Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On sleeping for a year and waking up in a storm

We're probably meant to feel horrified. A girl, who seemingly has everything, decides to escape from the world by sleeping for a year.

But I have to admit that I was strangely drawn to the main character's quest in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It's the biting language of the book, the dark humor, the thoroughly unlikeable, and yet, somehow sympathetic narrator, and the blurb on the flap that promises one of "the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature." 

I read the book in one day, curled on my own couch, laughing at times at the absurdity of the situation (can you really go to sleep for a year?) and wondering too, how to sign myself up, because really, who doesn't want to occasionally throw on Netflix and binge-watch a season of something while drifting in and out of reality? 

In the case of our narrator it's not Netflix, but a trusty VCR and an unending supply of movies to binge-watch. The year is 2000. She's just out of college, living in New York City, working at a pretentious job, basically playing the role of a bored snotty beautiful receptionist at a surreally weird art gallery. Her on again/off again boyfriend is an asshole but she keeps going back for more. Her best friend is an easy person to push around, over-the-top desperate and pathetic, but probably the only person in our narrator's life who genuinely cares about her since both of her parents died.

Oh, and there's that awful psychiatrist, eager to prescribe any and all medications to ensure this girl gets her sleep. 

I won't tell you the rest, but please, someone else read this so we can talk about it!

Warning about the next book:

There's a dog in it, that dies. I knew this going in, which is why the book sat on my bedside table for two years. I have a thing about dogs in books, specifically, dogs dying. The book in question won the National Book Award though, and I typically like to read those. The author Jesmyn Ward won a second National Book Award last year, so I couldn't deny the pull of the book any longer. 

An hour after closing Moshfegh's book, I jumped into Ward's. It's called Salvage the Bones, and oh my God. The writing. This is, I don't know what to call it exactly, Faulknerian? Luscious metaphorical language and description, a story and characters that grab you on the first page. 

It's twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and our main character is an African American girl, fifteen, newly pregnant, poor, living in the deep backwoods of Mississippi with her alcoholic father, her brothers, one of whom raises pitbulls to fight. The dog, Jesus God the beautiful dog, and these kids- the intense loyalty they have for each other, their determination to grow up, to survive, and all the while, 

there's this storm coming. 

After I read the book, practically shaking at the end when I knew what was going to happen but praying I was wrong, when I closed the book, wondering how I could feel not despair but somehow hope, and how in the world did Jesmyn Ward DO THIS? I looked up everything I could about her, 

listened to an interview she did after she won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I can assure you will not sit unread for long on my bedside table. She's made me question everything I thought I knew about our country, taking me by the hand gently and then slapping me upside the head,

waking me up from my privileged binge-watching reality into a world I didn't know existed but know now has always been here.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

The girl annoyed the heck out of me

Sometimes I fell into these battles with a student.

The boy who always skipped class. The girl who cheated on tests. The boy who cast a spell on my unborn child. We'd butt heads, with me using whatever meager authority I had as a teacher to win-- writing detentions, scolding, pestering. I am not proud to say that sometimes when a kid got on my last nerve, I humiliated him.

Most of these battles ebbed and flowed, lasting a few weeks, maybe a month, but not with this girl. She came late to class nearly every day, always with a note from the attendance principal.

The man was smart, a rule stickler (a good trait for an attendance principal) but there were warning signs. Once he physically assaulted a kid in the hallway for wearing a baseball hat.

But nothing came of it. Because, I don't know why. It was the 1990's.

He had a group of girls working for him, including my student. She sauntered around the school smiling with her hall pass. She was failing my class. No surprise, since she missed so much of it. One day, when she traipsed in at the end of the period, I lost it and snatched the pass out of her hand. I made a big dramatic show of stomping over to my desk and grabbing an envelope. I stuffed the pass inside and said, Here's where I'm keeping these, so when you fail, we'll all know why.

