Chimera Song Mosaic
Friday, June 27, 2003
1. Don’t review someone you know (or someone whose career you have an interest in advancing).
2. Don’t use your review as a vehicle of airing your own personal theories.
3. Don’t rehash the dust jacket copy.
4. Don’t compare fiction to nonfiction (okay, I made that one up, but it makes sense, right?).
Here is the rule-breaking, unofficial review of Amanda’s novel (I figure I can break the rules because I am not getting paid for this):
Review by Univeristy of Montana Alumnus of Novel by University of Montana Alumnus:
I just finished reading Amanda Eyre Ward’s Sleep Toward Heaven, and I have good things to say about it! First of all, since Amanda went to the University of Montana, I might not present the most unbiased review. The second reason why you might want to balance this passage with that of another reviewer is because Amanda does what I want her to do: she presents a very objective and nonjudgmental view of Texas (its many pleasures as well as its shames), which is something that I respond to and enjoy. In fact, some would say I demand it. The joke about the gun-toting, wife-beating, racist, ultra-conservation redneck is an easy one, and I think writers who perpetrate this sensational stereotype are doing themselves and their subject a discredit, as well as doing the opposite of what good writing should do—challenge its readers.
It’s not that such embodiments of the above stereotype do not exist in Texas; they do, but they exist other in places as well (as Bowling for Columbine points out, they exist in Michigan, Colorado, etc.). However, to be honest I hesitate to condemn any human to stereotypical effigy. In my experience, when you take the time to get to know a person, they make many efforts, conscious or otherwise, to separate themselves from such categories. (I’m not saying we should all embrace and attempt to understand KKK members, but then again, I’m not saying that we should not. You can take this theory as far as you want to or avoid it altogether).
(I can’t believe that I just wrote KKK in my blog. What kinds of banners am I going to get for this one!)
What Amanda’s book does, then, is apply a gentle touch to such issues of controversy as capital punishment, health care for the terminally ill, HIV, lesbianism, revenge, marriage, religion, hickdom, cosmopolitanism, altruism, infanticide and other kinds of murder. I’m not saying that she fully addresses all of these issues, builds cases for all opposing perspectives, and offers a panacea—if she did that, she would have not just written a good novel but a new ethical/moral/religious text for the 21st century. No. The book’s not that ambitious. But it is ambitious in other ways.
Instead of offering the easy judgment, she offers acute observations and reportage. She is so good at not overly romanticizing/exoticizing/vilifying/criticizing unfamiliar surroundings that I think she should consider some travel writing on the side. Why? Because travel writing should go beyond reinforcing the expectations of the intended audience—we have heard too many times: “ . . . the thin brown villager crouched in the corner, gnawing a crust of bread . . .” It should do something more intelligent; it should respect the intelligence of the readers and encourage their ability to empathize and commune with fellow humans. It should offer insight into a culture for the sake of appreciation and knowledge and example—not entertainment or esteem building.
Amanda is writing from an outsider’s perspective. She is not from Texas, but she has made it her home for these past five or so years. Although the book makes a few minor slips (Chinese food is not hard to find here), for the most part her reports are deliberate, accurate, and kind. Maybe that is what I am looking for—a writer to take Texas seriously and not feel the need to apologize for being here just to satisfy the assumptions of literary-minded readers (assumed to be from one of the two coasts, or to have lived there once, or to have adopted coastal sensibilities).
I can compare this novel to Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Whereas Karr seems primarily embarrassed by her background in Leechfield, Texas, Amanda takes Texas seriously—but not too seriously, of course. Readers will still laugh (or be comically horrified) at her description of a local diner in small-town Texas: she mentions a saw painted with a nature scene hanging on the wall. At first when I read about the saw, I was thinking, “What the—?” Then I realized I had seen it before many times. It seems so funny out of context and it begs the question: who would find this attractive? But someone does; it’s obviously someone’s idea of a decoration. I wouldn’t like it in my living room, but it some places, it just fits in.
So that’s what I admire the most about this novel: the beauty of context. Context is created through precise observations of surroundings, not judgments. When a writer offers judgments that challenge a reader’s assumptions, learning can happen. Creative thought can flourish. Ideas can be exchanged. But when a writer simply confirms assumptions, he or she invites readers to turn off their brains.
Okay, now that I have probably established myself as an overly-sensitive, love-it-or-leave-it-type, I would like to move away from that image a little and re-clarify: I am not asking writers (or people in general) to offer some kind of politically correct, emotionally sterilized, and colorless depiction of Texas: I am merely asking that Texas be given a chance. Of course do not deliberately cover up reality, but recognize that reality has many angles. Be aware of the seduction of stereotypes, and don’t be seduced (or bullied) by the sensibilities of your intended audience. Texas is not all big hair, embezzlement, racism, 10-gallon hats, oil wells, and Republicans. There are other people who are from Texas—not just George Bush and Diane Zamora. Sadly, these other people just don’t seem to admit it. Maybe they don’t feel like they can.
So what is the book about? It’s about the lives of three women from different worlds who find their future lives to be irrevocably tied. Sounds like something you might read on a dust jacket blurb, right? (Maybe that’s where I got that from.) Also, it doesn’t sound too interesting, right? At least, it sounds like something we have heard before. But the way Amanda handles her loom makes the character’s connections feel like both a surprise and a relief at the same time. Amanda does not tease or keep readers in suspense overly long—she just eases them in, addicts them, let’s the stories of the women wash over them, overwhelm them. That’s how I felt when I was reading this novel: overwhelmed. It’s really about human sadness and recovery; it’s also about loss and reclamation of control.
Expect to find three characters: one woman on death row, awaiting her execution (she’s a prostitute in the Hill Country); one woman staging an escape from the construct of her life (she’s a doctor in Manhattan); one woman attempting to recover from the loss of her beloved husband, the dissolution of her “perfect” life (she’s a librarian in Austin). Expect also to find many other characters, some formed perfectly and some oddly offering no contribution to the story (that I can see). Expect also to ask yourself a lot of questions about victims and their survivors, about criminals and what happens to them when they survive.
As I said, some of the characters miss the mark; some of the dialogue is incredible (I mean some is incredibly good and some is not believable). Add this to some major editing and proofreading concerns (I saw some blatant errors as well as erratic punctuation and even some contradictory details about the physical qualities of some characters), and you could get a little annoyed while reading this. But the cover is exquisite, and I have a crush on Amanda’s middle name, so I wasn’t overly distracted by these problems (and that’s saying a lot since I teach grammar and am somewhat of a perfectionist).
One other thing that concerned me is that the jacket blurb said that the novel spanned small-town Texas (but of course; Texas is always small-town’d) and urban Manhattan (is there any other kind?), and in reality the novel has very little to do with Manhattan. Amanda is from there, and one of the central characters has her professional roots there, but is oddly willing to give up all of her [character’s] other ties to NYC. So why does Manhattan play such a big role in the blurb? Possibly because the blurber didn’t finish the book—possibly also because he or she don’t think the book would sell if it didn’t have some kind of link to legitimacy in the literary world. (There are other possibilities, too, but these two intrigued me, conspiracy theorist that I can be.)
So maybe this one was a little rushed to the press, but overall it is a wonderful read. Some people find it strange that the state would execute its civilians (and so do I), so we all need to know more about this. But of course, this is not an informational pamphlet; it is a novel, written with a novelist’s sensibilities and attraction to heartache. The topic is sensational, but the approach is infinitely caring, morally (if not historically) responsible. A reader finds very little of the gory details in here and surprisingly finds himself or herself not wanting to read that stuff anyway. What is more interesting is not the specifics of the crime but the survivors of it—the victim’s loved ones, the criminal herself—and how all parties come to fit the parameters of victim.
Maybe what fascinates me about this equation is that the question is not so much of what happens to us when we die, but what happens to our loved ones and our murderer after we die—this is much more of a mystery. This allows for the eternal questions of “Where do we come from?” and “Why we are here?” but blows “What happens to us when we die?” right out of the atmosphere. The only two possibilities: the afterlife and the absence-of-life are—artlessly, unequivocally—given equal ground.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
I realize that almost everyone (David, Stephanie, someone else? Oh, and my blogless artist friend, Rachael) just recently came back from Las Vegas. But that’s okay—we were not aware of the project. Let’s reclaim Las Vegas for the thinking people and turn it into a writers’ colony, like San Miguel de Allende.
I will go to San Miguel de Allende in two weeks and report back and specify whether or not it is worthy of being colonized—I mean replicated! Bad, bad, bad!
