Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We're moving: pardon our dust

I'm moving to a wordpress blog, for reasons that more tech-minded people will understand and assuming I'm doing this for. (If said tech-minded or at least wordpress-savvy people want to offer any pointers, I'm all ears.)

Anyway, if you've subscribed, please do it over here insteadicals:

Thanks. And thanks, Blogger, for being the first.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What's the World Come To?

I'm reading a 2001 essay by Rebecca McClanahan, a professor with whom I have been lucky to study at grad school (however brief—I was a fiction emphasis, and she's a well-known non-fiction writer). It's called "Book Marks," and it has to do with her obsession with the marginalia of used books, particularly with the written clues left by this woman who had checked out a book of poetry at the New York Public Library just before she did: her annotations, circles and underlines, and various bits of self left between the pages (a smear of red lipstick here, a strand of graying hair there).

The essay is from a well-worn copy of The Best American Essays, 4th ed., a book I bought used from Amazon at the start of my first year of grad school. I was unemployed, so I took out student loans and chose the cheapest of the cheap books—the front cover of my copy is permanently flipped back and the notes in the margins (written in ink) practically outnumber the printed words.

In her essay, McClanahan forms a composite image of the woman who possessed the book before her based on the phrases her pencil found, like "serviceable heart" and "Grey-haired, I have not grown wiser." She recognizes herself in what this mystery woman has found significant, and worries for her—for where these poems will take (have taken) this woman, and how dark it is there.

My own book is filled with the notes of some mystery woman—if I can stomach calling her a "woman"—who writes in the soulless and unhurried bubbles of a perennial eighth-grader. I remember learning to write this way from my more popular peers in junior high: the a, c, u, and g are all just an "o" accessorized with a curl or stem; I can practically hear her whisper the count of two humps or three as she conducts her neat m's and n's; her y is a gaping and vulgar thing, whose tail comes up to meet its mouth.

This is the handwriting of an idiot. Of someone whose brain drones and hums at a steady, predictable pace, unsullied by ideas or memories or anxieties. Were it not a college text, I would go easier on the girl/woman. But come on. You can vote for President of the United States at her age.

The pages are also filled with the encircled words she does not understand, with an impressively straight line ending in an arrow that points to the definition as it is explained to her—either by Mirriam-Webster or a brighter roommate. "Gauzy" ("thin, light"); "Audible" ("loud enough to be heard"); "Harlequin" ("traditional comic ch."). She sometimes gets these definitions wrong, like "Auburn," whose arrow explains "White;" sometimes, her definitions are puzzling, like when she writes "In ancient times, an unbreakable stone," next to "Adamant." Why did she choose the etymological definition of the word? Was this an extremely helpless mind or an unfathomable genius?

More disturbing still are her summations of the text. This is the essay's first line: "I am worried about the woman. I am afraid she might hurt herself, perhaps has already hurt herself—there's no way to know which of the return dates stamped on the book of poetry was hers."

Next to it, the bubble writing reads "Cares for others."

Another paragraph down: "There's no way to know for certain that the phantom library patron is a woman, but all signs point in that direction."

The student writes "Then why worry if you don't even know its [sic] a woman." The absence of a question mark suggests a tone. You know it. It's that vacant, slurring, dismissive voice that undergrads have adopted en masse—the one that puts question marks? Where they shouldn't be? The one that makes the now-blameless 1980s Valley Girl "oh my gawd!" into a mentally challenged "uh-eye-gahw."

The way kids speak these days!

At the bottom of the first page, our Voltaire writes "The author can relate to the mystery woman," and on the next, after a list of the author's history with reading Sylvia Plath, Keats, and Shelley, the girl has written, as if struggling to make meaning: "Very into poems."

"Stymied" -----> "Frustrated." Which is what I'm becoming as I move through the text, now unable to concentrate on McClanahan's foray into self-discovery through the literate habits of a stranger, thanks to the inane chatter of this half-wit with the bubbly penmanship. As the essayist describes her lonely college days, in which her dearest friends were the people who'd used her textbooks before her, exploring the clues left by them—a pizza sauce stain on a map of South America, a misspelled "orgassm" between the sentences of John Donne's "The Canonization"—I can't help but feel fortunate that I had a social life (too much of one, if we're honest about it) when I was a freshman. I also can't help but feel cheated: I wasn't assigned any John Donne. I also was never assigned any Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I've read (and performed) plenty of Chekhov, but I feel bereft. I'd gladly trade my To Kill a Mockingbird experience for The Brothers Karamazov, and now that I'm older and my brain is damaged from trauma and checkbooks and housework, I worry I don't have the attention span for it.

