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Yesterday on the way to his preschool, my son noticed a small collection of headstones in a churchyard in town. He asked questions. I gave answers. A few minutes later, we got out of the car, I kissed him goodbye, and went on my way. Four hours later, I picked him up, and after racing him through the parking lot three times (we need to do this), he got in the car and said, “Mommy, tell me a story about you and me in a graveyard with a vampire.”
The story wasn’t that good; I’m tired of vampire stories. I’ve been telling them for a few weeks now. Dracula has become a toothless (literally), slightly whiny character who rescues us from werewolves.
Then he said to me, “Mommy, are there any big graveyards? Really big ones?” My first thought was the one off The Garden State Parkway, the one that stretches for as far as the eye can see on both sides, but that would take too long to get to. A friend suggested I take him to North Arlington, the town known for having more dead residents than live ones. As an added incentive, he threw in the fact that we could drive by landfills and see the Manhattan skyline (and the Meadowlands Commission, which, Meadowlands jokes aside, is supposed to be cool, nature-wise). Sadly, that was also too far away, considering the time.
So we found another one closer to home. Yes, we found another cemetery to visit. In fact, he was asleep when we first arrived so I drove through and then out again. Then we went back after he woke up. Then we drove around one more time to “measure it.” The landscapers must have thought I was casing the joint.
I have to say if I’m going to “review” the cemetery, it didn’t really measure up for me. The headstones were perfectly aligned in long even rows, almost all the stones were the same size and color. It had no character, no history. I was a little disappointed, but cemeteries aren’t there for my entertainment. It worked for the four year-old with me. He asked me what the stones said, and where the people were and how they got under there. And were we standing on them right now? Uh, kind of. The cemetery was Catholic, so he took plenty of opportunities to ask about “Jesus’ mom,” but was surprisingly lacking in curiosity about Jesus hanging from a cross. When we got home, he immediately constructed a cemetery out of blocks while singing a song about his toy knight.
In case anyone’s wondering, the evening unfolded in an otherwise conventional fashion.
So last week I wrote a post about a joke I didn’t bother telling and I talked somewhere in there about how I hate the thought of being misunderstood. My friend and steadfast supporter, Heather (who approved this message), commented (I’m paraphrasing) that she thought that sounded limiting. I tried to explain what I think I’m doing here. An exchange ensued…in her last comment she asked me a whole bunch of questions. They were good questions, but not easy ones, about why I write the way I do. In order to answer them honestly I had to run the risk of sounding as if I was criticizing every process that wasn’t like mine. (I’m not going to repeat them all here, because y’all can just go there and see how it all plays out.)
I had a whole mess of choices: I could have answered her in an email and said, “Damn, woman…I don’t give a sweet flaming goddamn how anyone else writes or why.” She would have laughed. But I had to answer her here, too. I could have answered her here that way, but the person landing here out of nowhere (and it appears there are a couple of those) might have read that and thought: “Wow, tough room…” Also, I had this weird sense that if I answered Heather instead of Heather’s questions, it would all start to feel like a private discussion. That’s not what we’re doing here. So I aimed for the middle: I answered the questions, while trying not to sound like two pals chatting alone.
Then this morning I get an email from Heather, the gist of which was: “Did my comments make you mad? You sound mad.” Had I been standing in front of her I would have burst out laughing, but you can’t do that in email. The same woman who had suggested I worried too much about how other people “read” me was totally misunderstanding my writing. See the gag there? It’s not that funny, but it does prove my point.
What I was trying to say was what I do here and why I do it has no bearing on anything else that’s ever written anywhere. I don’t think I’m all that good at this, nor do I think I’m right about much. I do know I like to write, so I practice it, at least on the days when I don’t feel like writing is sucking my ego down some giant drain pipe. I’m never going to be that person who will bear my soul on here, nor will I be someone who lays out huge philosophical thoughts worthy of long, heated discussions. That’s why I click away from here, so you all can do that, and I can watch from the safety of my house. I’m doing my thing, you all do your thing and we’ll all read each other wrong together. It’s got a strange and horrifying beauty to it, don’t you think?