I’m not crazy, but I would swear that it’s really Winnie as a kitten that is prancing over the link to Catherine at Kasey’s blog. I want to know more about this. I too loved Outerspace. It’s okay to talk about him. I’m going to dream tonight about grass curling up like charmed snakes from the lawn—the high grass, Lisa Simpson on the saxophone.
I enjoy Eileen’s yoga poem and the other masterfully aligned poems as well as her discussion of the media of poetry and meditation.
Ps. That line comes from The Opposite of Sex, with Lyle and Phoebe on Friends and Christina Ricci. I think about that all the time, too. Plus I have had a couple of Lyle Lovett restaurant sightings in my day.
For example, today I went to the McAllen Museum of Art and volunteered to lead a two-hour writing workshop for kids aged 7-13. That’s all the information I was given, and since to be honest some days I have been dying to get out of the house, I agreed. Even though I spent a year in Montana working for the Missoula Writing Collaborative—a Kenneth Koch-ian Writers-in-the Schools kind of thing—I still got a little panicked. My youngest student for the past four years has been 16! The young ones are a little different, and unfortunately my discipline policy with them is less follow-me and more wait-and-see.
They got a little rowdy toward the end, but overall, things went okay. The museum was swarming with kids today, and a couple of them kept interrupting and asking me, “When are we going outside?” and “When are we going to see the snakes?” I guess they were a little confused. There was no way we could have made it to the snakes or the playground or the art even because these things were all filled to the gills with summer-anxious kids. When we left, I suggested to the coordinator that next time I would like to take the kids to the art and have them write about it, and she looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yeah, that sounds great—but not during the summer festival.”
As part of an activity to pay attention to details, I asked them to name their five senses for me (yes, this is a little babyish, but I even ask my 40+ year old college students to do this, and they seem to like to draw on their prehistoric schemas), and I was delighted when they forgot the obvious one: sight. I told them that they were amazing because most adults rely so much on sight that they forget to think about how their other senses impact their judgments and perspectives.
We had a perfect example of this in the center of the conference table (we were gathered around it like executives in the museum’s library): a life-size, extremely realistic cobra in a wicker basket. I asked them how we determined that the cobra was not in fact a real cobra, but a fake one. Did we smell it? Did we taste it? (They thought the idea of licking the cobra was really funny.) You’re not going to grab a snake to see if it’s real or not, are you? So we witnessed how much humans really on sight and maybe sound to make judgments (some kids were really good at making cobra noises).
So we wrote about the cobra (or the non-cobra—they liked the idea of it not really being a snake), and most agreed that it looked most realistic from the back. I would have liked a more structured atmosphere without so many kids showing up very late and joining the group and having to leave early and perhaps a bit less of the paper airplane action at the end, but I think with a mixed-age group and a museum free for all fun-fest, that’s a little hard to do. As it was, we had the snake poems, name acrostics, name poems (I read Sandra Cisneros's excerpt about Esperanza called “My Name” from House on Mango Street, but the kids were more interested in hearing the poems by my former 3rd and 4th graders in Montana—they love to guess the grade level of the writers! Also, they make much distinction between being real fourth graders, third graders, or kids entering fourth grade), and “Where I’m From” poems (based on a poem of the same name by George Ella Lyon). Next time I will read more poems—they liked that the best.
I thought Pokeman was outdated, but they got into the most heated debates about characters and functions of characters and other cartoons. They all knew what they were talking about. I kept saying, “Wait! What’s that? Tell me about that!” Next time I might have them write about their favorite cartoon heroes and villains.
This weekend I am going to South Padre Island for the CineSol Film Festival opening weekend! It’s a festival that features Latino films—shorts, documentaries, full length. I have seen many of these before, including a wonderful short called “Dirty Laundry” about a young girl living in El Paso and discovering her newly sensual body. But they have new ones every year, and I’ve never been able to go to the special event on the island. But this year will be different.
Don’t get me wrong—tomorrow before the first film, I am going to play in the waves all day and get in some serious hammock time, not to mention some tasty brew pub experiences—but I plan to see films all day on Saturday. I’m really looking forward to this. If I miss any films, I will be able to make them up in the showings at Cine El Rey in McAllen, Border Theater in Mission (wonderful historic venues), and even some in Rio Grande City (which is a beautiful, hilly town about an hour west of here with some shockingly juicy history). I can’t wait!
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
I just realized that I completely dropped the story about Denise Chavez and also failed to report on the poetry reading I attended. This is probably because when Denise was here, she energized me, but that energy was also sapped in various ways. Then when she left, I fell off my blog and couldn’t get back up. I was more concerned with writing outside the blog—a poetry series, an essay that is stretching into a memoir of sorts (don’t laugh; okay, maybe it is just a collection of essays)—rather than reporting. Also, I fell into a delicious funk of summer reading and can’t get enough of fiction. It is so much easier to read than poetry. Why do I read poetry? Why don’t I just go back to being the goofball who devoured novels and stories and essays and never read poetry, but wrote it? I could be that girl. Uninformed, foolish—but I can’t go back there. Now I am just uniformed about current events, politics—barely functional in the body & its presentations, fairly fluent in poetry & Spanish, semi-facile in fiction, admiring of essays, forgetting all but the most glamorous words in German, abandoning bones & the names of bones & articulations, embracing slang & dichos, crudely fumbling at organization (but then at some times I think I am good at it)—at least I am not screwing anything up right now. What am I doing to/with my poems? Where are they going? They are floating around the house on colored note cards, having not yet found their ways to the card catalogue. I refuse to type them because if I type them I will think I have finished them and will balk at revision. I have made that mistake too many times.
That and I just read Laurable’s mention of her criteria for her reference links: blogs that contain at least 2/3 poetic content. I am certainly failing at this. But I don’t necessarily want to put all my poems or many of them on my blog. This is for my thoughts, peripheral, residual. My problem, then, is that I am more successful at cataloguing my thoughts than my poems. It should probably be the other way around.
I can’t get off this fiction kick. I have much more to read this summer. But I do need to write more about poetry. I am infinitely distracted from it, disappointed in myself for not reaching quotas for the day. Shamed for not having finished my classmate’s book, A Carnage in the Love Trees (Greenfield)—or Pushkin, for that matter! It (Greenfield’s) is a hard book. It doesn’t help my dark mood. More on that soon.
With Denise, we drove her around, ate lunches and talked about writing, went to Reynosa, ate paletas (my popsicle was coconut, thick & milky), bought mangos & smuggled them across the border, enjoyed ourselves. We would like to go to next year’s Border Bookfest near Las Cruces, New Mexico (Oscar Casares was there last year, hey hey!). I learned a lot. I want to know more. And at this pace.
: I realize now that I absolutely cannot do two things at once. Crash!
The Freshness or “Use By” Date
The one thing I want to know about poetry is whether you can keep writing the same kind of stuff forever. Or else what? If I liked what I wrote before better and I went back to that (somehow), would that be so bad? My knee jerk reaction is to stay away from stagnation, but what’s the reason behind that? Everyone just thinks it is bad, but what if it’s just focused, obsessed—adjectives that poets adore? What if the old stuff is better than anything I can come up with now? I really want to know my expiration date.
Lists and Hyperlists
I liked Stephanie’s list of things to remember to write about on her blog from a week or so ago. It is getting like that for me—my blog is becoming yet another manifestation of a to do list. The answer for me is do less, but I am arrested by ambitious ideals of productivity. It is impossible to predict how much I can accomplish in one day. Or maybe not. Maybe I will figure it out with practice. When I first started starting teaching (and I swore I wouldn’t write about this, but it is necessary to float the analogy), I would grossly and tragically overestimate how many papers I could grade in one day. I would wait until the day before I wanted to return them and say, “Okay, I’ll start this tonight after Angel is over.” But grading 20 papers (or 40 or 60) at 10 o’clock at night is madness! Now I know to only grade 5-10 and do it everyday (yuck!) and do it right when I get home and then pretend like I am not a teacher for the rest of the day. Instead, I will pretend to be a writer, wife, lover, friend, pet-parent, amateur psychologist, Charles Darwin.
Okay, so my To Write About List (Online) goes like this:
poetic intervention, staged
revise American Filmmaking series
write/revise/ready for workshop essay: Wishbone
Offline Life List:
Call: Jenny, Colleen, Catherine, Caeli
Art Museum for community writing lab on Thursday
Clean desk, glean poems from surfaces
*Catherine’s postcard poem series
*Student workshop collection
*Redneck Heaven mix tape
To read for rest of summer on vacation (not in this order):
Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection
The Trouble with Testosterone
The Body Artist
¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Poetry I will throw in whimsically; journals I will read as they come in; novels I will mix in to break from this heavy reading: The Lovely Bones; Mrs. Caliban; Summer Sisters; Sabella; Loving Pedro Infante (all possibilities).
