TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Thirteen thousand people were fired by President Reagan when he broke up the air traffic controllers union after they went out on strike in 1981. One of the people who lost his job was the father of my guest Gregory Pardlo. How that changed Pardlo's life and his father's is just part of what Pardlo writes about in his new book "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America."
Pardlo won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Getting there wasn't easy. There were periods when his family struggled financially. He joined the Marine Reserves, hoping it would help him with college tuition. But as soon as he got to boot camp, he tried to get out. He used to drink too much. His family was on the A&E reality show "Intervention," which brings family members together to organize an intervention for their family member who is addicted. The intervention wasn't for Pardlo. It was for his brother. Pardlo now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He teaches at Rutgers University-Camden.
Gregory Pardlo, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love your new memoir. And I'm going to ask you to read the first paragraph from it.
GREGORY PARDLO: My pleasure. The title is "Route 66." (Reading) By some concoction of sugar, nicotine, prescription painkillers, rancor and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007. He measured his health and lifestyle against his will to live and determined he had 10 years left in the tank. Though he did screw up and live past 65, as he was afraid he might, he was only a year over budget. He lived his last years like a child with a handful of tokens at an arcade near closing time. Those tokens included access to credit, the patience and generosity of his family and friends, and any saleable assets including, possibly, the titanium urn that contained his mother's ashes mysteriously missing from the one-bedroom Las Vegas apartment where he chose to fizzle out. These resources had to be exhausted. He didn't want to endure penury, but neither would he ever leave money on the table, as he often put it. He died without leaving a will or naming beneficiaries.
GROSS: So your father died in 2016 while you were finishing your book. But the book begins with your father's death. So that's obviously a change you made to your book after he died. And really you're starting you're starting your book by pointing your finger at your father and saying this is how he died - kind of a screw-up, getting in debt, taking advantage of things, you know, taking advantage of his credit, of your family.
G. PARDLO: Yeah, the goodwill.
GROSS: Yeah, your family's goodwill. So it's a kind of angry way to start a book that your father...
G. PARDLO: I think you're...
GROSS: ...Figures prominently in. And I'm curious. So many books don't start with like, my mother died, and I was so sad. I'll never recover.
GROSS: And, like, this is a different start.
G. PARDLO: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right that there's some anger in - well, there was considerable anger, to be honest. After he passed, I found myself feeling a lot of the feelings that I wouldn't allow myself to experience before while he was alive. And a lot of that was just the freedom - the permission to be angry and resentful. And I know it's a kind of petulant way to begin the book. But I also knew when I went back to revise or rearrange the book my love for him and admiration for him was woven into the narratives of the book.
GROSS: Like a lot of children, you were the result of an unplanned pregnancy. Your mother was 21, your father 19. They married after she got pregnant. And you think your father didn't want to have a child, at least not at that point in his life, and that he felt like your birth prevented him from doing some things he wanted to do. Did he ever say that up front? Or what led you to feel that way?
G. PARDLO: No, he never said that. But I was aware of his history before my mother was pregnant. And that was he had had a full scholarship to Cheyney state university. And he was a civil rights activist. He considered himself a civil rights activist. So I know with his ambition - considering his ambitions and the momentum of his life, he had higher aspirations. And I think in following how he adapted those ambitions to air traffic control, my sense was that he was making up for the detour of having to become a family man.
GROSS: So this is a very personal question to ask at the start of an interview. But did you ever feel like saying to your father, if you didn't want to have a child, why didn't you use birth control?
G. PARDLO: No, no, because I didn't resent my being born.
G. PARDLO: And he did take responsibility for - you know, to some extent - for his - you know, and I'm reluctant to call it a mistake even because he and my mother were desperately in love. And I think at the time a part of him felt very romantically carried away in the moment. You know, this is our story, and we're going to make it together. And, you know, so there was some of that I don't think was cause for undue regret on his part.
GROSS: So your family's story intersects with a very important chapter of labor history. Your father was an air traffic controller. He was a member of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - the air traffic controllers union known as PATCO. And in 1981, PATCO went on strike. What were they asking for?
