Category Archives: Literature

Buzz Bissinger, upping the ante, and the God of redemption

In a miraculous twist of fate yesterday, my children were napping during NPR’s program Fresh Air. I was in the kitchen making a meal for a friend who has a new baby, but when I heard the show’s guest, I was immediately disappointed: it was Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer Prize winning author, writer of the Vanity Fair cover article on Caitlyn Jenner, and author of many books, including Friday Night Lights, which has a 25th anniversary edition coming out. I thought to myself, What do I have in common with this man? I haven’t read his books, I am not interested in sports, ugh. But out of a sense of obligation to the fates that allowed me this precious time cooking early enough in the day to have an hour to LISTEN TO NPR WHILE MY BABIES SLEPT, I kept it on. And I was glad I did.

Mr. Bissinger is a fascinating, intelligent, incredibly articulate gentleman. He answered the interview questions about his experience researching Friday Night Lights and the response over the last 25 years with conviction, passion, and integrity. It only took me about 5 minutes to warm up to him and start thinking, I need to read this book!friday night lights

He is a compelling figure. Who has surely written compelling pieces, even though I haven’t read them. Yet.

The second part of the interview moved into his personal life; he has recently been treated as an inpatient at a rehab facility for a shopping addiction. But as he talked, it became clear that the shopping addiction, which primarily involved leather clothing, was a symptom of something even deeper. He says, “…the admission of the shopping addiction was just a, you know, a cover in a sense for some deep, deep-seated, you know, sexual habits.” His official diagnosis was “complicated sexual addiction.” After a childhood with a difficult mother (who always wore leather gloves), he grew into a man with some gender confusion, who enjoys cross dressing, has had all of his body hair removed, and has indulged in dangerous S&M activities.buzz bussinger

At this point in the interview, my heart was heavy. Bissinger is very open with his story and speaks very highly of his supportive children and wife, who decided to stay with him throughout the addiction and recovery. But I couldn’t help but think, This is just one more story of brokenness. The sadness is not worth it to me.

And then Bissinger said something so profound: “My life was guided by shame. And that’s what I learned most of all in rehab. I was ashamed of myself, so you find an addiction, but it’s not enough, so you up the ante, you up the ante and you up the ante.”

Wow.

YES!

There it is—the human condition. An articulation of my own heart—he could have been speaking for me. Bissinger explains that the road to rehab was full of dangerous behavior, “the search for an identity that will probably never quite come.”

In my head, I know that my identity has indeed come, although this side of Heaven I won’t experience its fullness. I also know that my identity has nothing to do with my sexuality, my past, my successes or failures, my race, etc. My identity is that which God has named me. And yet, do I live out of that identity? Do I walk around in joyful confidence of God’s love for me? Or do I look for ways to cover up my shame and numb the lies that threaten to swallow me up? Do I find my own way of upping the ante, my own form of a shopping addiction? Bissinger is articulating my functional theology.

At the end of the day, Bissinger is describing you and me. All of mankind. Granted, our search for identity may not lead us to rehab or gender confusion, anonymous sex, or infidelity. Etcetera. Yet we all struggle against the shame, against the voices that tell us we aren’t good enough; in fact, forget good enough—how about the voices that tell us we aren’t enough, period?!

Bissinger says he has made peace with his search for identity. He says he is happier. I think that’s where the disconnect is for me—I don’t want to be happier; I want to be hopeful. I don’t want to accept that my search for identity will never be conclusive; I want to relish in the confidence of who I am because of my relationship to The Great I Am. Bissinger says, “You have to strip yourself bare, and once you strip yourself bare, you build yourself up.” But my experience tells me something different—shame strips me bare and only Jesus can build me up; only the unconditional, sacrificial love of Christ can change me, convince me, coax me into believing the truth of who I am and experiencing the peace that comes with that.

I can assert with all confidence that Mr. Bissinger will wake up tomorrow and struggle. As will I. What will I do in the midst of that struggle? Will I trust the God who promises redemption or fall back into my shame, looking for ways to up the ante? Will I believe that vicious, manipulative voice in my head or the kind, gentle voice of God who only asks for my trust?

I found a new poet

He’s not new, but he’s new to me. Here is a taste of his work. Enjoy!

poem I wrote sitting across the table from you
by Kevin Varrone

if I had two nickels to rub together
I would rub them together

like a kid rubs sticks together
until friction made combustion

and they burned
a hole in my pocket

into which I would put my hand
and then my arm

and eventually my whole self–
I would fold myself

into the hole in my pocket and disappear
into the pocket of myself, or at least my pants

but before I did
like some ancient star

I’d grab your hand

Mark Strand interview

I have mentioned that I am a feminist critic when it comes to literature; that is the school of criticism that most resonated with me as an undergrad. I did an independent study with my favorite professor in which we researched early children’s lit and approached it from a feminist perspective for a class she taught the next semester. In graduate school, I continued my research; however, for my English elective courses, I took creative writing classes. And instead of doing a research paper for my graduate thesis, I did a creative thesis instead, at the encouragement of my poetry professor.

Poetry has a special place in my heart, and while I consider myself a poet, I do not consider myself a profound poet or even a good one. But I can steer you in the direction of good, profound poets, one of my favorites being Mark Strand. Here is an old interview of his in which he explains the purpose of poetry and what he considers good poetry.