In Venezuela, I will read The Stories of Eva Luna or House of Spirits and maybe Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping. Har har!
I will be lucky if I get this (or even most of it) done. I can get the first three lists done in the next two weeks (*except these, which may take until the end of the summer); after that, I am going to Mexico for a week and Venezuela for three weeks (road trip variety). I will have to fight my Dad over online time, but I’ll bring my little Toshiba anyway.
Ps. For Stephanie, don’t be sad about being in Las Vegas—it is a postmodern paradise. Everything is better than the real thing, except the blue sky inside the Paris is nowhere near as splendid as the Paris. But largely it is better to be on sand that doesn’t have sand fleas and in water without sharks (which is also a postmodern animal) and under real palm trees with fake roaches (fake roaches do not exist—who would want a fake roach? Only desirable things are facsimiled*). We all want to be close to nature, but maybe it is not nature but the ideal of nature that we crave. This is just a theory, of course. Lucy and I must sit outside at least once a day and soak up a little bit of sun to stave off depression. The jungle in the Mirage is lush and secretive and filled with orchids, and even though I yearn for the experience of real orchids in their environment, I don’t want to get too close to the roaches, stinging flies, chiggers, or chiguitis. The real orchids in the Andes might come without roaches. I’ll check.
* Pretend for the sake of my lovely and compact theory that fake roaches, spiders, lizards, various creepy-crawlies, brains (though brains are beautiful), puke, and dog shit aren’t manufactured and made available at toy stores. Maybe it should read, “Only desirable things should be facsimiled.” But that just sounds a little too eugenically reinvented. Peace out.
Pps. I just faked out Lars big time. He came into the office and settled down behind the computer to go to sleep or lick himself or whatever, and then I jumped up and ran out the door to take a shower. I first looked back at his face: disbelief, accusation in his eyes.
I said, “I didn’t come in here to write!” I only came to add two sentences—just two thin ones to my turgid essay. On page 31, a last page of lists, is says: His brother, Jim, grew up to be a Marine and jumped out of airplanes. His brother grew up.
Then I thought I had to write this down and add it to me blog—two thin sentences: I just graded (with red pen) my list of How to Change My Life from last year, and I have successfully completed 21 of the 25 typed objectives. People can change.
(Now Lars is really confused!)
Sunday, June 22, 2003
Chris Murry over at tex files has just gushed about my review of Casares’s book—and now I am blushing! And plus she beat me to the praise, and now I can’t say how much I have been loving her Tornado Alley Series (I’ll admit it’s the first thing I check for) because if I do, it will just look like reciprocal admiration. Too bad! I’d like to give Chris a great big “Howdy!” I bet she doesn’t hear it enough!
I am knee-deep in a fellow Montana grad’s first novel—Amanda Eyre Ward’s Sleep Toward Heaven. Amanda graduated in 1998, and I didn’t really know her, but Marisa did, and I did have one intense conversation with her at a party before she left for a summer on her comadre’s houseboat in Cairo. She was headed to Austin after that—and she’s been there ever since! More on this later.
Ps. Doesn’t Amanda have the coolest middle name ever?
Pps. On the off chance she’s listening, a great big “Howdy!” to Amanda, too!
Nick is right: A blog doesn’t need a clever name is surely essential reading. It provides links to some fascinating and varied topics, such as an article about questionable faculty achievement awards and a slug in a salt maze (ouch! “Slugs are small and portable”). Then from the slug maze I found some admiring comments and a question about PETA's role in all this. Best gem was a reply that attempts to show the connection between animal cruelty and the Holocaust: “PETA and the Holocaust.”
After that I followed some more links and ended up on visuals of Winnie the Pooh, Hello Kitty, and Mickey Mouse vibrators. Why not?
Today is Lars’s birthday! Happy Birthday, Big Dog! You look like Rygel on Farscape and are so pleasing to me. Remember that time that you got in a fight with Hank in Montana and Hank accidentally punctured Matt’s thigh? Remember “Up the Hill” and the snowy mountain passes? Remember how you kept taking Colleen’s stuffed animals and sucking on them? And that time you ate her antibiotics? Remember the neuticals and the replesticals that had to be removed because they were oh so rigid? In two weeks, I will take you to “Grandma’s House” for your summer camp (so she can watch you while I am on vacation).
Today Lars is 11. This is the only picture I have of him online. It’s pretty cute. This morning, we woke up at 7:00 AM and put him on the bed. He rolled and snarfed and rubbed his face on all the pillows. Then he eased onto his back and put his feet in the air for 10 minutes of belly rubbing. (Lance said, “Look at that croc! He can’t keep from going to sleep when you rub his belly!”) And he did. Then we got up and went for a long walk where he and Lucy got to run off the leash. Later they got birthday baths in the back yard. Then we video taped them running around the room and ambushing each other and us. Later he played with his toys roughly and then sucked on the butt of his fluffy pink pig. They they were both wiped out and slept the rest of the day.
Here is a poem Lars sent me by email once when I was away:
Subj: Lars agin. I not no how 2 werk this.
I rite u a pome.
It is so sad wen ur knot ner-bi
rilly it makes me kry.
I miss u so much.
I rilly need ur tuch.
Help me Help I m so sad.
wen u come home i will be so glad.
i luv you iluv u need u
i tink now i go make poo.
pleez come home soon.
I dunno if i spel gud.
I promise I didn’t write it.
Saturday, June 21, 2003
I'm glad I looked at my pond today. There are two tiny, white snowflake flowers blooming from the submerged fanwort. My water lily, after a near death experience last fall when the pond ran out of water, has recovered nicely and is slowly covering the surface of the pond with huge, dark green, pads with dark stippling and feathered edges. It is getting more and more sun all the time, and I wonder when it will bloom. It is a Panama Pacific. The water hyacinths I smuggled from a stalled river outside of Houston (water hyacinths are a nuisance and illegal to transport across county lines because they grow quickly and clog waterways) are almost two feet tall and getting more sun; I hope they bloom soon. (I am very responsible with my water hyacinths; when they crowd my pond, I let them die on my lawn. This is the Valley. There is no other waterway around for them to infect.) Meanwhile, I am allowing a black fuzzy caterpillar to feed on them since he can't possibly keep up with their growth. My pennywort plant I bought on a whim at Petsmart has also flourished; it sends tiny, light green pads all over the pond. It was only supposed to be an aquarium plant. I had no idea it would survive.
The tadpoles are ubiquitous and hardy. I think more toad eggs have entered the pond because some of the tads are much, much smaller than the others. The largest ones are the size of baby aspirin. I don't know what I am going to do with so many toads. I have decided that they will become the very tiny toads the size of a pinkie fingernail that usually come out when it rains. I don't know if these little toads grow into normal toads or what, but I have two toad homes in my garden, although I haven't seen any using them lately (it is so wonderful and surprising to pick one up and find--a toad!).
I haven't seen my grown bullfrog or my other frog in months. I think they have gone off to find mates. That makes me very sad. I used to worry about how I would catch them if I ever moved, but I guess I don't have to worry about that now. I need to get some more bullfrog and other frog tadpoles from my mom's pond. I like the toads, but they are not tied to water and they won't stay. I had a water toad once, big as a football. His name was Miko, and he had pale blue eyes. But water toads are very poisonous to dogs, and my dog licked him one day and we had to flush out his mouth for several hours. A smaller dog could have died instantly. It was Miko or Lars (whose birthday is tomorrow--he will be 11!), so Miko had to go. I looked online, and they said to put Miko in the freezer and let him slowly die for several days (water toads are so tough that they can survive gunshot and being run over by a car). But I couldn't do that to Miko! I relocated him to another pond--a large one at a park a couple of miles away. He seemed okay there with the ducks.
My toadpoles swarm greedily when I drop the koi pellets. The plecostama also come straight for the food. But I can't figure out my fish; they must be really stupid. They always go to the same place in the pond for food, and they don't find it for several minutes or not at all if I don't drop it in that place. But I have to drop it in a new place almost every day because the vegetation in the pond shifts daily, and it is hard for them to pick through the floating grasses. They are also still somewhat shy around me. I guess I need to be more consistent with my feeding. I have two small koi and one regular fat goldfish. When my Koi get bigger, I will find out what type they are. Right now, all I can say is that the big one is mostly white with black and orange speckles, and the smaller one is pied orange and white, half and half. The goldfish is one of those fat white ones with an orange head, but not the kind that has the ridges or the bubbly eyes. They are all quite pretty, but I'm afraid, quite dumb.