The joke was about Snooki. Yesterday, I saw a post on Yahoo about “popular Halloween costumes” and saw a woman dressed as Snooki from Jersey Shore (big hair, boobs merely framed by the neckline of her dress) and I almost posted this line on Facebook: “This year, for Halloween, I’m going to dress up as Snooki.” The joke was on me, on the mathematical impossibility that I would ever wear something that short/tight/low-cut, or do that to my hair, or any number of other things that characterize Snooki. The joke was that there are few women I am less similar to. I hate dressing up, I can’t stand being in costume, even. And I really go berserk at the thought of calling attention to myself on any physical level beyond being recognizable as a human. I’m kinda shy that way. I was all set to click “Share” when it occurred to me that what could happen after I clicked and walked away for a couple of hours, was that someone would take that as an invitation to talk about the details that make Snooki, well, Snooki.
I don’t actually know anything about Snooki, I’ve just seen her photo and heard a few things about her. Her name’s fun to say, as long as I’m right that it rhymes with “cookie”. I’ve never heard it uttered. Okay, I read the interview with her dad in The New York Times, mostly because I was wondering what the hell the Times would do with it.
At any rate, the joke. What I imagined, just before I decided not to post it, was a string of comments about Snooki. Nasty comments. Evil comments. Because at this point, she’s an easy shot. (Maybe she’s always been an easy shot, who knows.) So I didn’t post it. And maybe some of them might have been funny, if they weren’t attached to an actual person. (Yes, I contend she’s an actual person, no matter how she behaves on camera.)
Every once in a while I hear myself say something I wish I hadn’t. I take a joke too far, just because it’s there–the wordplay–and I can’t resist it. It’s either too dark, too blue, and very rarely it’s too personal. When it is, I can’t stand it, and when I’m the one who’s made it, I immediately wish I could fall into a hole. I can talk my way out of the ill-timed gallows humor and the sex joke, but I get truly squirmy when jokes are about real people. Unless it’s about me; I can handle most jokes about me.
The thing is, had I made the Snooki joke to someone in person, I would have had some control over it. The minute the conversation swerved in her direction, I could have stopped it, made it clear it was about me, not her.
Lest anyone think I’m fretting over something completely inconsequential, let me make this clear: the point here isn’t about protecting Snooki’s good name, it’s about relinquishing control over my intended meaning. In fact, as I’ve been writing this, I’m wondering about all the ways this could be misinterpreted and it makes my head hurt. The other day I went on some snooty little vocabulary tirade that I usually never do, but I was cranky and felt like writing and I take full responsibility for being a brat. I’m not actually proud of that post, but it’s there. I don’t need to be proud of everything, do I? Maybe sometimes I need to teach myself a lesson: take my fingers off the keyboard. I didn’t the other day, and I’ll live with it. Sometimes I’m a real jerk, so there. Writing is weird that way. Or, writing this way is weird–unpredictable. A little scary, even. Scarier, even–some days–than Snooki.
I hate lists, but I need to make one:
- This sketchbook thing may be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had, but now I feel like I need to do it. Also, whatever I do will leave whoever looks at it believing I’m completely insane in a not-so-harmless way.
- I finished that Stephen Asma book On Monsters. I don’t feel like I learned anything and I kinda feel like he was grasping for both relevance and ideas at the end, especially when I saw the photo of bin Laden. I’m now reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and I’m totally freaked out. You want to scare me? Wipe out most of the human race. Also, it kind of inspires me, writing-wise. See first bullet point.
- Can we discuss a picky language thing? Apologies to readers who do this, but I wish members of the English-speaking public would stop using the word “hysterical” when they mean “hilarious.” For the love of the English language and out of respect for the truly, clinically hysterical, cut it out. It drives me crazy. It may even drive me to actual hysteria one day. In fact, it actually sounds like hysteria in my head when I hear someone say, “You’re/That’s hysterical!” as a compliment. (Not knowing other languages well enough, I can’t scold non-English speakers, and yes, there are more heinous offenses, but this is the one I’m talking about now. It’s my blog. Sit tight.) I’m not even comfortable with something being “hysterically funny.” I mean, picture it: someone says something we find funny–I mean funny–and one or all of us laughs so hard we’re screaming and running down the street in a mob, completely oblivious to behavioral norms, rational thought, and other social cues. Really? No one’s that funny, I don’t think, but if it turns out there’s someone out there who is they should be discussed in the next edition of Stephen Asma’s book and carted off to prison, because they’re a threat to society. Okay, I’m done now. (Readership deflates to approximately one.)