G. PARDLO: Well, they were asking for reduced working hours. They were asking for a regularized schedule. They wanted updated equipment. They were still using at that time - in 1981, they were still using equipment from the Second World War. And not insignificantly, they were asking for a considerable raise. There were some other smaller perks involved in the package, but they were all negotiable.
GROSS: In a very controversial move, President Reagan broke the union. His attorney general said, show up to work within the next 48 hours or be terminated. The Reagan administration fired 13,000 people who were air traffic controllers, including your father. And the union was broken - a turning point in American labor history. What did it mean personally to your father to lose his job as an air traffic controller?
G. PARDLO: Well, as I said, he was a very ambitious man. And he was moving up in rank as an air traffic controller. And he was working at the Newark International Tower at the time of the strike. And so that was a considerable high-profile position. And so to his mind, he identified with that job so profoundly. And when the controllers were fired, my father's challenge was to reinvent himself. And I don't think he was prepared to acknowledge that the strike - that the union had been broken, that the strike had failed and that he was in a position where he had to find new resources.
GROSS: You write the key figures in the strike were threatened with arrest. Did that include your father?
G. PARDLO: Absolutely. Technically, it included everyone, all of the controllers, but because my father - at that point, he was very much on television and in the media quite a bit, which made him a very visible target. And so he actually went on the lam for several weeks right after the strike as well as, you know, long after. And we - my mother and I and my baby brother - didn't see him for a while. But we did see the federal marshals parked outside of our house. My mother did see the federal marshals in the parking lot outside of her job. At one point, my mother says - I don't remember this one. But my mother says the federal marshals even followed me as a kid when I went to play at friends' houses.
I remember one - another incident where the marshals actually came up to the house, and they asked my father. I answered the door. And I was really struck by how one marshal opened his jacket ostensibly to show me his badge. But what he also showed me was the gun holstered under his arm. And I had two reactions to that. One was, this is serious. You know, we're not playacting in this anymore. And the other was, this is serious. This is my moment to protect the home. This is my - I have to step into a considerable amount of responsibility. And bygone it, I'm going to do it.
GROSS: Which meant doing what or not doing what?
G. PARDLO: Which meant - I mean, if only in my head - right? - I don't know - the marshals probably didn't register any transformation in the little boy standing in front of them, but in my mind, the deference with which I wouldn't ordinarily have treated these men went out the window, and I claimed - you know, my back straightened up a bit and I claimed for myself the right to speak to them not as respected adults, as I had been raised to do.
GROSS: Was it upsetting to you when you were 12 to see your father, who had helped maintain air safety - you know, he would tell you what it was like to have to balance having all these, like, planes heading in different directions and making sure they didn't crash into each other. And, like, that's a pretty thrilling thing, I think, for a boy to think of his father doing. But then you were watching your father at loose ends, not knowing where he was going to go next, not - having to shape a new identity for himself, not making money for a while, smoking a lot of weed - well, you know, like, more so than, you know, he...
G. PARDLO: More so than he had been, that's right (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) More so than that he had, yeah. So what impact did it have on you to see your father have to figure out again, who am I? What am I doing?
G. PARDLO: Well, that's something I'm still hashing out with my therapist.
G. PARDLO: ...You know, how - what that meant for me. And I think for any kid, you know, looking up to - any boy, certainly, looking up to his father - and, you know, I'm granting that there are some aspects of masculinity that I'm not entirely down with anymore, you know, as an adult, but as a kid, I bought into the narratives of masculinity very much. And I guess I was really rooting for my father, you know? Get up, dad. Get up. Get back in the ring. You know, he and I loved "Rocky." We loved a lot of movies and watched a lot of movies together. But seeing him struggle with having to create a new narrative for himself - in some sense, the way I responded to that was by placing myself in similar situations. And this is unconsciously, right? And this - I am only aware of this looking back over the arc of my life thus far, but I can see how I, as I say, unconsciously stepped into or created moments of crisis in my life so that I could replay my father's critical moment...
GROSS: Wait, replay it, but have a good ending?