I had a dream the other night. I was in a huge, dark room that was filled with water, maybe huge tanks or one large tank. It reminds me of the cistern beneath Istanbul. There are fish in that cistern--gloriously round, pearly carp with vestigial eyes or no eyes. They were checking out bits of dander and fluff that drifted down to the water as the visitors walked by on wooden boardwalks. I didn't see any food anywhere.
In my dream, the water was filled with small koi. Their bodies were moving over each other like insects. I became distracted, and when I looked back, they had grown into very big koi, long as your arm. They saw me (I assume) and reared up like circus animals, their heads and spines fully out of the water. Their prim mouths opened and closed, opened and closed. It was more like that with my other fish, the ones that died. When they saw me, they raised their heads out of the water, ever so slightly. But they seem to breach the atmosphere between us.
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
I just finished Oscar Casares’s new collection of stories, Brownsville. He’s from Brownsville, which means he’s from the Valley, if you don’t know where Brownsville is. Its mirror city is Matamoras, Mexico, and I’m sure everybody’s heard of that.
(Brownsville is about an hour east of me toward the gulf, but I rarely go there except to go a bit further to get to the beach, although my office mate, Jenny, lives in Harlingen (this side of Brownsville). Damn, I need to call Jenny and find out what she’s been up to.)
But I really wanted to mention the stories. They are good and pretty exciting to read. However, the most interesting ones are (strangely enough) not about interesting things but about very normal, day to day things, like borrowing tools from your neighbor and forgetting to return them (one of my favorite stories, “RG,” is about this specifically). In fact, he has a couple of neighbor stories, and my absolute favorite has to be “Charro,” which is about a dumb and happy dog that becomes the neighborhood nuisance (this is especially relevant to me because I have started walking my dogs three times a week early in the morning, and somebody is soon going to figure out who is responsible for those massive piles. I’m going to have to start bagging it).
I would say, then, that the stories explore the dark side of normalcy, but I don’t want to make them sound clichéd because they are better than that. But that’s exactly what happens as the stories unfold slowly (their pace is slow, sometimes deliciously and perfectly so and sometimes frustratingly so) and each regular guy character discovers that the life that he thought was so acceptably average is actually falling apart, dissolving just under the surface, like the way rust forms over time in a rain bucket.
Casares is really good at capturing these guys in the precise moment when they realize this about themselves. Expect lots of introspection, but of a quiet, gentle, numbing kind rather than the sharp and painful epiphany. He even made me think about myself and what kind of person I am—more than once, but especially in the story about the neighbor who borrows the hammer: Are you the kind of person who loans things out with the expectation they will be returned promptly and prides him/herself on retuning borrowed things before the lender has to ask for them? Or are you the type of person who is free with his or her material things, loaning and borrowing without a moment’s thought, rarely returning what is borrowed (perhaps establishing a degree of personal possessiveness over the object) and forgetting what is given away? I would label these two types of people as: nervous/uptight/responsible & careless/inconsiderate/generous. I feel like I have been both in my life so far.
I don’t want to give much away about the collection because I hope people read these stories. They are from small-town America, with a twist—not many stoires out there come from the border (at least not the Texas border). I’m not going to claim that reading this collection will let you know what it’s like to live in the Rio Grande Valley—in fact, with most references to environment a side note rather than a main course, it’s not exactly what I would call regional writing. Which is refreshing. I don’t think that good stories have to be regional or that the author should feel like he or she has the burden of providing the reader with all the tools and exposition necessary to understand ever singal phrase or nuance just because he or she is writing from a perspective that is underrepresented in the literary world. It’s nice, but not necessary, to have footnotes.
In fact, Casares’s approach to the use of Spanish in his writing is one that I approve of. He throws some Spanish words and South Texas slang in there liberally, especially in dialogue, and he neither translates it nor explains it. You get it from context. Or at least, I think readers get it from context; I was able to understand all but a few words and phrases, and those that I didn’t understand I got from context. Maybe this approach is a little more frustrating for non-Spanish readers, but since Spanish is so widely spoken in the U.S., most people are at least familiar with the sounds of it if not the actual meanings.
Also, Casares does not italicize the Spanish words, so this could potentially annoy readers, but I think it’s a good idea, too, because who wants to read every Spanish word with dramatic emphasis? As long as a second language is scattered throughout the story or poem (and not just one word, for example), I say just leave it in regular type.
Marisa and I saw Casares read at Barnes & Noble about two months ago, and I’m not afraid to mention that he is a cutie. Unfortunately, readings at our new Barnes & Noble are so poorly planned that they are difficult to enjoy or even understand. The readers and audience are crammed into a tiny section with a few chairs (always fewer than required) right next to the children’s books section. This is a problem because, like Pat the Bunny, there must be books called Sound the Fire Alarm because that’s what kept happening throughout the whole reading—some kid kept slapping the fire truck button on a silly book. It was very noisy.
One other thing that I wanted to say about the collection is that it is arranged perfectly. There are three sections, and each one has a title that sounds a little too dramatic and fortune-cookie-like at first, but the titles deliver in a big way. They provide an arc for the three stories contained within each title, and this gives the book a hip, cohesive feel. I haven’t read many ultra contemporary short story collections, so I wonder if this is a new trend in story collections. I have noticed that many of the poetry collections recently winning prizes tend to have a very cohesive feel rather than a loose collection of poems of various forms and impetus. So, is it essential that poetry (and story) collections today have some kind of thematic or substantial arch? I wonder who can answer this question. Who to ask. I pose it to the general readers!
Friday, June 13, 2003
Accidents happen all the time. It could happen. It’s what you do with today, so aptly put, “The first day of the rest of your life,” that’s important. Also, if you happen to get more than one day, you should continue to do stuff that’s important to you, such as napping or raising butterflies or lobbying the school boards for a real sex ed course in the public schools. It could be poetry.
Where Do Poets Go When They Die?
Let me first get this out of the way: I am not a person who subscribes to the idea of live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse, or only the good die young, or any of those verbal inanities that serve to help explain (in a superstitious way) why so many of our wonderful and talented celebrities and writers (not that a writer cannot be a celebrity, but how many writer-divas do you know who demand that their rooms be scented with gardenias or that only the color white be present or that the sheets are of a particular thread count or that there are only so many M&Ms in the bowl of a particular color? Hey, if you’ve got names, send them in; I love the chisme) die young. Some who have: Janis Joplin (27). Martin Luther King, Jr. (39). River Phoenix (23). Pedro Infante (40). Sylvia Plath (30). John Keats (26). Che Guevara (39). Flannery O’ Conner (39). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (36). (I am not going to continue this list ad nauseam.)
As a way of offering some random sampling evidence as proof that the good, in fact, do not always die young, I will offer: Nina Simone (70--I love you, Nina! “Gimme a Pigfoot!”). Mother Teresa (87--Whose death was shamefully overshadowed by Princess Diana’s in the same year, within months of each other. C’mon, world, do we really love Lady Di more than Is-She-A-Saint-Yet-Mama-Tére?). Charles Darwin (72). Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade (74). Mahatma Gandhi (79). Waylon Jennings (64). Sigmund Freud (95). Karl Marx (65). Antonio Saleiri (75). Ted Hughes (68).
Now I know some of you had to be impressed by the Grand Triumvirate of Western Thought (Siggie and the two Chucks were all I learned as an undergrad). But if you still don’t believe me, ponder this: why wouldn’t someone only get better as they got older? Sure, the physical stuff goes down hill pretty fast after 50 (not 30, you rabid cult of youth types), but the mind, in most cases, stays strong longer than the reproductive systems that allow wealthy octogenarians to impregnate their 20-something, former porn star wives. If you are good at something in your youth, it stands to reason that you would improve as you get more practice, restricted only by the limits of the body.
But there’s more to it than that. If you just look around, you notice that most musicians, for example, don’t stay in the game much past 40, or even 30. Why not? Do they just not have the passion, the motivation to prove themselves anymore? Even eminem is already thinking about this impending expiration date: “[W]hen it's all said and done I'll be 40 / Before I know it with a 40 on the porch telling stories / With a bottle of Jack / Two grandkids in my lap” (“Drug Ballad,” The Marshall Mathers LP). Something like 70% of public school teachers leave their profession within 3 years; from my best estimate, the average life of a weblog is 3 months (unless I am reading the achieves wrong). How long do poets last?
