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.
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.
January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
It’s always strange when the topic of one book I read leads right into the next. Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry surprised me in many ways. To begin with, I never got around to reading the back cover, so on the basis of the title I expected an erotic romp rather than a one-sentence reference to gardening terminology.
Then the book begins with a gruesome female giant and a boy she finds in the Thames set in 17th Century England – my least favorite time period. I cringed. Six pages in I wanted to toss the book in the giveaway pile because I struggled to connect with the voice of the giant. But then Winterson’s magical gift overtook me, and I was lost in a beautiful and poetic story.
The giant suffers abuse by the Puritans, and witnesses the execution of the King. “The Puritans who wanted a rule of saints on earth and no king but Jesus, forgot that we are born into flesh and in flesh must remain (Winterson, 70).” She goes on a murdering spree – the best method of attack being in a brothel where the Puritans purge their fetishes in secret.
“I have met a great many Pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves… if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete (Winterson, 116).”
The boy Jordan loves the giant, though as he grows realizes it’s not right to feel so tiny next to your mother. He dreams of becoming a hero, and eventually sails to exotic places, both in the world and in his mind – beyond time, place, existence. He finds more mysteries than answers.
“The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, and that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands like those cut-out paper dolls, but unlike the dolls never coming to an end. When we say, ‘I have been here before,’ perhaps we mean, ‘I am here now,’ but in another life, another time, doing something else. Our lives could be stacked together like plates on a waiter’s hand. Only the top one is showing, but the rest are there and by mistake we discover them (Winterson, 100).”
I once had a professor who always said, “We lead one life, but we have many lives within it.” This is very true of Jeanette Winterson. She was adopted and grew up near Manchester, England. Her parents were working class and Pentecostal. They intended her for the missionary field and by age six, she was evangelizing and writing sermons. At sixteen she realized she was a lesbian and left home. Her mother told her, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” She took several odd jobs and eventually supported herself through an English degree at Oxford. Her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruitcame out in 1985 and since then she has had a very successful literary career.
Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry reminds us that we are all explorers of existence. It is in the distance between who we are now and who we will be by the end of our lives. Catching up to a mind and body filled with the knowledge of experience – aware that we are finite in the layers of the earth – but connected to all things in consciousness.
A friend once told me that I give her the creeps because I’m like a ghost from the 1920’s. It might have helped that at the time we were working in a Circus tent that was one hundred years old. But she was right. I have always felt more akin to a life lived in 1920’s Paris – busting at the seams with artists and writers. I keep searching to find that place wherever I go.
It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to a song that was written before you were born. You are certain you were there. You feel everything that was felt at that exact moment of time. Nostalgia overwhelms you. You almost want to go back, but were you ever there to begin with? Is it a common shared memory passed down – or do we live through other lives?
And what has really changed between the 17th century and the present? Our needs are the same – food, shelter, companionship, sex, and the need to record and understand the human experience. All that has changed is the scenery.
Everyday at my writing table I have the gift of an amazing view of Seattle. Buildings stretch out from downtown past Lake Union. The space needle looms to the right and the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains stand behind it. I watch hundreds of cars passing everyday. And all day long people walk up and down the bridge. I see the same people over and over, but most I’ve never seen before. They are walking the dog, buying the groceries, going to work or the gym.
One old man never has a destination. He is Native American and mentally ill. He walks in circles everyday, wearing the same clothes and the same cane, yelling obscenities to keep people away. He lets life happen to him. He finds interesting things left by those who leave the past behind.
Perhaps I love the city for its endless layers. The energy is invigorating. People keep circulating within hundreds of overlapping stories. Their footsteps mark the passage of time.
the view from my window