In other words, I'm afraid this is as good as I'll get.

I wonder if this girl felt the same way, for even a second, before scribbling "thinks beyond & gives questions to story" as if she is trying to assemble clues, not about a previous reader, as does the essayist, but about the author herself; as if struggling to understand what makes a writer care. About something like words.

By the end of the piece, I have absorbed nothing of McClanahan's essay but an uncharitable feeling towards today's youth. Mind you, I'm "today's youth" to many. I'm sure they overhear my conversations with my friends on the phone, my vulgar "fucks" and "douchebags," the quacking "mah!" that I use to express dissatisfaction, and think language is dead in America. By the end of the piece, I can relate to the Denise Levertov poem that inspired this essay: though grey-haired (here and there, in certain light), I am no wiser.

I am angry with the world, for what has been lost, for where it is going; but more, I am afraid. Around me, businesses spend hundreds on signs that misuse an apostrophe; "there" and "their" and "your" and you're" are so often blithely interchanged, that it threatens to become the norm. Even my educated peers tell me to leave it alone, that it has always been this way—the masses will change the language and we have to let it go. When Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, scholars balked at the use of the popular form of English that they found trashy and revolting. They called it "Middle English," which was a pretty horrible insult. Mind you, this is the English that preceded the English of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Virginia Woolf. If any of these fine people were to stand behind me in line at Target, they'd bury their face in their hands and sigh, "What's the world come to?"

Towards the end of the essay, McClanahan begins to distress about the mental/emotional well-being of the reader before her, who seems to have derived support for her suicidal state in lines like "gradual stillness" and "fumes/swirled in our heads and around us."

Next to it, the girl has written "She does as the woman (maybe she is the woman)."

At the end, McClanahan realizes that the notes in the margins have become their own poem of despair, whose author she longs to find and give hope to—to say, "Wait up, I want to tell you something." Hers is a story of grace, and mine has none. Her story is that of two older women, educated and weaned on what we can guess is the same canon of poets and writers
, one of whom has hope to give the other. My other and I were assigned this book for what appears to be different purposes; I can't imagine what hers was—a mandatory reading comprehension course? A B.A. in Communications? I feel angry at the gap between us, between our educations. I am afraid of the ever-widening gap between even my uneducated grandparents and the drooling dummies at the table next to me in the café near the college. I worry that "intellectualism" is increasingly denigrated by folksy moose-shooting politicians, orange-peopled reality TV shows, and gossip magazines, and that it has already begun to inform voters' decisions to support (or at least turn a blind eye to) Congress cutting funding to schools.

I am angry that I know the meaning of "dirigible," and that this girl has been turned loose on the world thinking it is merely something that "can be directed or steered." I know it for a silver, bullet-shaped ship that is somehow lighter than air but can carry hundreds of people. It was once the vision of the future: a sky filled with these wonderful humming things whose ingenuity, while one time awe-inspiring, would now be commonplace. Where the brilliant minds that conceived it were respected, trusted, and put in charge of building a beautiful world. Never mind the Hindenburg; I would love to live in a world like that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Notes From the Field

Rumi (as translated by Coleman Barks) wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

I’ve had this quote in mind while writing the book these last five years, talking about the book, and generally sitting around thinking about the book – doing my imaginary Terry Gross interviews and such.

Those first several weeks after it happened, I had to tell people that, no, I didn’t hate him. Then, years later, at the trial, I had to tell people to stop saying things like “I hope he gets life in jail” unless it was for their own benefit. And even then to please keep it to themselves.

Actually, what I said was, “I don’t.” That usually shut them up.

People ask, “Weren’t you angry?” But this is the funny part: right before I can answer, they make sure to insert “Because I would be.” And then, as if to make sure I still felt naïve enough to think I could safely and honestly answer the question, they’d add “...but that’s just me, I don’t know.”

If this whole ordeal has taught me anything, it’s that if any question requires a “but that’s just me” at the end of it, don’t ask it. Or do, and resist the urge to weigh in. See what happens.

We can learn a lot when we just shut the fuck up.