I think the desire to prove one’s self accounts for a lot of the productivity of the young. Also they are buying into the bogus American work ethic, thinking it will lead them to the comfortable life that their parents enjoyed. But that doesn’t account for so many people jumping ship on creativity (or maybe it does—maybe they actually want to make money (the poets, not the rock stars) and that’s why they stop being poets). Also people get burned out. Also people get bored and want to pursue other interests. The fans may be willing to consume album after album of the same kinds of tunes, but the creator may no longer be interested in creating them. I think the creators burn out on their own genius before the fans do.
But to me the most salient factor is motivation to prove one’s self. I caught myself thinking the other day that if only I could prove myself (by publishing one book of poetry, perhaps—my goals aren’t that high), I could just sit back and rest on my laurels, as it were, content in the knowledge that I am a good poet, just as I always wanted to be. But I shocked myself with this blatant complacency—how un-American! (Or maybe it is very American, as the case may be.) If I know going into this that my intentions are less than pure, perhaps I shouldn’t bother. How would it really change me? Wouldn’t it just lead me to expect even more out of myself—more poems, more books, more stories, some essays, some criticism, even a novel? Wouldn’t I just be extra disappointed if, after accomplishing something, I decided that I no longer wanted to write?
How many more poems does a person have left in him or her anyway?
Jordan Davis’s Million Poems Journal and Jim Behrle’s efforts are encouraging, and I should know better at this point than to even ask that question, but when I see how many people bow out of music early, I can’t help but wonder if the same happens with poetry. Writing a poem once a month is easy. Writing poetry everyday is hard. Writing blogs is hard, but it is a lot easier than writing poetry. I don’t have to be good at blogging (I tell myself).
Okay, so if I buy the idea that a person can keep writing poetry as long as he or she wants to write, then my answer is easy. But I don’t think this is an easy question. Another easy answer is, “Good! Get lost! We have too many poets anyway,” which I think has some truth to it. But people are motivated by praise and acknowledgement, and praise and acknowledgement also invite pressure and high expectations. Perhaps the question of whether someone stays in or bails out has much more to do with praise and acknowledgement than we would like to admit. Could we be so tenuous?
The second issue, of course, is whether or not you happen to die young, or die late. These people who die young can never truly factor into this argument because their deaths cruelly (or blessedly) prevent them from asking these questions: Am I really this good? Will I always be this good? Or maybe they ask these questions but don’t have time to form an answer—or at least don’t have to deal with these questions and self doubts while they are approaching the euphemistically named golden years and are increasingly denigrated by our society (not all world societies, but our society).
They might instead ask this question: Will I be remembered? And the answer to that comes swift but without their personal recognition after they meet their untimely deaths. It is very pretty and romantic to think that Sylvia Plath and John Keats would have produced the world’s best poetry if only they had lived a bit longer; it is also very pretty and romantic to think that they died at precisely the right time, before oppressive doubt and lack of motivation could cripple their creativity and work ethic. They did not receive acknowledgement worthy of their art in their time (another saying tells us that they never do), but they received enough to continue to be passionate, inventive, motivated—even while greatly suffering personal disappointments and emotional oppressions (and physical/mental degeneration). And when it got to the worst part, they were no longer writing (poems), and then their lives ended (Plath’s by her own hand as everyone is so quick to point to in effort to feed the myth of the psychotic genius, which I don’t buy, but I won’t explore that theory now), and they then were no doubt catapulted into notice because of the sensational particulars of their deaths (Keats suffered from and finally succumbed to the tuberculosis he took in while nursing his dying brother). What would Plath be writing today, had she survived that depression and she were still alive? What would Keats have accomplished in his lifetime, adding 50 years to his skinny 26? We will never know the answers to these questions because the good who die young can offer no explanation or insight into this burden transferred onto those who survive. Also, we are disheartened to think that the answer might be nothing.
Those who died young have nothing to prove; those who died at a ripe age had their chance to prove it. (Those who died young had their chance, their only chance—perhaps that is yet another reason why the young are so full of piss & vinegar.) Those who are still around and are making their art are constantly proving themselves—it is a ritual that must be repeated but a cycle that must not be circular in its sameness to itself; we must prove ourselves over again, but this time do it differently. A stagnant artist is a woeful sight and pleases the mind even less.
Perhaps when poets die to poetry (if they ever do), they move on to stories, blogs, criticism, teaching, novels, film, humanitarian efforts—and this is like that hydrophilic, fully permeable membrane that works both ways. A novelist could turn into a poet.
I could have been a scientist. But I did not. I am a poet, and I don’t plan to leave anything physical of me that hasn’t been well used during my lifetime. Sterile, arthritic, doddering, bony, and soft—that’s the corpse I hope I am lucky enough to leave. And I can’t provide accurate maps as to what’s in between. I hope it has something to do with poetry.
Finally, an appeal to logic: the good do not die young—or to put it better, the good are not any more likely to die young than the “bad.” The young do not die because they are good—that’s faulty causality/hasty generalization. Some of the good die young for the same reason that everybody dies: disease, malnutrition, heartache, suicide, murder, accident, accident, accident. When we try to apply a pattern to it or a reason for it—that’s hypothesis contrary to the fact.
This is what it’s going to be like when I die; I am going to be just like Ol’ Hannah Brown: “Send me, Daddy, ‘cause I don’t care”:
“Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)”
Up in Harlem on a Saturday night
Were the highbrows get together, it's just to tight
We all gather at the Harlem Strut
And what we do is tut tut tut
Ol' Hannah Brown, from way cross town
Keeps drinking her liquor and she brings them down
Just at the break of day
You could hear old Hannah say
I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me daddy, cos I don't care
I feel just like I wanna clown
Give the piano player a drink
Cause he brought me down
He just send me right off to sleep
Check all your razors and your guns
I'm gonna be arrested when the wagon comes
I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me cos I don't care oh no
Send me cos I don't care
I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me daddy, cos I don't care
I feel just like I wanna clown
Give the piano player a drink
Cause he brought me down
He's got rhythm when he stomps his feet
He moves me right off to sleep
Check all your razors check your guns
I'm gonna be arrested when the wagon comes
I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me cos I don't care oh no
Send me cos I don't care
Written by Wesley "Sox" Wilson in 1933 for Bessie Smith. Subsequently covered by Billie Holiday in 1949 (but I like to hear Nina Simone sing it).
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
2. A “play . . . written according to musical ideas of scoring and composition . . .” (don’t know music and don’t know how it serves as a template for drama, but I love “Mozart and Salieri,” and will discuss it tonight at workshop)
3. All references to squirrels—what the %$##*@ is that!?
Just expressing some basic frustration (probably because of LUSH).
These are the best products:
1. Les Cacas henna for your hair (Rouge is so great & perfect for Catfutti!)
2. All bath ballistics (especially Ularu and Avobath)
3. The King of Skin solid moisturizer (so smooth!)
4. Plantational solid shampoo (although Lance swears by Dr. Peppermint)
5. Sympathy for the Skin (if you’re not too dry and want to smell like a banana split)
6. Shower gels: B Never too Busy to Bee Beautiful (honey) & Happy for S.A.D. (orangey)—dumb names, but great smelling skin!
7. Creamed Almond & Coconut Smoothie (delish!)
8. Angels on Bare Skin is a fabulous, scrubby, but gentle facial cleanser
Finally, stay away from Skinny Dip and Potion unless you like stinky white chocolate smells (but everyone has a different nose and Marisa loves Potion, so LUSH has something for everybody).
In Texas, I have to order from LUSH Canada at great shipping expense (but loving the exchange rate). But I guess it’s better this way because I would spend too much time and money in the store if it were close by, and I just spent all morning working on a strict budget for myself (instead of writing haiku).
By the way, my last post dated 6/7 is actually from yesterday, 6/10, but for some reason I ended up typing it into the wrong day.
Saturday, June 07, 2003
I have been up to quite a lot lately, although my blog activity would suggest otherwise (or maybe the fact that I have not posted lately would indicate that I have been quite busy and had no time for blogging—whichever). I can’t possibly recreate all of the past week, but suffice to say that I went to Houston yet again (what is my problem?) and also visited my husband’s family in New Braunfels (Texas Hill Country) for a fast paced and festive little niece party (happy birthday Shelby and Molly! I missed Ashley & Sydney’s party last month, so happy birthday to you, too, you little 6-year-olds-not-able-to-read-a-weblog-yet) and some minor familial drama.
I have been trying to reduce the drama in my life ever since I took the online personality assessment thing recommended by Jim Behrle (a long time ago) and consistently got high Histrionic personality (I took the test several times for statistical and investigative reasons). Considering the alternatives (I got moderate Narcissistic a few times), Histrionic is not so bad. It’s just a lot of drama. Hence the drama reduction exercises.