- Honestly, that last bullet point is the only one I wanted to write, but I kind of felt like I had to keep up with the other things I’ve thrown out here lately. Next time, less ranting, and more attempts at intelligence, coherence, and other qualities that might bring you all closer rather than drive you away with a stick.
–Charlie Brooker, from The Guardian
(Thanks to Hima for the link. I think…)
When I was about nine I became convinced that if I wished hard enough, or said my prayers right, Donny and Marie would be waiting in my closet when I woke up the next morning. I loved Donny and Marie. I loved the outfits, the skates, the terrible hair, the awful jokes. I loved their smiles. Regardless, it didn’t take long for me to figure out this was a ridiculous thing to spend my time on. First of all, we lived in a condo; my closet was small, there was no way they’d fit in there. Yes, that was my first point of doubt. Second–as if there needed to be a second–we lived in Massachusetts, and not in Boston, but way out in the suburbs, off a highway that was off a highway and then way down a road. And all the houses looked the same. They weren’t coming; I knew that. But I looked every morning and was always a little disappointed, even though right before I opened the door I’d think the nine year-old version of “What the hell am I going to do if there’s two grown people hiding in my closet? What kind of maniac does that?” For obvious reasons, I avoided telling this story to anyone until I was about 35.
Skip ahead. That’s all you need to know about that. It will come in handy later.
Yesterday, I got on a train at 7:30am and made my way to the Brooklyn Book Festival. I saw a lot of writers. A LOT. I sat through five hours of readings, panels, and Q and A’s. I came home with a whole new list of books I need to read. I’ve since emailed more writers I’ve never met. I politely ate something called a pupusa, and did so with a fork, while being rained on without either a coat or an umbrella. Then I bought “artisan” ice cream from a truck that had the most beautifully illustrated menu I’ve ever seen. It turns out I miss public transportation and busy sidewalks. By 3:45 I was fried, but there were two things that stuck with me.
First, Steve Almond read a piece about how his wife discovered Metallica when she was a kid and how she became obsessed with the song “Fade to Black” and how she eventually went from being a straight A student to a kid her parents didn’t recognize. I don’t know the song, and knowing now that it’s about a guy deciding to kill himself, I’m choosing to hold off, because ultimately that’s not my point and I also don’t feel like getting freaked out. What is the point is that as I was listening to him read, I got sort of lost in the fascination I always have with kids who felt like they could rebel to that extent. I never had that courage, or whatever someone would choose to call it. I can count the number of times I’ve raised my voice to my mother on one hand, and I never once yelled at my father, although they gave me plenty of good reasons to scream like a wild-eyed maniac at the top of my lungs.
I did run away once. Sort of. The summer before my senior year of high school, my dad and my stepmother had an argument that had, for some reason, moved out into the driveway. We were all out there, whichever of my step-siblings were home, and somehow we were all outside. It was a scary night, and at one point I was pacing and I paced all the way to the top of the driveway and realized no one had noticed, so I just kept walking. I walked to the T station near my house. It was nearly midnight, and I called a friend collect who lived at the end of the line, since the train was free in that direction. When I got to her house, the first thing I did was call home. My dad demanded to know where I was and I begged him to stop asking and just accept that I was okay, but I think I eventually told him. I couldn’t do it, just take off. I couldn’t run the risk of coming back the next day and finding out that they were done wondering where I’d gone.
My point is, there’s a part of me that wonders if I’d missed anything by never really telling my parents to shove it. Most people would say no, and in a hundred ways they’d be right, but there’s a way they’re wrong, too. I know it whenever I’ve had that feeling like I want to scream at the top of my lungs and curl up in a ball at the same time and I stand perfectly still because I can’t do both at once. That energy has to go someplace. Where?