G. PARDLO: Right. I wanted to transcend the moment in honor of my father. But, of course, what I was also doing was just creating unnecessary problems in my life. And so the challenge that I work with - that I'm working with with my therapist is separating myself and my identity, still, from my dad's. He was very much the kind of guy - and I think this is common among many American men - who viewed his family as merely extensions of himself. And the family as an institution was, you know - he was at the head of that. And I had wholeheartedly, patriotically, you know, in the very dictionary sense of the word, bought into the structure of the family with him at the helm.
GROSS: So in a way, you were putting yourself in difficult situations to reassure yourself that if something happened to you, you could rescue yourself.
G. PARDLO: The way I had it in my mind was that I was modeling for him. But you're absolutely right. I mean, I was trying to reassure myself that failure of that kind was not final, that one could find ways to live a rewarding life that did not necessarily equate to resignation or, you know, a kind of hopelessness.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Pardlo. He's the author of the new memoir "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." He's a Pulitzer Prize winner for his poetry. There's a lot more to talk about. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "ENVISIONINGS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Pardlo. He's the author of the new memoir "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, "Digest."
I want to skip ahead a little in your life. You enlisted in the Marines, in the Marine Reserves, and you say it was so you can afford college. What benefits did you hope to get from being in the Marine Reserves?
G. PARDLO: I didn't really know. I mean, I was following the stories that I was being told. You know, if you go - so if the problem is, you don't have money for college, the recruiter told me, join the Marine Corps, you'll get money for college. I didn't know what would happen after that. I was just looking for, you know, well, what do people do in this situation?
GROSS: It sounds like maybe you also joined the Marines because you wanted to get away from home.
G. PARDLO: That was - yeah. There was part of that, and there was part of a kind of recklessness involved in that decision. But if I had been able to avoid the Marine Corps, I certainly would have.
GROSS: What year are we talking about? So this...
G. PARDLO: June of 1987, I went to Parris Island, yeah.
GROSS: So two weeks after you arrived at boot camp on Parris Island, your paternal grandmother died. And you were joining the Marines for the eventual tuition you hoped to get. Your father used your grandmother's life insurance to buy a $50,000 boat.
G. PARDLO: (Laughter).
GROSS: What was your reaction to that?
G. PARDLO: I was horrified. I was horrified. But I understood because, you know, he was a very materialistic guy who - as an air traffic controller when he was working, he had a Corvette. And we were - as a family, we were very proud of that Corvette. And he had - he was very much into cars. He always had a nice car, whether he could afford it or not. And so I wasn't surprised that he would buy this boat, but it was - I found it terribly insulting that he was not invested in extending the story of our family through me, right? So the message was, you know, this is all about big Greg and you're on your own, little Greg.
GROSS: So in the Marines, you shortly realized this was really not for you, and you let your superiors know that. Can you describe what happened, what you said?
G. PARDLO: (Laugher) We were just getting our rifles. We're being issued our rifles, and so we were in this hangar, and there were dozens, if not hundreds of new recruits all standing in formation. And I scratched my head. And the drill instructor came over and sort of dragged me out of formation and started screaming at me. And no one had ever done that to me in the past. I had obviously - I had never experienced anything like that. And so I stood there, and it was an existential crisis. And I - my response, my reaction was - as I would have reacted in any other case - was to say, you know what? Screw it. I'm out. You know, this is - (laughter) this isn't going to work out. You guys go your way. You know, we're just - you know, no harm, no foul. I'm going home.
G. PARDLO: It didn't work out that way, you know.
GROSS: What was your punishment?
G. PARDLO: So there's this thing they do called digging. And so they send you out into the dirt, and you got to do exercises. So they'll shout, you know, push-ups now, and then a few seconds later, leg lifts now. And you flip over, and you end up being incredibly sweaty and covered in sand and filth. And, you know - and that's the punishment, is this severe kind of physical training. And the physical part of it wasn't the problem. It was - the mental part of just being sort of what I felt to be dehumanized in such a way was a life-changing experience.
GROSS: So how long did you end up serving in the Marine Reserves?