Have you ever been in an argument and said something that you may have seen in a movie once during a scene where two characters are arguing, and then you realized that you repeated the thing just for dramatic effect? Well, I have. Don’t do it.
The question that best fit my personality was, “Do you feel like you have a story to tell?” YES! Sometimes I have too many stories to tell. But I need the practice. Here’s another:
The Story About How Denise Chavez Came to the Valley
I’m going to abbreviate this one for my own selfish reasons. Plus Denise is going to call Marisa in a few minutes and invite us to lunch. I don’t want to miss lunch, so I have to make this short so I can get finished in time.
Why is Denise in the Valley right now? I thought you might ask this one since I always complain about the lack of quality readings here (okay, maybe I haven’t been complaining about this, but I have been thinking it, so I still get to punish myself for those discouraging thoughts and general whining). She is in the Valley attending a summer writers’ institute offered by our local university, which is in the University of Texas system. All this week there will be workshops, panel discussions, and readings featuring Ms. Chavez and two other writers, local author (and current new creative writing faculty member), Rene Saldana (who primarily writes young adult fiction), and Steven Schneider (English Department Chair at UT Pan-American), poet. Sounds good, right? Yes, I went to a reading last night featuring these last two authors, but the problem was the reading was poorly attended because the university didn’t do enough to publicize the event. In fact, when I called two weeks ago, I was told that the panel discussions and all but one of the readings weren’t to be open to the public at all. I think this attitude is very bad. As it is, we hardly ever have readings with published authors. To close it to the public is just wrong.
They are working on this slowly, but not fast enough. If readings happen and people don’t show up, readings won’t happen again in the future. I am going to email my old creative writing class and some other students to try to ensure that more people show up for the readings—especially Denise’s reading, which is this Thursday. She is a marvelous reader. It’s probably more accurate to refer to her as a performer. She has an MFA in Drama in addition to Fiction, and she does her characters in different voices. In February of this year, through much hard work—primarily due to the heroic determination of Marisa (my buddy and twin-Montana-grad) and Jen, our Department Chair (also my buddy), and numerous helpful faculty and staff at our community college (I’m only gushing because their combined efforts were truly gush-worthy)—Denise Chavez—author of short story collection, The Last of the Menu Girls, and recent novel, Loving Pedro Infante—arguably one of the most accomplished Latina writers in the United States today, came down to the Valley where she was welcomed by over 500 community college students, faculty, staff, and members of the community.
It was a fabulous reading, with Denise shifting from character to remarkable character and showing grainy clips from Pedro Infante films. Denise said she loved the fact that the audience understood her jokes, that she didn’t have to explain, that she could speak English and Spanish without having to repeat each word in each language. She was on a small square stage in the middle of our cafeteria (no, it does not hold 500 people—we were crammed into every inch of the room; there were many more people standing than sitting) with kids of all sizes draped across the platform or splayed out on the floor (Denise encouraged this). She did not stay on the platform; she ranged as far down the packed aisle as she possibly could, often passing the cordless microphone across rows so that an audience member could ask a question or give a comment.
And the audience gave just as much as she gave; they loved her. They waited two hours after the show in a line that stretched the length of the cafeteria and then some just to get her autograph or ask her a question or tell her, in person, just how much they loved the performance. One man, a truck driver, told her that he would honk his horn every time he passed through Las Cruces, New Mexico, her home town. This is something that Denise remembers from that February performance and told me last night. I love how much she loves and appreciates her audience.
Why am I telling this story? I guess because I am always so frustrated by the lack of opportunity for writers in the Valley. Some people think that the locals wouldn’t know good writing if they heard it. But of course they would. And every once in a while, they do (get to hear it). I’m writing about this because what happened that February is the exception (as I’ve said, we have very few venues for readers), but instead of the phenomena happening in spite of the anti-intellectual (if it is that) climate in the Valley, I believe that it happened because of it. Such excitement, such generosity, such absolute delight in people of all ages could only have happened here in the Valley—perhaps precisely because we are not used to it. If we could only have more of it (it being serious, yet playful, organized readings), then perhaps we would eventually get bored with it and go back to other, more immediately gratifying forms of diversion (such as movies or baseball). But that won’t happen until we are first saturated with readings. Yea!
Okay, so enough of the fantasizing and back to the frustration. I am frustrated because now that we have gone through the major effort to get a star of this size down to the Valley, we need to keep her with a devoted (and large) audience. The university has not sufficiently publicized these events, in my mind. The second thing that really disappoints me is the way the university acquired Denise in the first place. Marisa Taylor and her cohorts at the community college (including me) enticed Denise down to the Valley for much less money than she is used to getting (hey, we are a community college and don’t have much money for this stuff), and to be honest, Marisa simply didn’t take no for an answer (although she is really nice about it), and now the university breezes in and snaps Denise up like a tasty snack. I don’t at all hold it against her for coming to see them—in fact, I’m glad that she’s here and that we didn’t have to figure out a way to pay for it—but I don’t think she would have been as eager to come if we hadn’t made it such a wonderful experience the first time. Her agent (who is also Sandra Cisneros’s agent) would probably have politely said no to them (Denise is very busy with other projects), and they would have given up.
Maybe I am just totally ignorant about the economies between universities and their local community colleges—I know it’s a relationship that must remain symbiotic to some degree—but I don’t think their behavior was fair. They didn’t need to snub us, and this isn’t the first time they have cabbaged on; in April of this year, due to the efforts of my scrappy office mate, Jenny Clark, political science instructor, our school hosted Michael Parenti, author of Democracy for the Few—and the university invited Mr. Parenti to lunch without inviting Ms. Clark (the coordinator of the whole conference!).
Okay, that is enough venting—for now. We’ll see what chisme Denise offers us at lunch today.
About the Other Readings & Other Alternatives
I went to a reading last night featuring local author, Rene Saldana, and South Texas newcomer, Steven Schneider. Mr. Saldana primarily writes fiction for young people, and I have once before heard him read one of the stories that he read last night. However, I enjoyed it again this time because it’s about a kid in an alternative learning center, and it’s written from the perspective of this student who was almost not a student. Luckily, this kid saves himself just in time before he succumbs to—what? A lifetime in a gang? Jail? Death? A comfortable gangster lifestyle? Surely there are other alternatives; that’s why it’s called “alternative” learning, right? The story is written in an interesting way; it is an assignment or essay about how the student ended up in the center, or maybe the assignment is supposed to be about how he gets out. I like it because student perspectives fascinate me, and even though it is for younger audiences, I also like stuff written from juvenile or emotionally stunted perspectives. Serial killer lit, bring it on.
The second story was new for me, and it was about a young girl who was trying to glean information about her dead mother from her father (struggling to raise a teen daughter without a mom around) and to decide whether or not she should jump from the bridge into the river, “like the boys do.” I totally think she should jump and can’t decide whether her father is right for telling her no or wrong for making her a fearful teenager who will grow into a fearful adult.
Let me side track here and tell you my story: my mom is a major scardy cat. Even though I did a few stunts in my life, like jumping off fences, etc., for the most part, my mom raised another scardy cat. Unfortunately, my ego doesn’t allow me to be a scardy cat, and this has resulted in my trying dangerous drugs, jumping out of airplanes, etc. And this is fine as long as I don’t do it a lot and don’t hurt myself, which I haven’t so far. But when I want myself to do something risky and my self refuses, I get unreasonably mad at myself. Like when I thought I had this out of my system and tried to make myself jump from a cliff into the waters around the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri. I got on top of the cliff, but chickened out, and this still pisses me off to this day. I absolutely must go back to the blue grotto and jump one day, etc., but not now because I have to save my money (and be relatively sure that I will actually do it).
I married a man who does not even have a reasonable amount of fear to keep him out of trouble. When we went tandem sky diving for his 25th birthday, I had to go first because I knew if Lance went first, I would chicken out because of course psycho Lance will try anything.
Keep in mind that I am not even close to an adrenalin junkie. I don’t even know what that means, not really. I have too much Mom-inspired scardy-cattedness to do anything risky on a regular basis (except, of course, drive my car, duh!). And I don’t go for the rush, but rather the challenge of forcing a scardy cat like me to do something rash. When I sky dove (?) and bungee-jumped, I was terrified up to the point of committing; then I felt totally free—I didn’t really think anything bad would happen, and what could I do about it now, anyway? Maybe this is the same feeling the adrenaline junkies have, but for different reasons—or maybe for the same reasons.
