Friday, January 31, 2020

Dark days in America and a pinprick of light

I don't want to write about the dark days, how even in this month of limited news and no social media, I know all of the details of the impeachment trial, how it's all been a foregone conclusion anyway--that some people get to do whatever they want in this country and get away with it.

Because this is too dark to contemplate. 

Instead, what I want to write about is the party I went to a few nights ago. It was a party thrown by strangers, at a place where I suspected I would know no one, except for the person who sent me the invitation (and she wasn't the host). I got lost on the way there. It was dark and the people throwing the party lived in a loopy-maze-like subdivision. Several times on the drive over, I considered going home,

because it was a week night and I'd worked all day, and I didn't know these people! Also, I forgot to mention that the party wasn't really a party party, but more of a Meet the New Candidate for District 16 in the Ohio Statehouse Senate Race kind of party. And that night, lost in the dark-loopy-maze, a party like that didn't sound like any party I wanted to attend.

Also, I had just realized that because of my recent move (a mere ten minutes away from my old house), I no longer live in District 16.

Still, I had rsvp-ed and there was the house, at last, the lights on, the people, through the windows, chattering away about a candidate that I would never be able to vote for.

I took a breath, decided I'd stay for a few minutes, write a small check, and creep back out of there and, hopefully, find my way home without getting lost again.

The first person I met in the doorway was the candidate herself. (I didn't know this and just chatted with her--she seemed nice!-- and then noticed her nametag.) I told her I wished I could vote for her and joked that I hoped I could still donate money. I could! she said. And then it was off to see if this shindig had any wine.

They did not. But they did have water in plastic cups and a nice spread of food and shuffling around the table, strangely enough, were quite a few familiar faces. The resistance in central Ohio tends to show up in the same places, I've noticed. But also, there were several regular patrons I know from my job at the library and we blinked at each other, awkwardly, in the same way my high school students and I used to when we bumped into each other at Kroger.

I ran into the woman who'd invited me and she introduced me to her friends, telling them (and reminding me) that the first time she and I met was in the office of our congressman when she cried to his aide about how her nephew was going to lose healthcare if our congressman voted against the Affordable Care Act, and the aide told us that the congressman believed that healthcare was not a right but a privilege.

What an asshole, I said, and the woman looked stricken and I realized I don't really know her so maybe I shouldn't be swearing in her face. 

Maybe this was my time to write my small check and get the hell out of here. But as I headed into the living room, I was trapped by the group of party-goers, now all settling in to listen to the candidate speak.

Her name is Crystal Lett, in case you happen to live in Ohio Statehouse Senate District 16, and she talked about how her first child was born with special needs and she had to quit her job to care for him, and part of caring for him was to spend time with insurance companies and it had worn her out but luckily there was the CHIP program (the Children's Health Insurance Program--part of Medicaid) but the president and his cronies had put it on the chopping block, so for months her child's fate and the fate of several hundred thousand other Ohio children was up in the air.

She had started speaking up about that and our Democratic senator Sherrod Brown invited her to speak in Washington and after a long battle, CHIP was restored. Crystal Lett said it was the most grueling and gratifying thing she had ever done in her life, so when Sherrod Brown asked her if she'd ever thought about running for office, she paused and then considered...

And here she was now, running in what is probably the only competitive district in the state of Ohio but energized and ready to fight for all people in our state. And then her campaign manager, who Crystal had mentioned was 23 years old, stood up and gave an impassioned speech too and by then I was sort of wishing I still lived in District 16 just so I could vote for Crystal Lett.

It occurred to me as I was writing my check in the kitchen and talking to the interns on Crystal's campaign staff that all of them were college age or just barely out and all of the people at this party were old (I count myself in the old category) but here we were all together-- the young people energized and excited to work on a campaign and the old people providing the water in plastic cups and the checks, our names on Crystal's email list and ready to be called for service in the fall, to knock on doors and write postcards and make calls.

On my way out the door I thanked Crystal for her inspiring speech and wished her luck, said goodbye to the interns and the library patrons and the new people I'd met and headed out into the dark night.

I put my home address into my gps and didn't get lost once.

Crystal Lett needs your vote in Senate District 16

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Updates from the Social Media Detox. Also a word about what's good.

Okay I cheated a few times, glancing at the news and then immediately wishing I hadn't, but no hops onto social media, except to look at an update from a group I belong to, when I noticed I had 68 notifications, which I am proud to say that I ignored.

I realized I spend a lot of time clicking on my phone out of habit, and if I'm not looking at social media, I'm looking at something else. The quality of sleep I had according to my Fitbit, or the status of my reserves on my library card, or the weather for the next five days.

To combat this ding-dong-y impulse-clicking, I've sprinkled books and magazines and reading glasses around the house (ie. the bathroom).

Which helped me read three books and listen to three more.

Also, I painted the master bedroom closet and it's so beautiful and pristine and fresh-smelling and orderly that all I want to do now is stand inside and admire it.

And I called a friend I hadn't talked to in three years and we talked for two hours and vowed never to go so long between catching up ever again.

