February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I bought Darcey Steinke’s novel Jesus Saves at a warehouse sale, I hoped that her words would speak directly to me, and they did. It’s a rare thing to find that sense of total communion with another writer. Set in a suburban malaise, Jesus Saves is about two girls. Sandy Patrick, who has been kidnapped, and Ginger, who suffers disillusionment at the crossroads between her struggling pastor father and a boyfriend intent on obliterating his own life.
Sandy Patrick escapes her brutal conditions into an imaginary world with a bear and a butterfly and a white unicorn that comes to try and save her. She protects her mind from trauma by staying far away in the land of make-believe, but in the meantime, her body is falling apart.
“The powerful scent shrunk her tiny as a figurine left under a doll house bed. He wouldn’t need the van now; he could carry her in a velvet flute case, or in his pocket, like a Barbie doll, her tiny toes brushing his leather belt, her head resting against a copper penny warmed by his groin (Steinke, 64).”
For the characters who haven’t been kidnapped by the man referred to as the troll, there is a different sort of prison. Grown women who dress like children; department stores with rooms made up of facades; fast food; and mega-church pastors who tell feel-good stories about television, sports, and success.
The shiny veneer of suburban life masks the constant sense that there is a troll lurking behind every little girl’s back. And in the avoidance, blood and gore pervade around make-believe land. Pretend becomes the only savior until the game is over. No one seems to know how to fight back. No one but Ginger, who refuses to buy into the trap – whether it’s in church or in fairytales or suburban facades.
“On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on an aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements (Steinke, 75).”
When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburb of Chicago to Woodinville, Washington. Compared to our 1960’s era ranch house in the Midwest – which was nestled between the train tracks and the highway – our brand new house in the Northwest seemed like a mansion. It’s two and a half stories high with four bathrooms, a twenty-foot foyer and a pond with lush forest in the back. The house was part of a new development where all of the homes looked rather similar with small variations on layout and finish.
The community surrounded an older house tucked behind high hedges at the end of a dirt road just down from us. Attached to the corners of metal link fencing were surveillance cameras, which seemed completely bizarre in such a low-key neighborhood full of people going to jobs at Microsoft.
I only remember going down that road once in all the time Mr. Anderson lived there. A seven-year old girl at the end of our street made an attempt and received a nasty letter to her parents. In it, he demanded that they never allow her to walk down that road again, or else. But he didn’t own the road, and there was another house across from his.
Sometimes we heard shots ring out. The old couple across the street, who served us tea and displayed their knick knacks in glass cases, told us that one time Mr. Anderson’s bullet barely missed the head of an old guy eating breakfast in the nook of his kitchen. I pictured the nook as being exactly the same as ours, except maybe facing to the east instead of west. I saw the window shatter, and imagined the bullet lodged in the man’s wall – the shock on his face, the realization as he inspected the damage. There was talk of banning gunfire in the neighborhood. But I don’t remember if anything ever came of it.
I didn’t like the world of people when I was young. I enjoyed sitting in the forest at the back of the pond, hidden by one hundred-year old stumps and nurse logs, stroking my Dutch rabbit while smoking rolled up bits of newspaper. Life seemed real in the forest, in a way that it never did in school or inside the sterile house where I was under pressure to do certain things and act a certain way. The forest was the only place where I was allowed to be myself, and simply be. The rabbit listened to my diatribes against humanity for hours. Sometimes she made snorting sounds like a pig. Even though she hated people just as much as I did – truly dangerous with her sharp buckteeth – she felt safe with her soft chin and tickly whiskers nestled between my chin and collarbone.
One day I was walking along the deer trails alone, further out than I normally go. I saw Mr. Anderson in the distance with his rifle strapped across his shoulder. He was large and frightening and seemed more like a shadow than a person because I never saw his face. I sensed that he was coming right towards me. I turned and started to walk as fast as I could back to the clearing. His steps grew louder and faster as twigs broke beneath his boots.
When I made it back, I turned to look, but he was nowhere to be seen – like the mirage he always was. He represented the wild danger of what this place once was – a last frontier. Our suburban houses were whitewash over pine trees, cougars, coyotes, old farmsteads, and the Native American tribes that I still felt in the ground and the remaining trees. The present and the past were so at odds with each other that Mr. Anderson finally moved away – hopefully into the mountains where his breed was the norm. We could all breathe easier after the troll left.