So going back to the story, I thought the Dad should have let her jump because if he succeeded in scaring his offspring away from doing something rash (an adaptive success for a parent), she would never have the guts to try something challenging in the future. People who don’t consider jumping don’t have this problem. But those that do find themselves immediately screwed.
So the young girl goes and talks to her grandmother, la macha. This is not your typical grandma. She lets the girl talks it through, tells her a few stories about her dead mother and her own rebellion, and finally says, “If you want to jump off that bridge, you do it. If that’s the only thing that will make you happy, you have to do it.” Now the girl has permission because this grandmother has authority over the girl’s father.
Only the girl doesn’t do it. She thinks about the legacies that have been passed down to her, and she thinks about how she is becoming a woman, and all of these thoughts cumulate in her contentment with the decision to follow her father’s wishes and not jump off the bridge. I didn’t write the story, so I’m not explaining it well enough to let you see how this decision came to her and whether or not it is the right one. The way Mr. Saldana writes it, you almost believe her. Almost.
There’s this part of me that thinks she will never give up the bridge. It will follow her everywhere after that and will come to represent her failures in life, small or large. If she was going to give up the bridge, she should have done it before she imagined herself flying through the air, just like the boys, and swimming through the weeds, triumphant. There are people who give themselves tests of worthiness, and I suspect they do it throughout their lives, until they have succeeded more times than they have failed, or until they do not succeed any more—or until they get put on medication (maybe there are other alternatives—I don’t have all the answers).
It’s a beautiful story, but the way Saldana writes the ending, it’s like he thinks her world will be better now; the crisis is over; she will become a woman. The real crisis for that woman is just beginning, I think. I don’t think the story should end happily, or if it does, it should end in flight.
I also heard a poet read, but I can’t write about that now because I have to go to lunch soon, and I have too much to say because obviously I have a lot to say about poetry (or maybe I don’t have a lot to say if you read my earlier entry). Ciao! Bring on the chisme!
Tuesday, June 03, 2003
or to put it another way:
Of VCR, cable box
Jane Reichhold says in “Haiku Rules that Have Come and Gone: Take Your Pick” (and AHA! POETRY is a pretty cool site): “If you've a desire to write haiku, you are manifesting a desire for a few more rules in your life. And rules aren't bad as long as they are your rules for your work.”
Okay, this is probably true and accounts for my recent attempt to organize both my thoughts and my poems—my thoughts that motivate my poems, etc.—and this is probably the reason I started blogging (and from what I’ve seen in some explanations, the reason why many people started blogging). Here’s the plan:
I get out the drawer of colored note cards that I have been saving for years (no doubt, for this purpose) and place them all about the house in places where I am spurned to write poetry. For posterity’s sake, the coding goes like this: blue—bedside table; yellow—living room; green—bathroom; pink—car. I guess I’ll make up more categories if I need to. I’m not sure why or if they are important, but I wanted to have some organizing principle. I guess if I travel I’ll write on white note cards.
The purpose of using note cards is to file them in those little boxes like the ones people keep recipes on note cards in. I know these boxes have dividers, so to avoid the anxiety created by having to come up with relevant divisions, I have decided to use the rather arbitrary categories described above. I know I will have at least 2 relevant subgroups: 1) poems or partial poems and 2) ideas and words for future poems. Also, I plan to go through the horrendous mess on my desk (currently used as a dump site for stuff I want to keep) and copy the words and ideas scribbled on little pieces of paper onto the legitimate note cards (maybe I’ll use the white ones for this) so that I might actually find my ideas later; I need a place to leave my ideas so that I can find them later.
The other thing that made me want to write on the note cards (other than a desire to salvage myself from almost irreversible dishevelment and poor organizational skills) is that, after completing 1 & ½ postcard poem cycles with Catherine Meng, I have become very comfortable with writing on small, stiff cards. Why not? I’ve never been terribly particular about what I chose to write on before; maybe now I should be.
I could see myself taking this too far, but I think it’s worth a shot. At least my poetry scribblings will be instantly recognizable now and can’t be mistaken for a grocery list or a note to self or a bill due date (although these sound like appealing misrecognitions).
More Jim Behrle poems worthy of heavy petting: #s 121 & 213 from June 2 and his HAIKU from today are lovely, especially the first.
Mama Meng is right about threes (May 3); here’s another:
3 ducks in literature and/or literary allusions: 1) the ducks on the pond in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye 2) Mrs. Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (it’s her name, and she also sees birds out the window) and 3) the way ducks are used as an image of surrender in the first season of HBO’s The Sopranos (Tony raises the ducks in his swimming pool and then can’t stand to see them go).
What’s the connection here? I guess these three characters are suffering, and they are unsure as to whether or not they should let go. Why is this best represented by ducks?
Anyway, Catherine, good luck on the “cat dynamics.”
Also, thanks to Stephanie for providing the recent thought-provoking coverage of Fears of your Life by Michael Bernard Loggins. Man, I wish I had Stephanie’s old job, much more the super cool one she probably has right now (I also dug her snippet (April 29) on the new book about the goddess Inanna, and I’m gonna get that one for my sister for her birthday if I can). Ummm (the pleasure sound), also, I love to read about Harbin (May 5 is gorgeous!).
I have a fear to add to the list: ever since I saw on Six Feet Under that you could be hit by “blue ice” (the frozen jetsam from an airplane toilet), I have been worried about that when I go outside with the dogs. McAllen’s airport is right in the middle of town, so virtually everyone has planes flying over their heads several times a day. I can hear one now!
I guess this is what happens to a person when she is not working: lots of crazy hyper-organizational tendencies and irrational fears of invasion. Speaking of invasion, I just read in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary that the word vagina comes from the Latin word for "sheath." So this means that the most commonly acceptable (but misleading—we’re usually talking about the vulva and not the actual vagina) term for a woman’s genitals is not actually referring to the thing itself but rather to its potential to enclose or sheathe something else. I wonder what that something else is, hmm? So now I can add random stabs at patriarchal nomenclature to my list of summer peccadilloes. But don’t you see? I had to write down that thought so that I could be free of it—and could turn the page of my dictionary.
I just figured out why my brother and I fight so much. It’s obviously because he is a Horse, and I am a Tiger. I’m borrowing from Stephanie’s fascinating entry from a few weeks back.
I first tested the saying right before I began my blog. After my brother’s gradation, we all went to lunch, and my brother’s friend, Ben, accompanied us. I think I mentioned before that Ben speaks Mandarin. So, I prompted Ben to greet me (it’s not hard—he’s pretty chatty) and made the proper reply (in English), and Ben said, “Oh, yeah—that’s a common thing to say; it means kind of neither here nor there. So-so.”
I pointed out the coincidence of my brother’s and my Chinese zodiac signs (he is a horse; I am a tiger), but no one seemed to think it was of much importance. My sister asked, “Are these two signs incompatible?” But no, they are actually compatible.
But this made me wonder about the meaning of the saying. It makes sense if I think of the animals as representing opposites; if you are a horse, you can’t be a tiger, etc. Something about the nature of Tigers or people who are Tigers is absolutely other than Horses. Today I am neither a Horse nor a Tiger; today I am in behavioral and/or spiritual limbo.
(Of course, the real meaning of the saying may have nothing to do with the zodiac, or at least maybe not the zodiac that is provided on paper placemats in every Chinese restaurant in the country. But it’s still a pretty thing to think about.)
So, I have been practicing how this sounds in Mandarin in case it ever comes up. I should also know how to say, “I am a Tiger,” because most of the time, I am.
I Feel Angry, Oh so Angry
In order to embrace my tigerness (“Tiger people are aggressive”), I want to talk about another hasty generalization I used to succumb to: I used to think every person who listened to Rollins Band had an abusive parent. Okay, I was quickly disabused of this notion by my brother’s friend, Rockni, who said, “No, my Dad didn’t hit me. I’m just angry” (explaining why he listened to Rollins Band). I could certainly relate to this because I was also very angry as a teenager. I guess angry people gravitated towards Henry Rollins’ brutal confessional lyrics: “From the wreckage of humiliation / I got my self respect / I put myself together / What the hell did you expect?” (“Just Like You,” End of Silence, 1992)
I saw Rollins in concert several times—sweaty and angry and krunk and tattooed in his little black boxer shorts. I saw all the kids milling about with their Rollins Band t-shirts with the big Rollins sun tattoo on the back. I was like, “Oh, that poor kid.” Of course, I never included myself in this tidy little theory, which would have destroyed it because my parents weren’t abusive (at least not on the scale of Rollins’ father).
