RSI has returned to my life, signaled by mild twinges in my right arm and wrist. The problem isn't writing -- writing, as I practice it, has enough fits and starts to provide the breaks I need. However, my new passion for blogs has meant too much time clicking away, right hand poised over the mouse like a predatory bird, ready to swoop down on the next link that captures my fancy. I've been traveling a lot, too, which means that a carry-on bag has been draped over my right shoulder for much of October. Bad habits all, and so I have to relearn the lessons of almost five years ago, when I had my first RSI scare: Less Internet, less e-mail, and no more carrying four plastic grocery bags in one hand.
I was probably fated for RSI, given the family predilection for repetition. My paternal grandmother watched Pretty Woman every day, sometimes more than once, for the last six or seven years of her life. By my most conservative estimate, she watched this film at least 2,000 times, wearing out two videotapes before she died in 2001. She had other videos that she watched over and over -- Gone With the Wind, I Love Lucy, The Sound of Music -- but Pretty Woman was her favorite. We never did figure out why. Was it Julia Roberts' outfits? Richard Gere? I'm pretty sure she did not approve of what Julia Roberts did in the bathtub, much less the film's language. I gave her a copy of The Runaway Bride, figuring it was all about the Gere-Roberts chemistry, but she had no use for it. No matter how bad her hearing, how weak her eyesight, she knew if Pretty Woman was in her VCR.
This mania for extreme repetition seems to have skipped my father and sister, but I clearly have it. There is a small group of DVDs that I can watch again and again and again, including Boogie Nights, Nashville, Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface, Crossing Delancey, The Sopranos and, perhaps most embarrassing, Sex & the City, with which I have a profound love-hate relationship. But there's always a slightly obsessive component to my behavior. As a child, I used to count the stripes on the highway as they disappeared beneath the car, and I counted the stairs from the parking garage to the newsroom at The Sun almost every morning. Once in college, I left an eight-track of Court and Spark on endless replay while I was studying. To me, the loop of Joni Mitchell was comforting white noise. For my friend across the hall, it became so torturous that she threatened to break on me like the waves at Malibu.
I also re-read quite a bit. This month, despite literally dozens of new books to read, I've spent most of my recreational reading time with books I've practically memorized. These include Marjorie Morningstar and, in honor of the 34th annual Bouchercon in Las Vegas, The Desert Rose by Larry McMurtry.
The Desert Rose was published in 1983. According to a preface that McMurtry wrote for the paperback edition a year later, it was written in just three weeks, while he was hopelessly lost inside the manuscript that would become Lonesome Dove. It's a simple story about a showgirl, Harmony, who's about to turn 40. She's on her way down, no longer the most beautiful woman in Vegas; her daughter, Pepper, is on her way up. Yet Harmony is far from bitter. She is resiliently optimistic and her sweet nature is what makes the book so readable. Re-readable, in my case.
It happens that the issue of men writing women and women writing men cropped up at Bouchercon. I wish I had remembered The Desert Rose at the time, for it shows how brilliantly men can write women. In The Desert Rose, Moving On and Terms of Endearment, McMurtry created memorable female protagonists. I haven't kept up with McMurtry's work in the past decade, in part because I was disappointed by the sequels to The Desert Rose and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and in part because sidelining old favorites is the only way to make room for new writers.
The cover blurb on my copy of The Desert Rose includes a quote from Patrick Anderson, a novelist who now writes weekly reviews for the Washington Post. "When McMurtry writes like this, he ranks with John Updike and Philip Roth among the finest stylists now at work in American fiction", Anderson said. Twenty years later, those words don't seem the least bit hyperbolic. The Desert Rose should not be relegated to a footnote or trivia question. (What other vanishing breed of Westerner did Larry McMurtry write about when stalled in the middle of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove?) It stands as one of the best novels by one of the best American writers of the late 20th century.
At least the re-readers of the world finally have a newspaper series that seems tailor-made to our needs. The Washington Post this summer started running "Second Readings." Jonathan Yardley's pieces have all been terrific, but my favorite so far is on Laurie Colwin and Family Happiness. (He also took on Cheaper by the Dozen, much to my delight, given that he decreed it holds up.) Since Colwin's death in 1992, I haven't found a writer to fill that unique niche, someone at once worldly and homey, erudite and romantic. Cheryl Mendelson's Morningside Heights is coming close, but it's just not the same. It must be time to re-read Another Marvelous Thing. After all, my travels are done, for the most part, and my reading time will soon be my own again.