They clear-cut the forest when I was seventeen. Men climbed the trees like monkeys, and chainsaws roared for hours. They left it raw and ripped to shreds. The only thing left was muddy tracks from the trucks that hauled the trees away. Wildlife destroyed, coves and crannies and a century of growth – since the last forest fire – gone. There was a strange law that said after a clear-cut, you had to wait seven years to build a new development. But seven years came and went, and no one ever built a thing. The government came to the rescue, purchased the land and made it a forest preserve with nature trails. So now you can walk muddy trails, gazing at nondescript saplings that all look the same for miles. It’s been about eighteen years, and I’ve enjoyed watching nature take the land back.
If I was the bear, I’d head for the Cascade Mountains like Mr. Anderson should have. But the bear still hangs around and catches salmon in a nearby creek, and balances his enormous weight on the railings of back decks, stealing bird food.
“The bear sighed as if he were made out of caramel, a quivering baritone that intermingled with the prickly static moving in and out of the troll’s lungs (Steinke, 117).”
I went the opposite direction. I’m rarely ever in a place where the air feels wet and naked and the quiet hangs over you like a shroud. Somehow, I ended up right back next to a freeway in the city.
My mother drove by and saw an ambulance in front of my building and called me when she got home. “Are you okay?” Her voice wavered and I could hear the urgency in her voice. She’d worried for the last twenty miles and forty-five minutes.
“Mom, you’re so suburban. There are ambulances here all the time. At the halfway building across the way, there’s an ambulance almost every day.”
I live in a mass of humanity, and in masses, people are dying all the time. If not dying, they’re falling, breaking bones, having a stroke, or threatening to commit suicide. One man in our building had a stroke, didn’t realize it, and was so out of sorts that he only ate ice cream for a week and lost a ridiculous amount of weight.
I’m not afraid of death. I like to be reminded that life is short because it makes me work harder and love stronger. There’s only one shot to give life everything that I have, and playing it safe is just another way of being half-dead. I’m inspired by people that are fighters – the ones that never give up. Like my ninety-year old neighbor who still walks up steep hills even though her knees are bad and her bones are literally falling apart. The only reason why she’s still going is because she’s too stubborn to give up. I don’t think she gives trolls a second thought, and when you’re old, it seems, your value to trolls decreases.
If I have a child, we might read books about magical bears and hookah smoking caterpillars and flying ponies. But I won’t shelter them from reality. I’ll teach them to be strong, fully present, and ready for any twist in circumstance. I won’t sugarcoat the facts or lead them to believe that life is easy. When I was young, I thought I could map my whole life out, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m glad that it doesn’t.
Dodging trolls has made me stronger, and no matter where I go, the world is always like the forest. You have to stay alert, allow yourself to be fully tapped into your intuition, and listen for the sound of crunching leaves. In the midst of that, the world is also so beautiful that at times it’s too much to handle. A gift that could be snatched away at any moment. All we have to do in the meantime is be alive in the best way that we know how – work hard, love strong, give all.
December 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
In my first year out of college, I joined a writer’s group that met in the attic of a coffee shop. In the brightly lit wooden eaves of the building, free coffee flowed till midnight. Our minds turned to over-caffeinated mush from the hours of pouring over chapters and poems.
A few of the people there inspired me tremendously, but like any average group, most of the writing was boring and repetitive. One of the members that I suffered through was a guy who looked like one of the dwarves from Lord Of The Rings – short and squat with a grisly beard and a flat nose. He wrote as though we were living in B.C. rather than A.D. In his mind, we were all still using weapons made from stone, building fires by friction, and living according to mythologies that represented our heroic struggles.
He confessed to us, that he found nothing even remotely satisfying about the modern world. He didn’t want to be a part of it, and would rather disappear into the classics. We all had the sense that when not with us, he was in a cabin on a river somewhere, reading Homer by candlelight.
Even though I hated his writing and he hated mine, I found him strangely alluring. He was a mystery I wanted to solve, but never did. His stealthy introversion was an intimidating barrier. Since then, I’ve met this man over and over in many forms. The elitist yearning to live in a glorified past is the ultimate resistance to living in the more difficult present. It is anti-life; anti-hero’s journey – a coward’s way out of reality.
