you might want to know?

As for me, I don’t know.  But I think I’ll start writing and find out.

24 is back

So the word on the street is that 24, the Kiefer Sutherland drama that rocked the nation five years ago, is coming back.  And I’m scared.  Not of the terrorists that Jack Bauer will be facing, but of the emotional upheaval that will soon visit my husband and, by extension, our marriage.

I’ve talked often about Derrick’s all-or-nothing personality, and nowhere does that apply more than to his television watching.  You should know that my husband watches maybe an hour of tv a month—if at all.  He simply doesn’t have the time.  But every now and then, maybe every few years, he’ll come across something on Netflix that catches his fancy and then somehow–usually between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am–the time will be made.

Such was the case with 24.  He caught the train near the end of its run, so he rented the previous seasons at Blockbuster (how funny does that sound now?) and that was the last I saw of my love for the next two months.  Because when he does get into a tv show, Derrick approaches it like he does all of his New Phases:  with heedless gusto.  He will not be satisfied with his viewing experience until every plotline is exhausted, every possible outcome examined, every twist undone.  He will employ his raging self-discipline to lie in front of the tv for hours, ignoring his sleep, his wife, and his adult responsibilities to ensure that his man Jack accomplishes his mission.  At around hour twenty of this obsession, I gently suggested that he take a break and get some sleep for a few nights; the episodes would be waiting for him when he returned.  His response?  “Jack needs me.”  I don’t think he was kidding.

Somehow, our marriage survived.  (I like to think it was because I, as the superior spouse, held up hearth and home while my husband played out this sad little fantasy of his through the small screen.)  But after hours—and hours and hours—of late nights and groggy mornings, the discs were finally viewed and the mission finally accomplished.  And my husband came back to me, and has been back ever since.  We have not had a repeat of the 24 experience in our home since it’s finale aired in 2010, and call me a stiff, but I think that’s good thing.

With the finale of 24, I sighed in relief and thought “well–that’s that.”  I thought it might be beneficial for Derrick to spend those four hours a night sleeping  instead of watching people try to kill each other.  I thought that perhaps my husband was a little, um, old to be gaping at a modern-day cops-and-robbers show like Mike Teevee on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  (I almost bought him a toy gun that Christmas, but couldn’t find one that looked like Jack’s.  I didn’t want to offend Derrick with something childish.)  I thought that, now that he’d had his last vicarious hurrah, my husband could face forward and step into middle age content with the occasional History Channel special and Food Network smackdown.  I thought that the dark days of addiction were behind us, the sunlit days of freedom ahead.  I thought Jack Bauer was out of our lives—gone, dead, rest in peace, forever.  I thought, I oh-so-naively thought.  And then yesterday, perusing the magazine rack while Ethan was getting his hair cut, I saw this:

You can’t kill Jack.  I should have known.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.  (“No, honey, I haven’t seen the remote…”)

Grandpa Arnie

Derrick has shared a special bond with his Grandpa Arnie since he was a child.  Some say it’s because they have similar personalities and interests, but I think it’s because Derrick was born with the mindset of a fifty-year old, so they’ve basically been the same age their entire lives.  (The running joke is that Derrick was mentally forty when I married him, so he’s finally starting to act his age now that he is, in actuality, forty.  When he was twenty, he was a massive geezer compared to the carefree boys he roomed with in college.  He had a job at an architectural firm by the time he was a sophomore; like, a for real one that he had to get up early for every day.  Who does that?)  At any rate.  Derrick loves his Grandpa Arnie, and had the rare chance to spend three days with him down in St. George, Utah last weekend.  They had a grand time together, compadres that they are.  Here are a few things that Derrick and Arnie have in common:

  • Same age (see above)
  • Engineering careers
  • Love of dogs
  • Meticulously well-groomed (see:  engineer)
  • Inexplicably stylish silver hair (aka: “silver fox”)
  • Inexplicably long-winded story telling (don’t let Derrick’s reserve fool you; get him warmed up, and he can take awhile)
  • Self-proclaimed “wit” (it’s debatable)
  • Bubbling enthusiasm for life
  • Master of the windbreaker and sneakers look
  • A love for Grandpa’s fully restored, 1931 Ford Roadster

This car is Grandpa’s pride and joy, and it shows.  It’s immaculate–pristine, in fact–and yet he’s generous with it.  He belongs to the local Motor Club and is often called on to drive young brides and grooms through town on their wedding day—a common occurrence in the LDS community of St. George.  Last year he was asked to drive in the local Days of ’47 parade, which celebrates the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.  Grandpa Arnie (who is not a Mormon himself) was asked to drive a man dressed in a nineteenth century suit and long beard at the head of the parade.  They were met with loud cheers and roaring applause through the town, so Arnie naturally thought, “Wow–they really like my car!”  He was driving pretty proud until a little later when he realized the sobering truth:  the crowd was actually cheering for his passenger, one well-costumed Brigham Young.  Arnie thought that was pretty funny.

Grandpa Ford (1)

Check out this bad boy.  The car’s nice, too.

Front Quarter2

Grandpa Driving

How many 87-year olds cruise around town in their souped up convertible and Ralph Lauren cap?  And just look at that silver swath of hair sticking out the bottom, refusing to be contained.  I have that to look forward to in my own husband (especially if the last few years are any indicator) and I can’t wait.  That’s a classy man’s crop of hair.

And Grandpa Arnie is a classy guy.  He is bright and energetic and warm and fun.  Being around him is a shot of pure joy, and I wish we got to do it more often.  Derrick was in heaven, spending three whole days with his childhood hero.  He may have gotten a bit carried away, however, when he sent me a text with the above photos, asking me if he could buy the car:

I want to buy Grandpa’s car.  I’m not kidding.

R u serious?


I can’t tell if ur really serious.  Seriously, r u kidding?


U seriously want to buy his car?

Yes.  Maybe.

How much is it?

[no reply]

How much is it?

[no reply]

Derrick?  U there??

[no reply]

The text thread ended there, but I suspect this conversation has not.  So if you see a silver fox in a windbreaker and sneakers cruising around Kennewick in a fully restored 1931 Ford Roadster, don’t be mistaken–it’s not Grandpa Arnie.  Just his protege of a grandson who, evidently, finally wore his wife down.

Do you have a cool grandpa?