When I was in eighth grade, I lied about my cousin dying to the attendance lady on the phone, and stayed home. My mom didn’t know because she went directly from her boyfriend’s house to work that day, calling us in the morning to make sure we were awake and heading out the door.

Sure, Mom. A 12-year-old and her 9-year-old brother will, when given the chance, rise up with the dawn and fix themselves a healthy, balanced breakfast, after which brushing their teeth and hair, and making sure to lock the door, get to their separate bus stops on time, and bound joyously into their homeroom right as the bell rings. And also, toucan farts powered the first Brazilian automobiles.

Mom was in no mood for sarcasm when she called me that afternoon, demanding to know why she had to hear it from the attendance office at Marco Forster Junior High that her beloved niece had been killed, and that, by the way, she was late for the funeral.

I had hoped she would see that her irresponsibility allied us in this subterfuge against the school system, but alas, she sold me out. I ended up having to do 6 weeks of after-school detention, and a session with the school counselor, a frumpy, poodle-headed woman whose cheeks had an unfortunate relationship with gravity.

She asked me, at first, why I was skipping so much school. Apparently, they surmised that all the other phone calls – the ones they never checked up on with my mother at work – were bogus, as well. But I was glad she asked why I was skipping school: I was pissed! I was an angry child. I knew some great injustice was being done to me and my brother (actually, I hated his guts and thought he was part of the unique level of hell I’d been assigned to), having to live in a tiny apartment with dirty carpets, never getting to buy Guess jeans, never getting help with my homework or encouragement to join clubs or take ballet, while all the girls around me had ponies and Contempo Casuals outfits and the confident look of people who will be picked up on time after school, and not by a grudging mother’s boyfriend in a 1977 Malibu with no muffler.

But to warm up to sharing such private torments, I started with, “Because this school sucks.”

To be fair, it did pale in comparison to the lovely campus and friendships I’d left behind in Mission Viejo when Dad grew bored of his custody of me after one school year. I had begged and sobbed and screamed at both of them to let me continue junior high there, to not force me to make new friends among the spoiled surfer brats of Dana Point and Laguna Niguel, to not drop me in the midst of those drug-dealing Satanists that roamed the schools in search of perfectly good kids to rape and murder in the public restrooms at Doheny State Beach. I even offered to get up two hours earlier to take a series of public buses that would go the 10 miles farther up the freeway to my old school. For that, I would have gotten up on time and gotten my ass to school. I could even do my homework on the bus! When I think of the schools I could have gotten into had my mother only relented and let me go back there...Harvard? Sure, no problem! Stanford? We’d be glad to have ya! Yale? Allow us to pay, please!

I tried to explain all of this to the guidance counselor, whom I had apparently disgusted to the point where her cheeks swept the desk as she spoke, collecting bits of eraser shavings and fallen flower petals. She narrowed her eyes and said, “You don’t deserve to be here.”

“Yes!” I cried, “You understand exactly!”

She went purple as she listed the wonderful things about this marvelous school that I seemed to have missed, such as the zzzsperbsk and the hrmyjrbylirby, reasons to love Marco Forster Junior High that I didn’t hear at all, for the blood filling my head. All I remember from her rant that day was “You don’t deserve to be here.” And how true it was, and how little we understood each other. But then, it wasn’t my job to understand her, or even to communicate clearly. She had a framed degree on the wall behind her. I was an angry 12-year-old.

I often wonder why she was so ill-equipped to talk to a kid my age about their unhappiness. Why she couldn’t see in front of her was a child who had it pretty bad at home, who had some very legitimate complaints about the way things were, but none of the clarity of experience to know that it didn’t need to be this way, or that I didn’t deserve it. Why she couldn’t see that I was embarrassed to have people over, that I was sick of having to leave friends each year after I’d just start to get close to them, why she couldn’t see that I didn’t enjoy throwing scissors at my brother or having my flesh bitten into by him every single day of our unhappy lives – we just had no one else to take it out on.

Had she shut the fuck up long enough, I would have eventually told her all of this, and then she might have been able to actually use that framed degree on the wall behind her. She might have told me to hang on, to do my best in school, because it would get me free one day – get me where I wanted to go. She might have told me what I needed to hear most, which was: no, you don’t deserve this. She might have told me to keep writing in my journal – to take it to the park after school each day instead of going home to fight with my brother over who got to play Nintendo until mom came home. She might have told me that the world was my wonderful oyster, and that the choices I make have nothing to do with the choices the adults made for me when I was young and powerless. That we are never powerless, so not to be petty or angry or spiteful or jealous.