I even listened to Rollins’ spoken word, The Boxed Life. I even read one of his tour journals/collection of philosophical essays, Now Watch Him Die. Henry Rollins would have been a great blogger.
The Naked Truth of Jackass: The Movie
I just saw Rollins pop up in a cameo on Jackass: The Movie. “Off Road Tattooing” was the stupidest (not stupidest in terms of most dangerous but stupidest in terms of most stupid) and least entertaining stunt on the show (my favorite had to be either “Party Boy” or the guy who shits in the hardware store, but I forgot what that one was called), and I was a little disappointed that Rollins was involved with this stage of the project.
The reason I refer to it as a project is because that’s what fascinated me about it—the human behavioral study aspects of it. Let me first offer the disclaimer that I did not want to see the movie and found it to be overall repellant. But then I looked closer and was fascinated: why would someone remain friends with a guy (or girl) who shaved his or her head without warning? It really irritated me at first, but then I thought it was funny in a shaved head kind of way. This is sort of like those parties where the guy who gets the drunkest wakes up to polaroids of his buddy’s dick in his mouth (I am switching to the male pronoun here because I have just not heard of women doing this). Why would you put your dick in your friend’s mouth while he is sleeping? That is just not nice. But I guess that’s the point: it’s funny to be not nice.
But that’s not even the most interesting thing about this project: after watching Party Boy rub his thong up against a security guard and people descending an escalator while avoiding a gigantic traffic cone and hardware store patrons witness someone shitting in a toilet display, I began to notice a pattern in the way people respond to such anomalies; they don’t respond. I was shocked by the lack of response. They seemed to freeze when the guy shit in the toilet display—none of that, “Hey, Buddy! What are you doing? My kids are watching.” The store manager could only manage a weak, “You know, you’re going to have to clean that out.” Why didn’t people respond?
Of course, I have a theory. I think that real people, when faced with some minor social trauma such as the ones listed above, are actually better at dealing with the trauma than they think they are. You always hear about people who are worried that they won’t be able to do the right thing in an emergency: “I bet if I woke to find my apartment on fire, I would just be paralyzed with fear and die in the flames.” While some people might do this, the majority of us would just get the hell out of there—no screaming, no panicking, no drama.
Which is precisely the point: I was watching this documentary of sorts, expecting these real people to respond like they would respond in the movies. I was expecting one of the hardware store patrons to step up and exclaim, Schwarzenegger-like, “Hey, Buddy, you can’t do that here,” and muscle the offender out of the store like a moral majority bouncer. But that doesn’t happen too much in real life: there are few heroics, but thankfully also little dramatics. Most people just quietly go about their business, responding to stimulus in an adaptive and ultimately nonchalant way. The people exiting the escalator didn’t stop to ask themselves, “Why is this cone here? What is the nature of the cone?” They just got off as best they could and resumed their shopping at the mall. So Jackass: The Movie reveals both the good and bad of human behavior. We don’t stop to jerk a few tears out of our "audience" (thank goodness!), but sometimes, if the crisis is imminent, we also don’t stop to think; we just respond: “That snake is bad. Let’s kill it first and decide later whether or not it is poisonous.”
Angry, Part 2: It’s Really More About Being Humble & Chillin’
I was watching MTV’s 22 best voices of the decade or something like that a few weeks ago, and while I agreed with most of the selected “best voices,” I was particularly annoyed by something young actor Julia Stiles said while commenting on Kurt Cobain. I think she said, “I loved Nirvana when I was a kid—I was like, ‘Oh! I’m so angry!’ But now I realize that I had nothing to be angry about—I wasn’t starving or anything.” (This is a very loose paraphrase.)
The reason this pisses me off is because I am tired of people trying to belittle teenage angst. It’s real, and everyone experiences it to some degree, even if he or she grows up in the suburbs. (Sometimes especially if he or she grows up in the suburbs, as is seen in movies like American Beauty—there you go! I am confusing real life with the movies again!) It happens, and the suburbs or a privileged upbringing are not safeguards against teen anxieties and anger.
Why do so many intellectuals (and actors) feel the need to excuse their anger—I don’t mean excuse it by saying it wasn’t their fault, but excuse it by pretending that it has no validity? Just because you find out that there are true injustices and horrors in the world, such as slavery and child prostitution, does that erase the day-to-day difficulties that humans—even young humans—experience? I think not.
I think there is a lot of anger in the suburbs—there is a lot of anger everywhere. But in the suburbs, they have the most time to think about it. Maybe this is why we have heard of so many acts of violence and deranged social behavior happening among the “good” kids (I’m thinking specifically of the upper middle class neighborhood in the south where there was a huge incidence of syphilis among teenagers because they were engaging in orgies while their parents were away at work). Maybe if these kids had more homework to do or they had to go to work or they had more parental supervision, they wouldn’t be doing these things that we think are naughty and dangerous.
Okay, but back to Julia Stiles’ comment. First of all, Kurt Cobain and the other members of Nirvana used to really irritate me because they were always whining about the fact that the majority of their listeners were pre-teen suburbanites and therefore unworthy of their constituency. They longed for the days when they had a small group of hardcore, fucked up, and decidedly “alternative” listeners. Now that they found that the majority of their listeners were from an unfamiliar background, they did not know what to do with this information. Did it change the authenticity of the band? Were they no longer “alternative”?
Please. The reason so many people “found out” about Nirvana is because they were good. They should have known they were good and that lots of people—many people—wanted to listen to them. An artist can’t control his or her followers. Most musicians should realize that they are singing down the generations: Guns N’ Roses had the strongest following in the 13-22 year old category, even though all of the band members were way past this tender age, and the content of their lyrics was way inappropriate for that age (but anyway that doesn’t matter to me because it’s “supposed” to be fictional, even though in GNR’s case it was not); Britany Spears is probably 20 right now, and most of her listeners are under the age of 13. Why couldn’t Nirvana “get” this?
So in addition to being offended by the ignorance of Nirvana’s attitude in their heyday, I was also offended because I was one of the fans who was being summarily rejected by the band (and I wasn’t even a real fan—to me, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam are much better representatives from the high trinity of Grunge that transcended Seattle and moved in gushes across the US—the same kind of “Grunge” that bands are producing nowadays, but to call one’s band “Grunge” is the kiss of death—don’t get me started on that lunacy). As a teen suburbanite, I fit very nicely into their category of unworthy listeners.
Which is why I am so annoyed by Julia Stiles’ comment. I refuse to have my upbringing and yea, my very existence, negated or unauthenticated by yet another ignorant celebrity. Then some people will say, “What do you expect from celebrities? They have to think of a ‘good’ response at a moment’s notice, and anyway they are used to someone feeding them their lines.” But the two celebrities I mentioned are among the more “thinky” celebrities. Nirvana was a very thinky and certainly moody—therefore sufficiently-fucked-up-to-be-valid—band, and Ms. Stiles chooses films that are adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, so that’s smart, right? The point is that we do this to ourselves. Many people have suggested that the ones who rail the hardest against the suburbs (and the non-thinking flesh machines that they produce) are they themselves from the suburbs—and it becomes apparent that since these big brains were produced by the suburbs, then to think that the suburbs are primordial cess-pools of stupidity and conformity of thought is just bad logic. And to further complicate matters, I say it is conforming to mass thought to say that the suburbs are bad. After all, we’re the ones who thought this up in the first place, right?
It’s just good sense to realize that the smartest people aren’t the richest, but the richest people do produce some of the smartest ones. Why? Because of access and opportunity—decent public schools, good nutrition, trips to Europe, full rides to college without scholarship.
Don’t hate suburbia; embrace it instead. That’s what everyone is working toward (we all have some hard-working immigrant relatives in the not so distant past), and it’s not because of some mindless pre-programming (okay, maybe there’s a little of that, but the media doesn’t account for everything! Sheesh! Think for yourselves!). It’s because of a desire to live in a level of comfort (and yes, that sounds just like conformity) and security. These are basic human wants: a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of. Don’t malign your neighbors or your hood because of it.
Monday, June 02, 2003
But Nick Piombino, I kind of miss K. Silem Mohammad’s “categories.” I was willing to go along with the experiment, anyway. I don’t think they were hierarchies, necessarily—more like grouping and patterning, as the human mind is wont to do. But also the mind seems to see hegemony in the pattern, even though the mystery of the classes of airline tickets (ever flown “Y” or “H” class?) seems to me not offensive, just different. What about the colossal truth Dr. Seuss is spouting in his seminal classic, The Star-Bellied Sneetches? "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches / Had bellies with stars. / The Plain-Belly Sneetches / Had none upon thars."