In Donna Tartt’s first novel, A Secret History, the plot centers on a small core of Ancient Greek students at a small Northeastern university. Though the protagonist is from a small middle-class town in California, he tries desperately to fit in among the wealthy. As he infiltrates into the tight-knit program, the idealized view of his classmates begins to crumble. Their web of secrets grows thicker by the day. A pagan bacchanal goes horribly wrong, and all that they hide grows larger than anything else they could possibly share.
Though The Secret History was written twenty years ago, the language of the main characters is antiquated and out of place in the modern day college campus milieu. Off in the distance we see the typical students getting drunk at parties, thinking about what they will wear, who they will hook up with, what drugs they can get their hands on. But in the Greek department, the students congregate in a mystical space, a classroom that is virtually hidden from the rest of the campus, where a teacher sees his students not as they are, but what he wants them to be.
Outside, reality remains unfulfilling and stale. Language takes them to a different time and space, to a code of ancient values and pagan objectives. Their shared knowledge both unifies them and rips them apart through selfish objectives (though they seek to lose the self).
“He laughed and quoted a little Greek epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue… (Tartt, 27).”
There have been many times when I was guilty of living in the past or the future. It was especially intense all through my childhood and adolescence. While growing up, it felt as though I was living a life that was not my own. It was the life of my parents. Though I grew up Fundamentalist, in my head, I was an actress living in black and white on the Silver Screen. More particularly, I was Joan Crawford being witty; Cyd Charisse dancing; Liza Minelli cavorting; or Rosalind Russell outfoxing all of her costars. I dreamt of my future as an independent woman living in a city somewhere, wearing sequins and faux fur, sipping martinis with movers and shakers.
This fantasy represented my escape from childhood – and in reality, I made it come true. I escaped the dreary suburbs with all of that constricting conformity, and have lived in cities ever since. I danced professionally for thousands of people, made the rounds as a musician, and worked as a showgirl/server at a vaudeville circus show. After hours, I conversed late into the night about who knows what, and desperately clamored to find someone outside of the circus tent who could help me breathe. The flashing lights, the glitter that never goes away, the bits of feathers that get caught in your clothes, the costumes sprayed with febreze – five nights a week like a carousel that you can never get off of. The exhaustion, anxiety, and nausea finally wore me down, and I jumped off the ride for good.
Whenever I choose to build a new life, the past haunts me. People I have known in other cities come to me in my dreams, and it’s as though time never passed away. I am there with them again, those people that I love though I will never see again; never get to be a part of their daily rituals and conversations. Part of me is still there.
If I do visit and see them again, I am not able to fully be part of their present. We only live in the past together, in our memories. I’m no longer on the ride. The past and the future never fully exist – both are merely shadows that taunt us, artifacts left behind, thoughts that have become skewed with time.
It’s important to understand what makes you feel fully invested in your present life. Personally, I need to feel that I am part of a community that both inspires me through their creativity, and provides me with a sense of affirmation for my own work. I also need a lot of solitude during the day, and social activity at night. New faces and fresh conversations invigorate me. The sense of mutual support is invaluable. A feeling of success in what I what I do.
There is a Classics major in all of us. We all get stuck, at times, living outside of the present. We hide away there, where it feels safe, where we know what happens next, where inevitably life has to move on.
Please share your own experience of falling out of the present in the comments below. What is it that brought you back?
June 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
She hits it with prep school culture, the rich bitches on Queen Anne Hill, and the entertaining foibles of a Microsoft husband who is so absent that he tries to institutionalize his wife, Bernadette, over some bizarre stories involving her interactions with the mothers at Galer Street School. In this absorbing comedy of errors, Maria Semple has a fearless sense of humor.
Unexpectedly, while reading this novel, I receive an offer to work as an art model at Microsoft. I decide to infiltrate and see for myself if Semple’s portrayal is accurate.