G. PARDLO: It was only two years, a little over two years. And they just offered me an administrative discharge, which was fairly easy to do.
GROSS: Where does that rank on the level of - is that, like, a dishonorable discharge?
G. PARDLO: No. It's not a dishonorable discharge. But it's not an honorable discharge either. It's kind of a - it's not an honorable discharge, I think is the - is really the important part. And so I didn't accept it and move on with a shrug of my shoulders. There was some sadness and humiliation and, you know, (laughter) self-loathing in having been kicked out of the Marine Corps. And I didn't know at that point, again, what I was doing and why I was forcing myself into these moments of crisis and what I wanted out of them.
GROSS: What did you do that got you, you know, the administrative discharge?
G. PARDLO: I - it was very easy. I just stopped. I didn't show up. At the time, I was selling yellow-page advertising. And I was making an awful lot of money. You know, for a 19, 20-year-old making at the time, you know, $30,000 a year - I lived at home, I had no bills - that was really a (laughter) dangerous circumstance. And so showing up to the Marine Corps Reserve duty once a month became onerous in a way that I couldn't balance with the rest of my high-rolling, quote, unquote, "life."
GROSS: So you joined the Marines to help pay tuition. Did it ever help you pay tuition?
G. PARDLO: And it never helped pay tuition either. Yeah. So I never got the - that benefit out of it.
GROSS: Well, you managed to go to college and get deep in debt to student loans (laughter).
G. PARDLO: (Laughter).
GROSS: So happy ending (laughter).
G. PARDLO: (Laughter) Exactly.
My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo, author of the new book, "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." After a break, he'll tell us how his family ended up on a reality show. And Maureen Corrigan will review Patricia Hampl's new book that is part memoir, titled "The Art Of The Wasted Day." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Gregory Pardlo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of the new book, "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." It's in part about his relationship with his father, who was active in the air traffic controllers union when the union went on strike in 1981, and President Reagan broke the union and fired its members. Pardlo thinks his father never quite recovered from losing that job, which was so tied to his identity, not to mention his income. There were some difficult financial times in the family after that.
So your younger brother Robbie, who's 10 years younger than you, was a very - or is a very talented singer. And his credits include - he sang backup on Whitney Houston's track, "My Love Is Your Love." He was trained by Teddy Pendergrass.
G. PARDLO: Teddy Pendergrass, yeah.
GROSS: Pretty amazing. Any other credits you want to mention for him?
G. PARDLO: Well, the fact that the group that he founded, City High, went on to be a Grammy-nominated group. They - I - then I really think the album that they made is exceptional. I still jam out (laughter) to it today.
GROSS: So your brother became an alcoholic. And when he was in his 20s, your mother decided to try to get him on the show "Intervention." Would you describe what the show is?
G. PARDLO: So A&E's "Intervention" is a reality television show that follows an individual who is suffering from alcoholism or an addiction of some sort to - on one track of the story is the following the suffering addict. The other track of the story is following the family that wants to rescue this loved one. And the two narratives meet in a staged intervention at which the suffering loved one is asked to either go to rehab, go into treatment or face the consequences of being exiled from the family. And, you know, there's a - in Robbie's case, there was a very expensive high-class rehab waiting for him in Malibu. And I think, you know, my mother really wanted to rescue him. That was genuine. But at the same time, that - the move to do it in such a public way I suspected had something to do with her wanting to rescue my brother's public life - his career as well.
GROSS: His music career.
G. PARDLO: His music career, yeah - as a way of demonstrating to the world look how we as a family have transcended this moment, this crisis and have changed the course of our - of Robbie's life for the better.
GROSS: OK, so you were a heavy drinker yourself at this time. So how did you feel about your family staging an intervention on reality TV?
G. PARDLO: At that point, I was still - I still believed that no one knew the extent to which I was a blackout drinker. And being on the show just presented such an existential threat to me - to have to act like - to have to perform the loving brother coming to the rescue when I was profoundly aware of the hypocrisy of that - of such a performance. And so I did not initially want to participate in the intervention. But even that resistance called more attention to myself. And, yeah, it became a difficult - a sticky situation.