Here’s the second thing that stuck with me. I was in a reading with Steven Millhauser and Cristina Garcia and Peter Straub, and they all got to talking about “realism”. Millhauser sounded miffed at the term. I’m paraphrasing here, but they all started talking about what constitutes realism and reality and asking why reality had to be defined in such restrictive terms. I thought of how I used to write what I considered realism, but yesterday I wondered, what if it was just a lack of imagination? One of the things that used to frustrate me about writing fiction is that everyone sounded the same. I wrote about the same conventional people doing the same conventional things with the same perfectly reasonable neuroses; I couldn’t get beyond essentially reporting what I saw. I got bored. I gave up.
So yesterday I wondered where my “Donny and Marie” side went. Of course part of me knows where it went. It went wherever things go that get you made fun of. For me, when I was nine, there was a lot to squeeze into that space, and frankly not all of it got archived, nor will it. As much as people to this day shake their heads at whatever kooky, out-left-field things come out of my mouth, I don’t mind being considered a little nuts. But I don’t write that way, or I haven’t. In fact, the way I write here is weirder than anything I bothered to write when I had the time and freedom to play. What the hell was stopping me? Or a better question would be, why didn’t I even know how to start? It’s not as if I forgot how to try to will famous people to surprise me by sneaking into my closets…
The other day I wrote about signing up to do The Sketchbook Project, which I’m completely unequipped for, but I’m doing it anyway because I’m too curious not to. It’s all connected, the festival and the sketchbook thing, and I don’t really care how, I just want to see what I do with it all. I don’t plan on running away, but I want to know what happens when you decide to do the thing you’re not known for doing. At this point, after writing all this business about dismembering Dressy Bessy and now C-list celebrities of the 1970′s, I feel a duty to myself, and to you poor people who have been reading this, to do something with it, to take it somewhere. All that energy has to go someplace. Where?
Look around here lately and you’ll see trees in full color, some already dropping their leaves. Right now, in fact, thanks to a hot, dry summer, we have more fall foliage than Vermont. The trees are stressed. Yesterday, I decided I was a tree.
The other day I saw a mention somewhere for the Brooklyn Book Festival, a free one-day thingy that will require me to leave my house at a foolish hour and to take a train, then a subway, for almost two hours, all to wait in line and maybe not see the readings I want to see, and look at books I can’t afford to buy right now. The truth is, I can hardly wait. I mean that. I’m counting the hours.
Also, maybe it’s that I’m writing more, or maybe it’s that I have a reasonably sane job and have more time to read, but all of a sudden I’m like a fan or something. The other day, I wrote to a writer I don’t know to tell him how much I like his journal. He actually wrote me back; he told me I’d made his morning. I could have said the same thing back to him, but that seemed like it would create a never-ending loop of “thank you” and “no, no, thank you” that would need to be nipped in the bud, most likely by him, which would leave me feeling like I’d called once too often. The point is, all of sudden I have this need to, like, engage with everybody. (The annoying use of “like” is meant to be intentionally annoying here.)
It’s surprising how satisfying it is to write to writers. The only other time I’ve ever written to total strangers is when I’ve written to members of Congress or something, an act that ought to make me feel like I’m doing something, but all it does is leave me curling my upper lip and feeling chilled when I get the form letter as a response. (This is not an invitation to discuss the uselessness of writing to Congress. In fact, this is an invitation not to talk about the uselessness of writing to Congress. Dig?) It seems like I’m winding up to some semi-grand conclusion about the worthiness of art over politics, but I’m not, or if I am I’m doing it accidentally. I’m not that philosophical, nor do I believe that all we need is more art, but I believe I need more art. Like those yellowing trees, the past few days I’ve realized I should be under a drought warning. As much as I love my family and my job and my friends, all I want is to disappear for a few hours into the noise and crowds and the grime (is there still grime in Brooklyn?) and listen for those sentences that make me sit back and sigh about how goddamn good they are.
Apparently, though, even that isn’t enough. This morning I found The Sketchbook Project. I’m no artist, nor do I care about anyone seeing the weird collections of stuff I might pick up and glue into a book, or doodle/scribble/scrawl, but I’m doing it anyway. It says “anyone” can do it. Besides, I believe in public art. I believe in funky attempts to build a community where there may not have been one before, like this. I believe in letting people try something new. I believe in not teaching them, but just letting them play until they figure it out for themselves. (Not always, but sometimes.) I believe in throwing it up against the wall and seeing what sticks. I don’t always live this way. That’s why I sent away for a sketchbook, for another place to put the things I don’t know what to do with, and because there are four books I want to read right now (in addition to the twenty more that are on my mind), and there’s too much that I don’t want to lose track of. I picked the theme “Adhere to Me”–an odd choice, since it sounds like a more intimate phrase than I’d want to deal with, but it’s a question that picks at me these days. How much can I absorb and disseminate? What will it all be? How will I do it?