When the time comes, I have anxiety issues. I am used to art studios, and corporations with their neon lights and employee handbooks make my skin crawl. I wonder what it will be like. Will there be a bunch of awkward nerds? Will there be gamers who want to use their figure studies to turn me into a heroine in a video game? I have no idea, and prefer to be surprised upon arrival. A friend tells me that he was surprised on his campus visit, to see a bunch of muscled guys playing sports, more akin to the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
I arrive early to beat traffic, and sit in the parking lot for fifteen minutes eating a sandwich. Green Connectors of all shapes and sizes drive past: large busses, mini-busses, even taxis cart around elite looking individuals on their cell phones. A whole transportation system devoted entirely to Microsoft employees. When it isn’t a connector, it’s a luxury vehicle, such as a banana yellow BMW Z4 roadster (can you say mid-life crisis?). ‘Money,’ I think to myself. Something that I don’t have, but having grown up with it, it haunts me every now and then.
The campus spreads for miles between two towns, not including some other buildings located in downtown Bellevue. I get out of my car amidst a lush green landscape. Inside, the receptionist is talking to a guy who does appear to be more Top Gun than tech nerd. She talks to him for five minutes, going in circles over what to do about the mess left behind in the main room that the admins should have picked up. But being admins, they’ve gone home already. And according to Semple’s book, there might even be only two of them for this entire building.
When I am finally instructed to introduce myself, it turns out that this guy is the one I will be working for. The receptionist gets nervous about me going in through the thick glass doors without a hall pass. She makes a fuss over the fact that I will ride on through with my employer’s card. Then she says, “Absolutely no photography in this building. And you are not allowed on the second floor due to the nature of the work they’re doing here.”
Totally out of my element. I live my life the way I do to never be exposed to people like her or places like that.
We go in, where a few friendly guys are early. One lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the other lives in the neighborhood where I live now. The guy who runs the space arrives, and immediately takes out a camera to take pictures of the event. Feeling a little like the receptionist, I ask to not be included in the photos. It’s a model thing, even though corporate policy requires me to be partially clothed. As soon as I see the guys bunking the no photos rule, I decide to take some pictures too. This is my spy mission after all, and the receptionist has gone home.
About thirty people show up. The drawing time is meant to inspire creativity, leading to greater innovation. Most of them have never done figure drawing before. Art materials are in full supply, and at 6 o-clock, four different types of pizza arrive. Around the corner there are fridges stocked with free soda (though I don’t drink the stuff), and most extraordinary: a 3-D printer. The machine competes for attention throughout the evening, as interns draw designs on the computer and watch as their plastic creations are spit out.
The populace makes the space seem more like a college campus than a corporation. Only a few older people show up, and the rest are interns. Did I mention how friendly they all are? Creepily so. I imagine them going home and telling their spouses that they had to work late, when in actuality they were figure drawing and having a pizza party.
I talk to a girl who tells me she’s never met someone who lives the type of life I lead. It seems bizarre when she says to me, “It’s just so great that you’re pursuing writing.” As though I just started doing this a year ago. I feel old, just then. I’ve been tugging at my dream for fifteen years. Here this girl is just out of college, owns a house and a car, and is set up for life thanks to this giant corporate utopia.
What most pleases me, is posing for people who have never experienced figure drawing before. Their work appears to be at the grade school level, which is completely endearing given their technical genius minds. I can feel their brains straining to work in a different way. Fostering creativity to increase their output of top-secret ideas.
I suddenly don’t feel so out of my league. I wear the same sort of clothes as everyone else (before undressing). And unlike Bee (the daughter in Bernadette), my iPhone isn’t shocking. In fact, almost everyone has one. At first I feel guilty for pulling mine out, until I look around.
“Outdoorsy Dad: (Getting defensive because everyone there is lusting for an iPhone, but there’s a rumor that if Ballmer sees you with one, you’ll get shitcanned. Even though this hasn’t been proven, it hasn’t been disproven either) (Semple, 125).”
On my break, I look up at the hallowed second floor, wondering what the hell is up there. I stand there, enjoying my status as “the dangerous outsider.”
I saw Maria Semple a few months ago at Town Hall. Her infiltration of Microsoft consisted of a guided tour, and she does an excellent job at summing up the lifestyle in her book. That night, we were seated behind her daughter (who is much younger than Bee). Throughout the interview, she was more interested in turning her head to make eye contact with Poppy, than in fielding questions from Nancy Pearl. Of course, it was slightly awkward that Nancy Pearl fit Semple’s description of the typical Seattle woman to a T.
“Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle (Semple, 128).”
Through writing the book, Maria (a transplant from L.A. who wrote for TV) ends up falling in love with Seattle. How can you not? It takes a while, but this place can really claim you. I tend to get stuck in my action-packed neighborhood, though the surrounding areas are extraordinary with mountains and water everywhere you look.
“The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless (Semple, 325).”
Similar to the dramas in the book, I’ve had wrestling matches with blackberry bushes that were attempting to overtake evergreen trees – resulting in bloody arms and sore muscles. It’s kind of amazing to experience nature stomping on your plans, and threatening to be in charge. I’ve become addicted to that sky that Semple raves about. She describes it perfectly. It’s never stagnant, not even in the dead of summer. There are days, walking home, where people rush down the hill just to capture the sky with their cameras. But you can never capture that wide over-reaching arc of the sky.
Where was I again? Corporate life – where nothing is exactly natural. I had a friend who worked at Amazon. He said he watched as people turned into the shapes of their chairs. Eventually they got divorced so they could marry a fellow co-worker. You can bring your dog to work, and walk around the office in your socks. It’s just like being at home, and people never want to leave.
As much as I have trouble understanding it, without all of these people creating innovation and changing the landscape of our lives, we wouldn’t have the tools to be successful as artists, writers, entrepreneurs, whatever independent pursuit it may be. Though Amazon has put hundreds of indie bookstores out of business, I wouldn’t be a published author without them. In one second I grimace at the catastrophe, in the next, I owe them one. It’s one big board game of Monopoly.
January 13, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science. We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy. There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster. Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores. He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went. I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old. Much older than I am now.
That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh. It was thick cotton. Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements. I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.
It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement. So a lot of people gave me funny looks. It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could. There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.
Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan. Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips. We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white. We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop. He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed. I wrote poems.
Mostly, we just fought all the time. But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves. Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.
Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude. And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West. To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance. To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated. Even community, tradition, and family, could not protect him from this. He was a foreigner no matter where he went.
The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow. Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State. Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.
Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile). But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.
While in Kars, Ka writes several poems. He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed. Political tensions come to a peak. And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her. What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view. He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.
My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith. I admired that about him. His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine. He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased. He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.
There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture. But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature. He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence. Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.
He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did. Instead, he went alone when his father was dying. And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards. They rifled through his credit cards. They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back. They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane. He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.
When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died. There was a sense of relief at having missed it. If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences. He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning. Then he decided that no, he was in America now. He didn’t have to do that.
He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried. It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont. The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.
The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner. I drove away without even saying goodbye. The next day, I moved to New York.
Our story was a small pocket of my life. And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm. We are not fighting the fight between East and West. We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.
I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer. He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture. His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view. It appears that he has returned to the East.
I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one. I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way. I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron. The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed. The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.
December 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
While reading, Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch, I became one with a character I would not exactly identify with in real life – a wacked out teenaged nightmare. I attended Lidia’s reading a few months ago, where she explained that Dora was based off of a case study by Freud. His patient Ida (given the pseudonym Dora in his publication) was diagnosed with Hysteria due to her symptom of Aphonia (loss of voice). Ida’s father was having an affair with Frau K, and Herr K had made advances on Ida. Freud was certain that Ida had secret wishes to be fully seduced by Herr K, but in actuality, her desires revolved around Frau K. His misplacement of Ida’s desires, and her abrupt exit from their therapy sessions caused him to conclude that he had failed her.
Lidia read about Ida in college, and the story stayed with her for years. Dora – A Headcase follows a similar plotline, though it is based in modern day Seattle with a few guerilla filmmaking joyrides thrown in.
To be honest, there were a few Seattle details that were slightly off, and I had to suspend my disbelief. For example, there is no 7-Eleven downtown, not until you get to lower Queen Anne. There is also no Shari’s restaurant, only in the suburbs. And a high-rise condo on Capitol Hill was not quite believable since there are no buildings in my neighborhood over eight stories high. But this is fiction, after all, and I have too much pride in my city.