GROSS: So let me play the opening of the episode of "Intervention" featuring your family. And this is, like, the opening collage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INTERVENTION")
ROBBIE PARDLO: I was just on the red carpet with Will Smith and Jaden and performing with Eve. And I was just like ha-ha, ha-ha. But then things started to get a little dark.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He starts first thing in the morning. And by the end of the day, he's toasted - pshew (ph). I gave the music industry a Cub Scout.
R. PARDLO: (Singing) I can feel your heart beat.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And they gave me back a drunk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Robbie is not stable enough to care for a small child.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's hard for me to turn my back on him because I love him so much. But I don't want Lyric to grow up and think it's OK to talk down to women.
R. PARDLO: Give me my [expletive] keys. Where's my [expletive] hat?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I don't know what I'm supposed to do.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's not water.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I will not sit by and watch you trash your fatherhood with Lyric. You got to find happiness and hold on to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So that's the episode of the reality TV series "Intervention" featuring my guest Gregory Pardlo's family. But, Gregory, you're not in that opening collage, are you?
G. PARDLO: No, and that was just for reasons of editing. I did eventually agree to be in the show proper. Yeah, and it kind of calls me back to that moment to hear that stuff. And I remember feeling that I wasn't the only hypocrite in the room.
GROSS: Were you thinking of your father when you said that?
G. PARDLO: I am thinking about my father. And I am thinking about my mother too because at that point, you know, we had already filmed much of the cutaway interviews and all that stuff. And I had watched all of my family members, you know, pledge this commitment to exile him from the family life if he did not agree to go into treatment. And I knew - I was very confident that that was not going to happen. If Robbie said, no, I'm not going to go into treatment, everybody would kind of say, ugh, Robbie. And we'd go back to normal.
GROSS: What was it like to hear your family in that opening collage the first time you heard it? And it's all these, like, dramatic moments and dramatic pronouncements with, like, music underneath - and your family's really complicated life kind of reduced to this, like, opening dramatic reality TV montage.
G. PARDLO: Reduced? No, they were in - we were in our glory in a lot of ways.
G. PARDLO: My father, he was always spoiling for the soundtrack. And then this is - this was his moment.
GROSS: In this episode of "Intervention" where your brother's supposed to get sober - that actually you were the one who got sober. So how did that happen?
G. PARDLO: So Candy, who was the - I forget her last name - who was the interventionist for our episode, she was the first counselor or therapist that I spoke to really with a sense of a personal relationship. Now, I had spoken to counselors in the past and these types of things. But something (laughter) about Candy was penetrating, and I felt seen. And I listened to her in a way - and perhaps it was just that I was prepared for it. I was ready for it at that time. And again, all the soundtrack and the drama and the lights and everything, I guess I was living into the - this dramatic moment as well.
And I heard her admonishments. And, you know, this is your life. You know, this - and you're throwing it away. And, you know, we can say these platitudes over and over again. And unless you're prepared to hear it, it's not really going to mean anything. And at this point in my life, it stuck. Now, that doesn't mean right after the episode I, you know, went and poured all my bottles out down the drain. But I think it planted the seed and - for me to acknowledge to myself that this is not working.
GROSS: How's your brother now?
G. PARDLO: How is anyone in (laughter) relation to how we think they should be living their lives, you know? And so there is the way I would like to see my brother living, and there is the way that he has chosen to live. And in his - you know, by expression of his will, he is still singing. He is working. He's paying his bills. He's raising his kids. And, you know, what more could we ask for from any family member, any neighbor, you know, any other American? And so you know, I could - (laughter) what I'm avoiding saying is I think should he could be doing so much better. But it's not mine to say, right? Anybody could be doing so much better from another perspective.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Pardlo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of the new memoir, "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Pardlo. He's the author of the new memoir, "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, "Digest." There's a paragraph I want you to read from your memoir that's about identity. It's on page 148. Would you read it for us?
