How To Be Alone … with Franzen

I had a ticket to see John Irving at the Herbst Theatre last night —- a ticket I’ve had since January.  I decided to head into the city early, alone, and spend the whole day wandering about.

If there is such a thing as the perfect day in San Francisco, this was it.  Sunny, breezy, 65 degrees.  Sunglasses, a light sweater, a purple scarf.


My first taxi driver, I kid you not, looked like Franzen might look in about 20 years, right down to the glasses and tousled gray locks.  We even chatted about books.  He dropped me at the DeYoung Museum and said I was going to love the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibit.

Oh my god, the art of those clothes.  The talking cloth faces.  Like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not to be missed.


Every trip to the city means City Lights Books.  It was so crowded it was hard to move around.  Crowded!  On a Tuesday afternoon!

A teenage boy picked up a book and handed it to his tutor, saying, “I will buy this book, this one, when my English is better.”  A mother squatted on the floor and whisper-read WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to her baby boy.  Peter Carey (the Peter Carey) stopped in to say hello to the owner — he would be doing a reading across the street later.  I took a stack of books to a table and read their opening pages, trying to decide what to buy.


I left City Lights with 2 paperbacks, and spent the next 2 hours reading them at Tommaso’s Italian bistro, where I had a glass of wine, the best pizza on this earth, and lots of coffee.

First, there was Franzen’s essay collection, HOW TO BE ALONE.  Now, y’all know how I feel about Franzen.  Yet, there I was with these lines from “Why Bother?”  Even as I was sanctifying the reading of literature, however, I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV.  We didn’t have cable, but I could always find something delicious: Phillies and Padres, Eagles and Bengals, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Homicide.  Naturally, the more TV I watched, the worse I felt.  If you’re a novelist and even you don’t feel like reading, how can you expect anybody else to read your books?  I believed I ought to be reading, as I believed I ought to be writing a third novel.

Franzen, my Franzen, human?  Sucked in by that vampire, TV?  Avoiding writing?!  Tell me more.



I also started reading this new novel.

I’m warning you, it’s hard to stop once you start.

It’s that good.

Day Three on the water.

I feel like I’m in that lifeboat.

And before today I’d never even heard of this book.



Evening.  Finally.  Time for John Irving.  I cabbed it over to the theatre and looked at my watch.  6:17.  Only 6:17.  He would not be starting for 2 more hours.  The place was deserted.  I parked myself on a hard bench, leaned back on cold stone, and closed my eyes.

The ticket window opened with the creak of a metal cage and I checked my watch. 6:42.  Only 6:42.  I leaned back on the cold stone again and started calculating time.  What would traffic be like if I left now, right now, right this minute?


My ticket was still in my purse when I pressed the button to open my garage door, 12 minutes before John Irving was set to speak.  I’m pretty sure I was in my pink cotton pajamas, on my couch, and back to reading Franzen and THE LIFEBOAT by the time he got started.

I imagined my empty seat in that theatre and read my books.  Dancing With the Stars might, just maybe, have been on my TV.  I wonder if Franzen was watching.


31 thoughts on “How To Be Alone … with Franzen

  1. Lyra

    You’ve come over to the dark side, mwahahaha. You know how I love that man.

    But wait, was that a dream sequence or did you really not go? I SO MISSED SOMETHING. John Irving, ticket, new books…then pink fuzzy pjs? Did I just have a black out?

    1. Teri Post author

      You didn’t miss a thing. I never saw John Irving.

      I had it on my calendar for 4 months, was right there in the building, and left before he even arrived. It’s a shame, but it’s true.

  2. Princess Sisi

    How brave of you! But, no regrets, right? You bought a book and read the book instead of attending a lecture discussing a different book. I make those sorts of choices a lot, actually. And pjs are so comfy!

    Did you catch the Times piece on Franzen’s collection last Sunday? I am SO curious if you concur.

    1. Teri Post author

      No regrets at all. It’s funny though how you can start out on a mission and end up somewhere totally off your mark.

      And now I’m off to read the Times piece on Franzen.

      You know what’s also weird? In the same essay I was reading, he talks about his father loving that Stephen King was on the cover of “Time” magazine, how much his father loved that. Then years later, after his father was dead, Franzen was on that cover —- both eerie and very cool.

  3. macdougalstreetbaby

    Don’t blame yourself. Blame the wine. In fact, merchandisers should really think about packaging pajamas with bottles of vino. You totally can’t have one without the other.

  4. Paul Lamb

    Yeah, I don’t blame you. It’s not that I have anything against Irving, but I’ve found these kinds of readings to be fluff more often than not. Sometimes it’s better not to look behind the curtain and see what actually creates the Wizard.

    1. Teri Post author

      As much as I love to hear writers talk about their craft — and I really do — sometimes it’s kind of like watching an exercise video while sitting on the couch eating a bag of chips.