“You know what? Seventeen in no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or you tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home (27, Yuknavitch).”
I remember this feeling distinctly. Hell, I have even felt this as an adult. When I was seventeen, I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t my own – it was my parent’s. Everything in me was pulsing, charging, held back in a cage that made me want to implode. All day long in high school, I was force-fed a bunch of crap that had no use in everyday life (I was right about that one). At night I numbed myself on episodes of Oprah Winfrey, and tried to sneak in MTV when my parents weren’t looking. And then I’d find something like A Clockwork Orange – a movie that so disturbed me it pretty much changed my life.
I was banned from the macabre, the dark side, the body, the taboo. But in order to understand all of life, you need to be given more than just a window with a view.
At the time, my experience, my education, was all within film and television. Nothing was happening in my life. You could sum up non-existent dramas in your head (as teenagers do), but they never played out. I’d be lucky if a crush talked to me just once a year. I was in the dork’s club. And my only outlet was art.
“You know, when you can’t talk, talking sounds different. Everyone sounds like a soundtrack of talking instead of like people… like they are on a stage and you are in the audience – and all of their voices suddenly sound… like art. It’s comforting (121, Yuknavitch).”
Ida aka Dora runs amok. She does everything I wish I’d had the balls to do when I was a teenager, and am glad that I didn’t. As she finds a way to dose her therapist Siggy with an almost lethal dose of Viagra and Cocaine (his drug of choice, of course), it’s cringe-worthy. He just wants to help her, yet she does everything she can to rage against him. Siggy is just another cage that she wants to climb out of.
From there, the book becomes a wild roller coaster. Around every chapter there’s a fresh twist of “oh shit.” What is distinctly missing is high school. But it goes unnoticed, the way that a lack of parents in brat pack movies goes unnoticed.
What becomes obvious is just how much Yuknavitch enjoys her craft. You can see her laughing with glee in a room somewhere as she comes up with these crazy teen lingo sentences, putting herself in a tailspin of writer frenzy.
Like Dora I had no voice. I went through long periods of time never talking, just observing life floating by. People could shout at me, pinch me, push me, and I would still say nothing. I was a voyeur of life, not a participator. Everyday I wanted to die. I wanted to feel something and then have it all be over for good.
As I age life becomes more vital. All of that creative energy was untamed back then, and yes you could say I had Hysteria, because sex brought me to life. Now my days are pure expression. I don’t want to die before I’ve sent all of my art out into the world where it can domino into someone else’s experience of pure, beautiful life. The greatest gift is to be told that my writing has given others a voice.
August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next. She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration. I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.
The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience. When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s. The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time. The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.” … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”
This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today. When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people. At every single reading, it always happened. Rather than action, it was reaction. I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist. A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck. By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility. You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life. You must take action, no matter the obstacles.
Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today. Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely. She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it. She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.
Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”
Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery. Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him. She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community. But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession. He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people. Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.
“… Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”
At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.” She is rich with an empty life. Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring. A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet. He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is. They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida. She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.
But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love. She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self. Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”
Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie. I spoke to a poet the other day. He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce. But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet. When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”
I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”
It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken. All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human. Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals. I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.
What I thought was love was only fantasy. And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist. Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties. Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous. She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime. Still, the charges damaged her career.
She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs. Ten years later she died in a welfare home. She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved. Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.
But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me. I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out. Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output. Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer. If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write. In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves. I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.
June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Esther Freud’s novel, Hideous Kinky, is a semi-autobiographical novel of two sisters traveling with their hippy mother through 1960’s Morocco. Freud is the daughter of the famous figurative painter, Lucian Freud, and the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud – a fascinating family rife with details we would all like to know more about, but privacy runs in the family.
The narrator of Hideous Kinky is a four-year-old English girl. Her narration is deceptively simple, leaving the reader to comprehend the complex layers of the story on their own. Mysteries are left untold, such as what they left behind in England, who her father is, and who sends the money. Through the little girl, we are unable to decipher the details of her mother’s love life (though we can surmise), and never know where they are traveling next, or how long they will stay. We feel the confusion and the uncertainty. Time slips away without the basic information needed to succeed back home in England, such as even, how to count.