She wouldn’t have been able to save my mother, but by God, she might have been able to save many, many people from me.

But that's just me...I don't know.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bad Dream

Gaaahhh. Worst dream EVER.

I dreamed I was the reason that my mom died - and Chloe. (For new readers, Chloe's the dog I gave my mom for Christmas when I was 19 that now lives with me because my mom was murdered 5-1/2 years ago. She is my heart and skin and bones, and I spoil her rotten and she's wonderful and sweet and everyone loves her, including the entire jury at my mom's murder trial, who, after the verdict was read, swarmed me in the hallway to ask "Where's Chloe? Is she okay?")

I don't recall how I killed my mother, but I'd killed Chloe by leaving her outside with no water. (I killed a guinea pig this way when I was 12.) Now they were angry zombies, à la Pet Semetary, and they were threatening my brother, my husband, and I. We were living in my grandmother's house. I had to lock up my mother in a shed across the street, and I knew she would have to be destroyed, and that I would have to do it.

I confessed to my little brother that her death was my fault, and that she was locked up and needed to be blown up with some C-4. I don't remember what happened to Chloe.

In fact, if I don't remember any other details of the dream, I bet I will take this feeling with me to my grave: of saying "I have to tell you something..."
And then the feeling, when the shed exploded, that I had lost her all over again.

: Your dream's drivel and no one wants to read it!

Me: Shut up bad-child-actor critic in my head!

: Also, someone's just published a memoir about their mother's death, and the market's flooded. You're wasting your time. Get a real job. That's what this dream was about.

Me: Her mother died of cancer, and mine was murdered. Also, I found her body. A lot of other stuff happened that I need to tell people about - and in my voice, too. There won't be anything else like it.

: People don't want to read something tragic and uncomfortable in this day and age. Write that book you've been thinking about instead - the one about the pony running for mayor.

Me: Et tu, Undead Cat? Et tu?

: Besides, you don't even know how much of the book is finished and what order it's all going in.

Me: I was hoping the right editor would help me. You know, like Maxwell Perkins. Someone who believes in what I'm trying to do and helps me assemble it.

: Those don't exist anymore! Editors don't want to see it until it's already totally marketable and ready to hand directly to Oprah.

Me: Oprah would love my book, Pennywise! She's exactly the person who would love it.

: No she won't! It's too esoteric and arty. You try to seduce your mother's mortician. It's gonna be dead in the water! Hahahahahahahaaaa! Just like you, fat boy!

Me: I'm not fat...or a boy. Stupid clown. You'll see. I'll finish it. And I will find peace. And I will write that novel about the pony running for mayor. (Spoiler alert: he trends high in the Gallop Polls. Ba dump bump.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Depression Feels To A Writer

Or, Why I Don't Go To Media Bistro Mixers Anymore:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back to Work

I've been watching Dexter. What three seasons of watching people get stabbed won't do for a trauma you've gotten too comfortable with!

Honestly, it doesn't elicit more than a small twitch anymore. Used to be, someone would get stabbed or have their throat cut in a movie and it would send me into a trance for a while. I'd have to get up and walk around, shake it off. Now it's just a quick jerk into the dark place, and I'm back.

Small trips to the dark place are good for me - I've always been a darkly humored person.

The day of my wedding, I told my friends to let me know my husband-to-be arrived safely, because I was certain a tractor-trailer would kill him on the way there.

Things can't go this well for this long, can they?

I told my husband I want three children, because when one dies, you'll still have two to keep you going. I was serious.

But this is what you do - you hope for the best and plan for the worst, right? It's just smart. It's survival. At least I hope. I hope big. And I have this vague—not belief but—premonition...it will all be grand. Who knows? It could be delusion, another survival mechanism.

But I'm writing this book. I know how again. And my short story was picked up by North American Review, so I can no longer use the "I suck" excuse. I will write every day until I write as well as that again, remembering E.L. Doctorow's words.

Ugh. Hoping I can do; planning for the worst I can do; watching throats get cut and reading coroner's reports and reliving my own police interview I can do. It's all this goddamned work that I can't stand.