Then again, if I send it off to the Brooklyn Art Library (what is it with me and Brooklyn this week?) I have to let go of whatever’s in there, which is a neat, but unsettling thought–not just the letting go, and the making it public part, but the question of how much of what I do in there will be shaped by the notion (anxiety/desire) that I’ll share it, or choose not to at the last minute? (Or even the first minute.) Let’s not pretend I won’t play chicken with the idea all the way through. I will; I won’t. I will. I won’t. It’s a question we all have to ask nowadays, anyway–or should, but I know we either ask it too much or not at all, and usually at the wrong times. So that’s why I’m doing it–that’s, I suppose, why I’m doing all of this. I seem to have inadvertently started throwing a whole lot of stuff against the wall lately. I want to see what sticks.
For the end of summer, a list:
1. Over Memorial Day, my son developed a habit of running out of our house and up the street as the sun was setting, the same time his peers were going to bed. Over Labor Day, he went to bed without incident, after spending the first half of his day on a hay wagon in a parade where he was followed by a loud, but fantastic Caribbean marching band that left him looking dazed in a way that in the past would have sparked a massive tantrum. Over Memorial Day, my son began throwing large objects down flights of stairs when he didn’t get what he wanted; over Labor Day, he asked for things kindly and accepted the answer. The path to this point is too complicated to outline here, but it has a lot to do with envisioning the day as tiny discrete moments rather than one long string of events that all build on each other. This is not an attempt to be deep, but it may accidentally serve as advice.
2. My brother-in-law started his second round of chemotherapy right after my husband came to visit him and had his wallet stolen, and their sister’s trip to see them both was thwarted by a misspelled name on a passport that had gone unnoticed by everyone but airport officials. I have tried not to make jokes about their family’s share of unfathomable bad luck. The effort is sometimes physically painful, no matter how much I desperately wish there were no occasion for such an inane internal struggle.
3. My vegetable garden has weeds that come up to my waist. I’m chalking that up in part to items 1 and 2, but also resolving next year to move the vegetable-growing closer to the house. Also, I am done with trying to grow brussels sprouts, dammit.
4. While vacationing in Vermont last week, three nights in a row I was woken up by the sound of owls hunting. That may be the eeriest sound I’ve ever heard and I miss it more than I thought I would.
5. Where I live has no respect for good bread. Also, farms. We think they do, but we’re wrong. We treat bakers of non-frosted food and farmers like old dottering aunts who need to be smiled at politely until they finally die and we can finally make room for someone better at the dinner table. This makes me angry. It makes me angrier when I’m hungry.
6. Comparatively speaking, I’m never hungry.
7. This list is inspired by Steve Almond, who made a list on TheRumpus.net last week on a topic I can’t recall because I read a lot of TheRumpus.net last week. This is a strong hint to those of you reading this. Those folks are doing good stuff. Bookmark it. Or at least look at it.
8. I’ve been writing a lot lately and it makes me happier than when I haven’t been writing a lot. I have no idea what most of it is for, like this list for instance, but I’ve stopped caring, which also makes me happier. The funny thing is, I feel more strongly that it might have a purpose than I have in a long time. Also, writing all by myself makes me feel closer to people than not writing and spending all my time with people instead.
9. I miss my friends. Although I might not miss them quite as much as I would have if they had come to see me. Location is everything.
10. I am still trying to get through this stupid book on monsters, On Monsters, a title that seems fun to repeat here. Because it’s taken me so long to read it, it has now become a “stupid book,” but I’m not sure if this is really true. I wish I were reading the book about James Bond that my husband thinks I should read, which is funnier and less dependent on footnotes and ancient Greek philosophers.
11. In a little more than an hour, I return to my regular, less-examined life, will bring my brain back to life, and will probably be done with lists for a while. Also, I just noticed this list goes to eleven, but probably not the way I wish it did.