“…you have to be willing to read poetry; you have to be willing to meet it halfway—because it won’t go any further than that if it’s any good. A poem has its dignity, after all. I mean, a poem shouldn’t beg you to read it; it’s pathetic, if that’s the case. Some poets fear that they won’t be heard unless they flatter the reader, go ninety percent of the way, do it all for the reader. But that’s pathetic.”

My first five

I recently read an article about five essential books every “lady” should read. I put lady in quotes because the article was not clear what the author meant by that word. Visions of fancy, white gloves with buttons and feathered hats and Vera Bradley bags fluttered through my head when I saw the word, and I expected books like Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to be on her list; however, it was actually quite a diverse little list, even including feminist titles (gasp!). It got me thinking…

People ask me for book recommendations all the time. I mean, all the time. Even strangers–when the lamp suitcase for our daughter’s jaundice was delivered a couple of weeks ago, the delivery man saw our living room bookcase and started conversation about reading, which ended in his asking me for recommendations. To me, it was an impossible question: “Even though I’m a perfect stranger, can you recommend a book that you enjoyed on a personal level that you think I would like?” All I knew about him was that he was in his 50s, he had been delivering these lamps for more than 30 years, and he had a killer beard. The pressure to recommend a title that would change his life and add some spice to the monotony of delivering lamp suitcases to new babies caused me to fold: “Oh…I don’t know…there are so many good books out there…”

Thankfully, he didn’t pursue it and instead he started talking about Don Quixote; I muttered a feeble reference to “Man of La Mancha” and then he cordially took his leave.

I find the task of recommending books nearly impossible; to me, books are so personal. They are like friends (but not in a weird Brick Heck kind of way) in that I form a specific relationship to each one depending on what’s going on in my life, and a certain attachment develops for whatever personal reason. I recently recommended a book to my own sister–I just KNEW she’d love it–only to find out her response was, “meh.” I felt lame and like I had no discernment–much like when you make a new friend that you adore only to have none of your other friends like her and then you find out that she really only befriended you to recruit you to sell Amway.

Anyway, I liked the idea of a list of must-read books for ladies, but before I get to that point, I thought maybe I’d simply post a list of five books that ignited and encouraged my love of reading–books that made me want to read them again and pick up other books as well.

ramonaThe first is Ramona the Pest. My older sister recommended the Ramona books when I was in first grade; I was not interested in reading, and she couldn’t understand that. She made it her mission to help me find something I loved, and she did. I gobbled up all the Ramona books–she was the first character I could relate to on a deep, personal level. When Ramona raised her hand in school and asked about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel going to the bathroom, I felt like I had met my soulmate.

margaretIn fifth grade after reading the Fudge books, I came across Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I am sure that a huge percentage of women of a, ahem, certain age would include this on their lists of influential books. Having a mother who laughed at me when she read my note asking for a “braw” and thinking that maxi pads were for women who couldn’t control their bladders, I needed Margaret. Everything I know about increasing my bust and strapping on a menstrual belt comes from Judy Blume.

jane eyreWhen I was 13 and bored and too cool for school, I picked up my sister’s copy of Jane Eyre and read it while on family vacation. It was not the first grownup book I had read, but it was the first grownup book that thrilled me to my toes–it appealed to me on many levels. There was the sad orphan story, the scary woman in the attic story, the passionate love story, the tragic fire story. Etc. This book gave me the confidence to move from books such as Anne of Green Gables to books with more mature themes.

beloved2In college the first time around, I had a professor who was mean. Super mean–like, write-nasty-comments-on-your-paper or make-fun-of-your-poetry-in-front-of-the-entire-class mean. She was so mean and nasty that a couple of years ago when I heard she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t send a get-well note–everything I composed in my head was mocking and included the word “Pulitzer,” which she pronounced “Pooooo-lit-ser.” But other than scar me for life, the other thing she did was introduce me to Toni Morrison. Never before (and maybe never again) had I read such a powerful book as Beloved, and that summer I read everything that Morrison had written to that point. I can’t possibly recap the book, much less my feelings about the book, in one sentence, so instead I’ll tell you to read it if you haven’t.

The-House-of-the-Seven-Gables madI realize I’m listing two books here, but they lent to the same purpose at the same time. I was 23 or 24 and had gone back to college to finish my degree. I was learning how to truly critique literature–not just finding symbolism and foreshadowing, etc.–under the teaching of a challenging professor who was never impressed by anyone or anything. I trembled each Wednesday as I turned in my papers on whatever book we had read that week–they always came back marked in red. Then one week, not only did I actually get an A, but the professor had made copies of my paper on The House of the Seven Gables to hand out and discuss with the class. That was the moment I knew I had found my calling as a critical reader. I knew for the first time that I had something intelligent to say and maybe I could have new ideas. That’s the same semester that I started reading literary criticism and rather than being confused or bored, I felt my brain light up with appreciation of critics’ insight, and I started having more and more original ideas of my own when critiquing pieces of literature. And The Madwoman in the Attic was the first essay I read that excited me. I went on to write three senior theses in college (one on Jane Eyre) and then continue my research in feminist criticism in graduate school.

I HAVE to ask–what are the books that turned you into a reader?? What books influenced you the most and made you love reading??