The envelope was bulging when the story broke that the assistant principal had been sexually abusing girls at the school. Including my student. He preyed on troubled girls. He made them feel special. In return, he let them help in the office. Wrote them passes to get them out of class.

One afternoon the girl and her mother came to my classroom. The girl's head was bowed when her mom said, My daughter told me you saved all of his hall passes... is that true?

She wasn't the only one who wanted to know. The school security guard, a friend of the attendance principal, (who was on leave pending an investigation) told me to give him the hall passes. I lied and said that stuff was at home. Then I rushed down to the office and made copies of everything. Later, two people from the district attorney's office pulled me out of class and took my deposition in the hallway. Turns out the hall passes and my attendance book were corroborating evidence.

At this point it was a media circus at our school. Reporters were camped out in front of the building, interviewing students. Some kids, as a joke, started a campaign to free the principal. They printed up T-shirts. What the man did to the girls became a subplot. A joke. Hardly anyone defended them. They were troubled girls. Girls with failing grades who came late to class.

At the end of the school year, I quit in exhaustion and disgust. Took a job at a private school. Moved out of state a year later. I shared my new address with the district attorney's office in case they needed me for a trial. No one ever contacted me.

The guy got away with it. The girls... well, what do you think?

But this was back in the 90's. I'm sure nothing like this would happen today.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Not a Lamp Post (or, why I am voting for Rick Neal)

The first time I met the guy, I was at the library.

My husband and I were attending a presentation about climate change put on by a professor from Ohio State University. Before the presentation started, the moderator mentioned that Rick Neal, a candidate for Congress in Ohio District 15, was in the audience.

My husband leaned over and whispered. Do you know anything about him?

I whispered back, No. And I don't care. He could be a lamp post and I'd still vote for him.

a lamp post is NOT running for Congress in Ohio District 15

I was joking. (kinda)

Of course I was still mad because the guy presently holding the seat had called me and several hundred others of his constituents paid agitators. He called us that because we all went to a town hall to find out why he was voting to take away affordable healthcare, and he didn't show up. And instead of being a good leader and decent human being, and maybe saying, "Hey, I know that not everyone agrees with my position, but here's what it is,"

he mocked us.

Mocking is a thing he has done more than once. 

Also, he said that healthcare is not a right. He took money from payday loan companies, and is fighting to bring those companies back into the state even though he is a veteran and knows that payday loan companies prey on veterans and their families. He voted for a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, and now that the deficit is ballooning, he wants to cut Medicare and Social Security. 

Honestly, a lamp post would do a much better job representing the district. At the very least, a lamp post would not hurt anyone.

I went up to talk to Rick Neal after the library presentation. Without thinking about it, I blurted out that he could be a lamp post and I would still vote for him. Rick Neal laughed.

So, he has a sense of humor.

Also, he's a former Peace Corp volunteer, an international healthcare worker who helped in Africa during the Ebola crisis. A dad of two little girls. A guy who believes that healthcare is a right and that people deserve a living wage. He doesn't take any money from payday loan companies or from ANY corporations, and he would not cut Medicare and Social Security.

At the moment he's on a listening tour, meeting with as many constituents as he can in our district, from town halls to regular people's living rooms. I have bumped into him myself at least five times. The last time he told me that he had challenged the present congressman to five debates. After several weeks thinking about it, the present congressman agreed to two.

Something unfortunate: This is a gerrymandered district, which means that the boundaries are manipulated to favor the present congressman. It's why he doesn't need to show up at town halls or listen to his constituents, why he doesn't even worry about mocking some of us.

Last time he ran in an election, 66 percent of the people in the district voted for him.

But here is something he may not know: I was one of the 66 percent! And now I would rather vote for a lamp post!

Thank goodness, there is a much much better choice.

Rick Neal, for Congress, Ohio District 15

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Riding in cars with boys

I was sixteen. I don't remember the day, or even the time of the year. But I can tell you what I was wearing. My school uniform.