G. PARDLO: Sure. (Reading) I don't care to be considered American to the exclusion of my African-Americanness. I don't want to be considered post-black or ex-colored. If I was raised black for the most part, it was for economic reasons and apathy. Growing up, my family was not observant, preferring instead to derive our esprit de corps from the community of consumers we'd gather in fellowship with in the tabernacle of Macy's, the mead hall of Ikea. I am not, in other words, a practicing black.
GROSS: What do you mean by a practicing black?
G. PARDLO: Oh, boy. So I can hear the groans of...
G. PARDLO: ...(Laughter) many African-Americans right now. So there is this orthodoxy around race. And - you know, and I think there's - we very hypocritically say, on one hand, that there's nothing essential about race, that, you know, you're not born a race, but on the other hand, there - that there is something unchangeable, eternal, about one's racial condition. And I approach it from the perspective of writing.
And I understand absolutely the social and political ramifications of race, right? If I go out into the world and (laughter) not acknowledge the fact that I am black, I could walk into great danger. However, in my head and on the page as I'm writing, I think there's a way of thinking about race that I grew up with that allows me to deploy race strategically, both in my defense or as a means of protection, as a means of identification, as a means of bonding. And that expression is for me cultural, primarily cultural.
The danger in saying this is that the ways we talk about race - if you say that race is in my mind, as I conceive of it, merely cultural, what people tend to hear and actually want to hear is that I am rejecting my blackness, I'm rejecting my family and community and ancestors. And that is absolutely not the case. What I wanted to do in this book, and I hope I approach in some way, is to destabilize, to undermine the sense of race as a - as I say, orthodoxy that doesn't get challenged or thought about in transgressive ways, frankly.
GROSS: So you won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But your first book of poetry, when that was published - and what year are we talking?
G. PARDLO: 2007.
GROSS: So that year, when you had your book party, your family was at the book party. But that was the night that your father officially left your mother. It kind of fits into my theory, which I have expressed before on our show, that often when something really wonderful happens in your professional life, something really awful is happening in your personal life to counterbalance the good news. So (laughter) did you feel that way, like the...?
G. PARDLO: Well, fortunately for me, I wasn't aware of what had happened. My mother told me the story much later. I was aware of the difficulties my parents were having. But it was - and I was certainly aware of my father's behavior at the party. He wasn't acting out, but he wasn't the enthusiastic kind of, you know, gregarious guy that he would - normally would have been in a gathering like that.
GROSS: So do you feel there's any connection between your party - your book party and your parents' separation at that moment?
G. PARDLO: Yeah. My - well, as I say, he's always - my father was always looking for, you know, the dramatic moment, and this was as good a dramatic moment as there - as he could have asked for, and which is interesting because, you know, in your theory that something, you know, positive happens in a professional sense and something negative happens in the private sense - in sabotaging that moment, my father was both claiming the professional success that was - that should have been mine and the crisis, which was most certainly his. And so there was a way in which I am sort of expelled from my own or distanced from my own story even in that.
GROSS: So one more thing - when you were young and you misbehaved, your father would punish you by making you read a word in a dictionary, find, like, the etymology of the word, put it down in writing. And, like, you are a word guy, so in some ways, it was probably teaching you to hate the dictionary, but in other ways to really appreciate the history of individual words and the subtlety of their meaning. So looking back at that punishment in retrospect, what do you think of it?
G. PARDLO: Oh, it was - well, again, consistent with my father, he - I think in some way, he was showing off. He was demonstrate - he was performing for me his vocabulary and his prowess with language. And so there was a kind of intended intimidation involved in that. And that's just putting - pointing out the negative aspects of it. There was certainly the positive aspects in which he wanted me to expand my vocabulary. He was very much invested in that. But my response to it was to identify with his verbal dexterity, and to enjoy and to view that punishment as a way of getting closer to my dad. And so that's the takeaway that I grew up with.
GROSS: Well, Gregory Pardlo, thank you so much for talking with us.
