Many years ago, I lived for a summer with my friend Rachel’s mother. I was in between apartments, and I had something lined up for September, but stayed for a couple months with her before that and paid her a tiny amount of rent. It was a pretty cool deal. The apartment was on West 90th street, and I lived in the bedroom Rachel had grown up in, which was now a sort of generic guest room. I was working as an editorial assistant at Random House at the time and I remember that I had gotten my hair cut in a way that flipped up at the bottom. I liked this haircut. What I remember most about this summer is that I wanted to do nothing else when I got home from work but watch TV with Rachel’s mother. She watched two things and two things only: L.A. Law and nature documentaries. It was during this time that I grew to have a sort of lazy crush on Jimmy Smits and also discovered the wonder that is David Attenborough’s voice. The entire time we watched TV, Rachel’s mother, who had a delightfully wicked sense of humor, kept up a running commentary that only added to the joy of TV watching.
But really I bring this summer up just because of this one remarkable line that I have not forgotten all these years later, when I am now exactly twice the age I was then. During one nature program, we were introduced to a small rodent-like animal, possibly from Australia. The most interesting thing about them was the way they mated, which involved the males brutally attacking each other to win the females. I seem to remember a lot of fierce kicking. We were told that the males were so intent on winning a female that they fought nearly constantly and stopped eating entirely. By the end of the mating season, announced David Attenborough, all the males are dead.
I know that at the time I thought there was a metaphor there, and to this day, I can see that there is, but it is not something I can quite get to. I thought of this line most recently when I was thinking about how I feel at the end of December, after my older daughter’s and boyfriend’s birthdays and Christmas are all over, and all the shopping and the stress and the worry is over, and my bank account is basically tapped out. But that isn’t quite right, is it? I think after David Attenborough spoke those words, Rachel’s mother might have said something like, Huh! And we sat there in silence, letting it sink in. Because even right when we heard it, we knew that there was nothing like it. And we knew that something witty related to, say, the mating rituals of humans wouldn’t quite be an accurate comparison.
But then, last night, I was driving home from a fencing competition with my younger daughter. She had come in sixth out of six fencers. It was her first competition, and she had been nervous. But she was fine about coming in last; she was pretty pleased to have a medal at all (they awarded up to eighth place, so…). We were talking about writing, and she was angrily explaining, to the point of tears, how hard it is for her to just write freely, without stopping to edit her words. And even then, she has to think after every sentence; nothing ever just flows. Just like me, I thought, my poor girl. Don’t tell me that I’ll always be like this! she shouted at me. Just then I thought of another metaphor. It’s something that E.L. Doctorow said once, comparing writing a novel to driving at night. I have used it for years to describe both writing and driving at night, and so I told it to my daughter: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
This seemed appropriate now, especially since it was dark and extremely foggy and I was having to make my way home similarly. I get that, said my daughter, and it seemed to calm her for the moment. It is nice to have a metaphor like that, I thought to myself. The kind that is often exactly what you need.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Australia, a bunch of male rodents were fighting with each other. They had stopped eating and were spending their final days or weeks fighting and mating (if they were lucky) or just fighting (if they were not). By the end of the mating season, all the males would be dead.