I can tell you I was walking home from school, out early because I didn't have class the last period of the day and I hated school and would rather walk two miles home than stay for an extra period and wait for the bus. 

The boy who picked me up was someone I'd known since freshman year. He was in my homeroom. I was friends with his girlfriend, but that girl and I had had a falling out. Did I want a ride? Sure! Thanks!

I don't remember what we talked about on the ride to my house, but I do remember the boy pulling over suddenly and lunging on top of me. It was weird how calm he was, how insistent. This was what he wanted and it was going to happen. My mind was racing. He was a big guy. There didn't seem to be a way to physically fight him off, so I tried reasoning with him, talking about his girlfriend and how she would feel. Talking about my boyfriend, who I said was waiting for me right this minute and would wonder where I was-- not true--  but thankfully, it broke the spell. 

The guy let me go and I stumbled out of his car. We saw each other in school, of course, the next day and the next. He never acknowledged what he tried to do. I ran into him a few other times over the years and it was the same. Maybe he didn't remember. 

For the record, even though this happened thirty-five years ago, I know who the guy is. I mean, really, do you honestly think I would forget?

I don't tell this story to elicit sympathy. It's just a thing that happened. There were other things that happened, when I was younger, when I was older, things that were far worse. I wonder if that is why I wasn't entirely surprised when the boy jumped on top of me. I wasn't terrified. I wasn't angry. If I had a feeling at all, it was weariness.

Age sixteen, I had already learned that some boys do this sort of thing. Grab a girl because that is what they want to do. No point making a fuss about it.

Thirty-five years later I've changed my mind. Now, don't worry. I'm not going to out the man. Although, I admit I feel a twinge of satisfaction imagining him reading this and stressing about it. I almost feel sorry for him.

Without much warning the world he ruled is shifting. He wonders: Maybe I'm not allowed to grab girls anymore?

Although a case can be made that he can still get away with it. Some men (and some women too) will rush in to defend him, throw out the same tired lines. Boys will be boys. It didn't really happen. Or if it did happen, it was a long time ago. It wasn't a big deal.

But it might be enough to make him pause. He can feel it, the hold he has on the world loosening, even as he scrabbles to cling tighter. He has to work harder to defend himself these days, yell louder. It's almost as if he knows, deep down, his time is nearly up.

The ride, it's over.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

On Kindness, Friendship, and Rage: Three Books I Love This Week

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken. 

Adrian Simcox tells everyone who will listen about his beautiful horse, but classmate Chloe knows that he's lying and she sets out to logically prove it, only to realize that she's hurt Adrian in the process and that he may have a horse after all...

This book reminds me of the old classic The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which depicts a similar dynamic-- a poor, imaginative girl trying to fit in with her disapproving, mean-girl classmates. I read that one over and over as a kid, feeling the sting each time when the girls learn the truth and are rightfully ashamed. 

Something nice about the ending of this one: the shame is softened by the possibility of a friendship. 

Friendship is at the heart of Kat Yea's The Way to Bea; specifically, it's the loss of friendship and all of the confusion and heartbreak that go along with that familiar rite of middle school passage. Seventh grader Beatrix copes by writing haikus, listening to her playlists, and reluctantly (at first) joining the school newspaper. There she meets a quirky boy obsessed with mazes.

Lots going on in this one about the awkwardness of growing up and growing apart, some hints at parental neglect (Bea's parents are preoccupied with work and expecting a new baby), the power of words and books, and a fun (and somewhat scary) side plot about getting lost in a maze. 

(Don't worry, it all works out) 
It does not all work out in Courtney Summers' new novel Sadie.

This book pretty much killed me. I read it in two nights, filled with growing feelings of rage and grief. The book begins with a podcast about a dead girl and her missing sister, Sadie. What follows is the story of Sadie's quest to find her sister's killer, alternating with updating segments of the podcast. 

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first that this structure would work, fearing that the podcast would interrupt the flow of the narrative. 