My emotions over the mother ran the gamut. At times I felt exhilarated that she could live so far off the edge with two little girls in tow. At other times, I felt angry when the girl’s were not receiving education, medical care, food; at one point even spending a day as beggars. Upon their return to England life would seem so regimented in comparison. How would they adjust? But those events take place after the last page.
I’d seen the film before I read the book – and they both have much to offer. One did not ruin the other, as is often the case, though the details of the story differ.
My two nieces are missionary kids. They have been going back and forth between a jungle village in Papua New Guinea, a mission base, and the states all of their lives. Life for them is a constant readjustment. They are flexible and easygoing, because they have to be.
The oldest is very social, relates better to boys than girls, and likes to write fantasy stories (mainly, because she lives one). The youngest is exactly the same as I was at her age – always up in her head, living in imagination, weaving thick plots to escape the boredom of the present, yet a social underdog. However, that was two years ago, and every time I see them, they are different and yet the same.
Now that they are thirteen and ten, childhood is quickly disappearing. They are on the border, where glimpses of the women they will become disarm you completely – vivacious and strong, with lively blue eyes that are full of curiosity.
The oldest is at the stage where her parents and those in her environment are forming strong opinions in her. When they were younger it wasn’t that big of a deal that we have different beliefs. But they are being taught to look down on those who do not believe what they do.
They have always looked up to me. And now, at this stage, I’m afraid of being looked down on. Maybe it’s all in my head. But it isn’t, because I was taught exactly the same thing, and at that age, I looked down on, and judged everything that was “of the world” and “fallen”. I didn’t yet understand life as it really was.
There are cracks in the veneer every now and then. The oldest is now on facebook and she once posted a comment that read something like, “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there could be another life out there.” I went searching to find it again, but she has since erased it. Don’t we all feel trapped within our parent’s existence until we are free to go?
But for now, my nieces live below the equator, a day ahead of us. When it is summer here, it is winter there. In my neighborhood, it is loud with the noise of people and cars. In the jungle, it is loud with insects, birds, and animals. They navigate difficult terrain over-run with foliage. I navigate cracks in the pavement and annoying people asking for money.
When my oldest niece was a baby she crawled like the natives in the village – with her left knee on the ground, and her right foot walking. She had ringworm from sitting naked on the dirt. I worried over her – but she was completely resilient. It’s the babies that are born there that are really at risk. Many of them don’t even survive birth.
In four weeks, my sister’s family is coming home on furlough and will be in the States until April. When they are gone, I turn off all thoughts of them with the press of an imaginary button. But now, the button is off and I think about their return constantly.
The night before my sister’s wedding, I couldn’t stop crying. As her bridesmaids flitted about, she came into my bedroom to comfort me. It didn’t matter what she said, I knew that I was losing her. She’d found her husband and now all they needed was a distant place to be sent to. A year later they were gone.
They said it was a twenty-year mission, and it’s been sixteen years. As their responsibilities grow, I keep wondering if they’ll ever come back. And how will they cope with life here, without financial supporters, without constant movement, with some sort of steady job that is the same day in and day out?
When we were kids we used to pack our suitcases, hoist everything up on the swing-set, and pretend it was a train that would take us all over the world. It was her favorite game, her escape from boring suburbia.
We have both traveled, escaped conformity, and found an obsession with words – she as a linguist, and me as a writer. But I don’t really know who she is anymore. She never talks. We have only been alone together once in the past sixteen years. We took a walk, and she told me that there are things about my life that she envies, because as a missionary, you have to keep up the façade of minimalism. I told her that I envy her nomadic existence.
When I was a teenager, I idolized her, and thought that I would never measure up. She seemed like a saint, and I felt like a failure. I was her project, something that needed to be fixed.
My nieces represent something that was lost between my sister and I. They are the next generation of traveling sisters. They talk in secret sister code. Life will be a shock for them when they leave the fold. In some ways, they are even more sheltered than we were. I wonder where their lives will take them. I wonder if they will ever consider Seattle home.
March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman. As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies. She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces. As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.
Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates. Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him. In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor. By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen. She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated. So she marries the first guy who treats her well.
As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her. He can’t hide his contempt. His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs. Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself. All he wants is his dinner.
