My friend Trish gave us this book shortly before Dante was born. She’d read it when her daughter was an infant, and found it tremendously helpful. Lamott’s a very Trishy writer — I can see why she felt reflected by it. In a fine emblem of my life, I never managed to get around to reading it until after Dante had turned two. Then again, Dante was a relatively easy baby — good sleeper, not colicky, only occasionally subject to fits of rage. Perhaps if he’d been different, I would have sought solace in Lamott’s words. I’m pleased to have read it at last, though, because I enjoyed it a lot.
I’ve read Bird By Bird before, so I knew I liked Lamott’s nonfiction writing, and I believe I read one of her novels before and found it really dull. Luckily, Operating Instructions is nonfiction. In fact, it’s a blog, albeit a blog from 1989, when you had to write your posts down on “paper”, and nobody got to talk back to them until you published them all in a book, and even then they had to write their comments in a “letter.” (However, like the blogs of today, it is full of complaints about the Bush administration.) She’s like the pre-Internet Dooce, and like Dooce, she’s very funny. I laughed out loud many times while reading. Her tone is wonderful — sometimes awestruck with love but never drippy and sentimental, while other times disarmingly candid about her neuroses, her loneliness, or her intense rage at the particular moment she’s in.
The book’s entries cover the first year of her son Sam’s life, ending at his first birthday. She chronicles lots of the little milestones, and has a wonderful way with metaphors as she does so:
[Now] he can sit up by himself. Everything is going by so quickly. You know how when you’re at the library, and you get one of those reels of tape that hold two weeks’ worth of newspapers, and you put the reel on and then wind it forward really fast to the date you’re looking for, but you see every day pass by for about half a minute? That’s what it feels like to me now.
Just about every page has a surprising metaphor on it, some of them poignant, some of them funny, and many of them both. I think the humor of the book is what I liked the most about it, but those metaphors are a close second.
Something else that struck me is what an incredible community she has around her as she’s beginning to raise this child. Her father died before Sam was born, but her mother is nearby, and visits regularly, along with a couple of close family friends who act more or less as godparents. Then there’s Lamott’s best friend Pammy, who she sees nearly every day. And another friend Peg. And Megan, the nanny she hires for two days a week. And Brian, who adopts Sam as an official Big Brother. And Donna. And Larry. And Jane. And Leroy, and Bill, and Emmy, and Bonnie, and the people at her church, and on and on. She talks quite a lot about feeling lonely and overwhelmed, and it’s true that Sam’s father abandons them completely, but practically every other day she’s mentioning some kind of support she’s getting from this huge village of people. I ended up feeling rather jealous of that. We have a few very wonderful people nearby, including my parents and the aforementioned Trish, but much of our support system is far away, in Kansas and Ohio and New York and Ottawa and Wales, for heaven’s sake. They’re right there with the emotional support, but they can’t exactly drop by and babysit. Of course, I should also own up to the fact that we’re both kind of introverts and homebodies, so we’re not making new friends by the dozens either. I never got the sense from Lamott that she really noticed how extraordinarily well-supported she was. I dunno — perhaps her experience is more the norm, and therefore easy to take for granted. If so, I’m even more jealous.
The other big community exists inside Lamott’s head — not crazy voices (though she does have a few) but a vast sphere of references. She’s constantly pulling out lines from Rilke, Kazantzakis, Ram Dass, or whoever. It’s not all highbrow, either — she compares Sam’s look while in the playpen to the jailed Bushman from The Gods Must Be Crazy, and she compares her mother sniffing Sam’s head to Woody Allen taking hits off The Orb in Sleeper. This capacity ties right back to the wealth of metaphors — very often the image she finds to capture an emotion or a moment comes right out of the many books and films she knows. I appreciated this too, and while I didn’t feel jealous, I did feel perhaps a bit cowed. Most of my metaphors come from superhero comics or Simpsons episodes.
Operating Instructions was a quick read and, for me, a worthwhile one. My experience of childcare doesn’t have a lot in common with Lamott’s, but she manages to find the human chords that strike in all of us, and I think I’ll remember some of her images and turns of phrase for quite a while.
I enjoy Lamott’s nonfiction in general, and this book in particular. She has a distinctive voice that I think gets completely flattened out in her novels.