      1. erikamarks

        That, my dear, is a brilliant analogy. Yes! I have been so curious as to the hoopla surrounding Irving’s new novel–of course, he always generates interesting dialog and I am such a fan of his work, but I can absolutely understand you heading home. Especially with those snuggle bunnies waiting for you!

  5. LauraMaylene

    My RSS feed was slow to load and at first all I saw of your post was the title: ALONE WITH FRANZEN and I may have let out a little shriek.

    As I read about your fabulous day in San Fran, I was feeling simultaneously inspired by how often you go to literary events and a little ashamed that I sometimes tend to slack in this area. But then I got to the end and realized hey, you’re human too!

    Also, I am a little shocked and relieved that Mr. Franzen has not only heard of television, but has succumbed to it. In the past, of course. In the past.

    1. Teri Post author

      We all know it’s because I don’t currently have a day job that I get to wander around like a groupie! And 20 bucks says Franzen was watching that handsome William Levy come in 3rd place on Dancing with the Stars, you just know he was.

    1. Teri Post author

      There’s nothing like living this close to San Francisco —- there is always something going on there. Always. I wished I’d had my good camera the the Gaultier exhibit because 2 elderly women (I’m talking over 70) came dressed in their Madonna-outfits. Loved them!

  6. independentclause

    Teri, I’ve missed better readings than I care to claim. I’ve been in SF twice and the first time I went straight to City Lights. (The second time I was caught up in family and didn’t have the time.) So I hear you.

    1. Teri Post author

      First, there’s City Lights. (ahhhh) And then there are the 100 Italian restaurants surrounding it in North Beach. How can beat that?

      1. independentclause

        So true. I had a gorgeous cappuccino before I walked into City Lights and the ENTIRE room it devoted to poetry. I was one happy twenty-two-year-old, I’ll tell you what.

  7. Downith

    Franzen …with benefits!

    I’d been waiting to hear how the Irving talk went. But you know what, hearing about your wonderful day was just as good, if not better. How cool are you?!

    I have still never read anything by Franzen………

    1. Teri Post author

      I couldn’t finish THE CORRECTIONS or FREEDOM —- but I absolutely bow to Franzen’s talent. The man is brilliant. He just is. An incredible writer.

      1. Averil Dean

        I think I need to work up to Franzen. He completely intimidates me. Also, a fat book makes me cranky for some reason, unless it says Stephen King on the cover. I get a shivery flashback of school and textbooks.

      2. Teri Post author

        The fatter the book, the happier I get. Though Franzen intimidates me with his, I must admit I’m loving his essay collection “How To Be Alone.” The man is so damned smart and his observations/angles on our American life are awesome. Loving it.

  8. Jennifer Sanford

    I have to take issue with your “best pizza ever” comment. I think you’re forgetting that one magic pizza in Paris (and not the one with raw egg on it!)

    1. Teri Post author

      Hey, even my memories of the raw-egg-pizzas are good now. Can you believe that was almost 7 years ago?!?!

      1. Teri Post author

        It’s not an exaggeration to say that when I’m in France I could eat a French pizza every single day. I’m recalling this minute an arugula and prosciutto pizza with red pepper olive oil poured over it.

        Dear lord have mercy.

      2. lisahgolden

        That sounds wonderful. When I was there with my sophisticated 21 year old palate, I lived on pizza, pain au chocolat, religieuses (pastry), and tea biscuits with jam.

  9. Catherine

    What a perfect day! I wish I had more of these. The bookshop buzzing with life, the Madonna grans at the Gaultier expo, the pjs and knowing when to call it a day. I haven’t read Franzen either, but I so like that he plonked/plonks in front of the screen having those thoughts. I still watch Law and Order!

    1. Teri Post author

      It’s just fun to imagine Franzen vegging out in front of the tube, right? Of course then he goes into mass production writing mode, and that’s the part I’d like to study. I’ve got the TV part down. What I need more of is the Leave-Life-Isolate-No-Phones-No-Internet-No-Humans part of his routine.

      1. lisahgolden

        I love these venues for humanizing celebrities. I think it’s why I like following Neil Gaiman on Twitter. You see bits and pieces from all aspects of his life. And it’s safe to say he’s just as addicted to the web as we are.

  10. girl in the hat

    When you figure out how to be alone with Franzen, let me know, because I want to be alone with him, too. Oh, yeah. (Although that Freedom has been giving me the guilts for more than a year. Staring from the bookshelf. It’s just so freaking big. Maybe I should work out first.)
    Sometimes, when I’m reading someone I really love, I feel like I’m cheating on my husband, just a little.
    I must see the Gaultier.

    1. Teri Post author

      I love a big fat book, but for some reason I can’t get all the way through his. I feel guilty about this. Particularly because I have such awe regarding his talent.

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