“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”
She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes. A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids. Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.
Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self. At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop. By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful. There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.
“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated? Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”
You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment? Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds. Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it. On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack. Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.
Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty. A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie). Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny. But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars? Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.
I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry. They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it. I never felt valued for who I was on the inside. But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise. And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.
Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation. Growing up in school I had been completely invisible. I was always quiet and up in my head. I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces. My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable. Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats. Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak. All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.
If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap. But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom. In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life. For a long time I lived in a fantasy. All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.
Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it. It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend. Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought. And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church. When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression. But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship. It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want. You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.
But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me. He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.
In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass. There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down. She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.
Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology. The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult. Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life. Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat. I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.
January 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
The first thing I noticed when I picked up my used copy of Platform by Michel Houellebecq, were the bits of jizz on the edges, making the pages stick together. Not surprising, given the amount of orgy scenes.
Houellebecq’s exploration of our contemporary malaise is only relieved through the constant pursuit of sexual adventure. The protagonist, Michel, is a depressing character with really no personality to speak of. He drifts through life bored and alone. “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing (Houellebecq, 148).” He is unable to find a suitable partner, or even really, connect with anyone at all. But then he meets Valerie on a group tour in Thailand, where he goes to enjoy the benefits of Thai prostitutes. In Valerie he discovers a sexually giving nature with the benefit of having someone to love, talk to, and enjoy life.
She works in the tourism industry, dealing with the problem of customers who are bored by their vacation experiences. Michel suggests a line of hotels that specialize in sex tourism. At first it’s a huge success – until Muslim terrorists step in.
“The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the Prophet already existed here on earth. There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel (Houellebecq, 250).”
Michel listens quietly to his companion, but he is more concerned with the sexual problems of westerners. “Something is definitely happening that’s making westerners stop sleeping with each other. Maybe it’s something to do with narcissism, or individualism, the cult of success, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that from about the age of twenty-five or thirty, people find it very difficult to meet new sexual partners… so they end up spending the next thirty years, almost the entirety of their adult lives, suffering permanent withdrawal (Houellebecq, 172).”
In my early twenties I attracted more men and even women than I ever have since. And since then I have been analyzing exactly why this is so. I had that youthful glow and was always smiling and laughing, whether it was nervous laughter or not. I was much more friendly and open to all experiences – not yet scarred by all that was thrown at me later. I was naïve, which older men found highly amusing for a while. In fact, I was everything they were looking for to make them feel young again. I was the answer to their existential crisis – youth.
For a number of these men – sex in its basic form wasn’t cutting it anymore. They were resorting to cocktails of Ecstasy and Viagra, group sex, role-playing, bondage, domination, whips, hooks, orgy-parties. And yet, they were still always bored. “Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction. For everyone else, there’s only one possible solution: pornography featuring professionals; and if you want to have real sex, third world countries (Houellebecq, 175).”
When I did date normal, mainstream guys, I was bored out of my mind. They were so vanilla, with nothing to talk about and a limited capacity for pleasure that was stunted and one-sided. They were also not as honest.
Since then I have gained much more than lost. But if I have lost anything, I would like to bring back that openness I had to people all around me. I want to love fully without fear, with more effort on my part in the awareness that we are all as one. Houellebecq, of course, puts it more bluntly, “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable (Houellebecq, 63).”
Houellebecq has a dire view of the world, and though he writes of the dangers of isolationism, he also gravitates to it. I see it as laziness. How can you feel connected to others, if you are not first willing to give? The character of Michel expects women to sexually fall all over him when he has not given them anything to fall over. He is a walking dead man. There is nothing lovable about him. And when he meets Valerie, it is hard to understand why she is attracted to him.
Behind Houellebecq’s fictional sexual forays is the mind of a Puritan. His characters are always punished for finding sexual satisfaction. They begin and end in their fear of intimacy. The sterile, noncommittal experience of a prostitute becomes the safer approach.
I watched Houellebecq’s interviews, and got the sense that he is already dead. He appears to fall asleep, and takes an inordinate amount of time to answer questions. His hands and mouth constantly grab for the stimulus of a cigarette. In an interview for The Paris Review, he was asked how he has the nerve to write some of the things he does. He answered, “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.”