G. PARDLO: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Gregory Pardlo's new book is called "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Patricia Hampl's new book that's part memoir, part travelogue. It's called "The Art Of The Wasted Day." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of a new book by Patricia Hampl, an award-winning essayist and memoirist known for books like "A Romantic Education" and "The Florist's Daughter." Her new book is also part memoir, in this case about a subject that few other writers have attempted to capture. Here's Maureen's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Patricia Hampl, you had me at your title - "The Art Of The Wasted Day." Imagine a book that celebrates daydreaming, seeing it not as a moral failing but as an activity to be valued as an end in itself. To be clear, this is not a self-help book, nor is Hampl talking about meditation, yogic breathing or mindfulness, those worthy New Age practices that, well, have to be practiced. Instead, she's intrigued by the kind of instinctual, floaty, aimless daydreaming that many of us, if we were lucky, indulged in for hours and hours as children. As adults, of course, we feel like we need to have something to show for our time - achievements, chores, to-do list items crossed off. Hampl wonders about what we miss when we no longer allow ourselves to simply get lost in thought.
Her sharp and unconventional book, a swirl of memoir, travelogue and biography of some of history's champion daydreamers, is its very own exhibit A making the case for the profound value of letting the mind wander. Hampl kicks off her excursion into the interior life by genuflecting at the shrine of one of its greatest proponents, Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French philosopher who's been having a moment ever since Sarah Bakewell's 2010 book on him, "How To Live," became a surprise hit. Montaigne, who's often hailed as the first modern thinker, retreated to a cold stone tower in his late 30s to sit in solitude and muse on life and death, occasionally writing down his wayward thoughts.
By accident, along the way he invented the first-person essay, which is also the form that Hampl has embraced in her memoirs and other nonfiction books. When she describes the movement of Montaigne's essays, the way they capture the minute-to-minute inner tick-tock of thought, she's also describing the way her own writing works. There's no overarching narrative to "The Art Of The Wasted Day." Rather, Hampl gives us vivid sparks of memory - skating as a girl arm in arm with her friends and suddenly realizing that, unlike them, she didn't want children, pausing as an adult on the landing outside Freud's flat in Vienna and having the sensation that, just here on the turn of the stone landing, his patients must have stopped too, pivoting from the session back into their lives.
Unlike stories, these small moments - or vignettes, as Hampl says - lead us down the rabbit hole of thought. That sounds self-indulgent. But Hampl is such an incisive writer, a reader comes to trust that those rabbit holes are worth tumbling down into. Like Montaigne, Hampl is a writer who's at her best when she's simply sitting still. Inevitably, while she does so her thoughts keep returning to the other presiding presence in this book, her late husband. They met decades ago when both were renting apartments in F. Scott Fitzgerald's grandmother's chopped-up row house in Hampl's native St. Paul. She describes their life together as an accumulation of years of sitting at their yellow kitchen table, talking aimlessly over coffee.
Then she stops herself. After her husband's death, Hampl says, I became allergic to widow books, determined never to write one - though look at me. The final chapter of "The Art Of The Wasted Day" is about a long, dreamy boat trip through the waterways of the Midwest that Hampl and her husband once took in their little cabin cruiser. Hampl, the world traveler, says it was the most memorable trip of her life. The way she writes about it is pretty memorable too. In fact, it's a knockout about time and the river, about loss and, as Hampl says, about those small insubstantial moments out of the past that are made substantial sheerly by virtue of their indelibility.
Like most of the rest of this odd and haunting book, it's impossible to do justice to the cumulative power of Hampl's dream-weaver writing style just by quoting a few lines. You have to go on the whole voyage with her, take the detours, be willing to let yourself get becalmed in thought. The payoff - because, of course, we're all still looking for a payoff - is that by wasting some of your time with Hampl, you'll understand more of what makes life worth living.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Art Of The Wasted Day" by Patricia Hampl. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be David Kertzer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, "The Pope And Mussolini." His new book, "The Pope Who Would Be King," is about Pope Pius IX, who became pope in 1846 and ruled over the Papal States. He instituted the doctrine of papal infallibility and saw progress and freedom of speech as anti-Catholic. His exile led to the emergence of modern Italy. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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