I was wrong. Sadie's story builds with such a ferocity, I found that the podcast gave me a chance to catch my breath. 

And you need to catch your breath with this one. You know how there's this thing lately in the news where suddenly, as a society, we are arguing over whether or not to believe women?

Well, guess what, I do believe women, and I am enraged that we are still even having this discussion. If you are one of those skeptical people who wonders what all the fuss is about, read Sadie. 

And then get back to me. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The roof is higher than it was the last time

I was up here. I have a thing about ladders. Going up isn't so bad, throwing your leg up and over. It's the climbing down that gets me. I have to brace myself. Look straight ahead. Imagine myself already on the ground.

In the meantime I stay low, inch my way up to the roof peak and down the other side, keeping in the narrow strip of shade. Did I mention we've picked the hottest weekend of the year to paint the house? Why did we decide to do this again? my husband asks.

(Because we never hire people to do things we can do ourselves)
(Because we're cheap)
(Because we're idiots)

I like this paint color. Brownish gray. Once I get over my initial terror on the roof, I settle into a rhythm. Dip the brush into the can, scrape off the excess, smear it onto the house. I can see all of my drippy mistakes from the last time I was up here ten years ago,

when we'd only recently moved here and the house was royal blue. We went for a more muted tan color, priding ourselves on wrapping up the entire project over Labor Day weekend. This year, I can already tell we won't hit that goal. Ten years from now...

yeah. We're probably going to hire out.

I can see my garden from up here. The asparagus plants I planted on a drizzly cold spring day, my son watching from the porch, laughing when I told him that it might be seven years before we'd have a good crop of asparagus. But I'll be in college by then, he said. I don't know about him, but I couldn't imagine that. Now

he's been through college and out. He lives on the opposite side of the country, not here to eat the asparagus, which truth be told, never took root or spread how it was supposed to. I planted sixteen plants and today there's only two left.

Recently, I cut one perfect stalk and ate it standing right where I'd plucked it. Stretched out around me were the raised beds planted with food that grows way better than asparagus. Lettuce, for example, which is set in rows, now hiding the spot where my daughter once practiced hitting a tetherball.

The spring I planted the asparagus she was obsessed, wanting to master the game the kids at her new school were playing. But it was a brief obsession. By fall, when she started middle school, my husband took down the tetherball pole and built the raised garden beds. I do this a lot

flip back and forth in time

see myself digging asparagus holes in raw drizzle, hear my son's laugh and my daughter's smack of a ball, and me, on a roof, painting over the past, bracing myself for the climb down.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Battling through Writer's Block

I hate to use the word battle. 

I want to be the kind of writer who takes joy in the process and approaches the day's writing as Play. The Julia Cameron Artist's Way writer who pampers my Artist-Child Within by taking myself on solo dates to museums and collecting pretty stones and making collages of exotic travel destinations and  setting up altars to my Dreams and decorating my work space with objects that bring me happiness.

(For the record I have done all of those things.)

And it makes sense on some level that treating your work as play can quiet the editorial voice in your head and counteract your innate perfectionism, 

the perfectionism that ends with you writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over, treading water in the same scene for weeks, unable to move on because it's not RIGHT and what if you can't finish this revision and what if you can't write anymore period and who cares anyway, and

what is the point of this story again? 

But all of this nonsense was leading me into the same dead end place that it's always led me. Exhaustion. Crankiness. Self-pity. Plus, it's boring. 

So, after a while, I realize again what I always realize, which is that I write because that is what I do and sometimes thinking about it as Play (and palm tree collages and glossy stones and coconut scented candles in the office) is just not going to cut it. 

No. Some days it is a battle. It is a War of Art.  It is you sitting down for your day's work. No excuses. No whining. No fiddling or procrastinating. No striving toward perfection. 

And not getting up until the work is done. 

(For the record: I have reworked 20 pages of my manuscript this week. And today I will rework 5 more.)