And I organized the linen closet and binge-watched the show Fleabag, which is hilarious and brilliant and heartbreaking, and discovered a new restaurant with my husband and toured a place downtown called the Idea Foundry, where you can play around on 3-d printers and laser cutters, and I took my mother out to lunch and I wrote 8655 words on my book.

A few days ago, I did a presentation for my writing group on goals and inspiration and lost myself in the making of it-- tallying up all of the writing I'd done over the years and what did it all lead to and why have I chosen to spend my time mulling over ideas and writing draft after draft and submitting and collecting rejections and returning to my laptop to start all over again, story after story, which may or may not ever go out into the world...

After the presentation a man in the audience raised his hand and asked if I thought all of those books that never sold were any good. I think what he was implying was that if I thought the books were good, why didn't I just go ahead and publish them myself?

I stammered a little about how I'm more interested in traditional publishing than in self-publishing, but now I wished I'd tried to answer the actual question,

if I thought my books were good.

Putting aside the fact that the question is kind of snotty (I mean, yeah, I think my books are good. WTH?), it also assumes that the end result of a book, as a thing that can be sold and earn money for the author, a thing that can win awards and appear on a bestseller list--is why writers do what they do.

And maybe it IS why some writers do what they do.

It certainly is nice to have a book on a shelf, an award sticker, a royalty check, but in the end, if you're a writer, you're going to sit down again after your book is a finished thing and you're going to begin working on the next story and the next and the next.

So here's the real question:

Is this a good way to spend your time?

In this world of social media and never-ending news, a non-stop whirl of entertainment specifically designed to grab your attention and keep it, a halt in that whirl, a willful pause to sit for an hour in front of a keyboard is an act of defiance

and joy.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Snooping Tales

Two weeks-ish away from my phone, and I have found that I am listening more to the people I am with.

Also I am listening more to the people I am not with. Yes, I am talking about eavesdropping. This is an old habit of mine that I'd actually forgotten about, probably because I'd stopped doing it. Stuck in a grocery store line, during lulls in a conversation at a party, sitting alone at a restaurant-- these potential moments of boredom are when I will invariably pick up my phone.

But before I owned the dumb phone, it was prime eavesdropping time. My ears would perk up and I'd tilt my head toward whatever conversation had grabbed my interest, sometimes blatantly, apparently, because my kids used to get on me about it. It's nosy, they said. And rude.

I argued it was a good practice for being a writer-- observing human interactions, analyzing the flow of dialogue, making judgments about food selections in the grocery cart... Okay. Maybe I was being a little nosy.

And the information I gleaned didn't always lead anywhere interesting.

I couldn't help myself though. I used to write in cafes. Various Paneras. A Starbucks near the kids' school. One year I went there nearly every day right after I dropped the kids off and would park it in the same seat until it was time to pick them up.

I'd open my laptop and work on whatever I was working on. Whenever I hit a wall in my story, my mind would drift over to the political conversation the professors were having over in the comfy chair section. Or to the grandmother sitting very primly with her granddaughter, prodding the kid to do her homework and plying her with hot cocoa and cookies. The young woman curled up in the chair across from me, opening up creamer container after creamer container into her cup of ice.

I started to think of all these people as my characters. The professors were retired, I decided, and trying to remain relevant in the world, but how could they, sitting in a Starbucks all day? The grandmother was secretly annoyed at having to babysit for the granddaughter and why couldn't the kid figure out her damn homework on her own? The young woman with the creamers was beautiful and tragic-looking, always on the verge of tears. Possibly she was a college student, an artist, a bohemian type who got her inspiration from creating her own beverages.

It took me months of half watching her to realize that she was homeless and possibly mentally ill. Actually, I learned that from eavesdropping on the Starbucks clerks who were debating if it was okay for them to stop giving the woman free cups of ice into which she was emptying the (pilfered) creamer containers.

The answer, they ultimately decided, was yes. The woman ended up locking herself in the bathroom. There was a discussion about whether to call the police. The professors tsked tsked over the drama.  The prim grandmother ushered her granddaughter out quickly. I pretended to be writing, but really I was torn up.

Why couldn't they just let the woman sit around and drink her icy milk? And now that she was officially kicked out of the Starbucks, where would she go?

But over time I forgot about the woman. I forgot about my old eavesdropping habit.

Last week I went out to lunch with my husband and during a pause in our own conversation, when he picked up his phone, I started listening to the women at a nearby table. One of them was telling what sounded like a riveting story, as evidenced by her hushed tone and the other women leaning in closer to listen.

I leaned over closer to listen too. Something about a guy who'd gone to jail and who had been cheating on his wife. Money laundering was involved. Hardened criminals were coming after the guy and it was all going out of control. My husband put his phone down and tried to resume our conversation, but I shushed him. I was worried over how everything was going to turn out over at the other table.

The woman telling the story was winding down. It's crazy, she said. No kidding! I was thinking. And then one of the other women at the table said, So what channel is this show on?

Netflix, the woman said.

When my husband and I left the restaurant, I quickly caught him up on the story. What show was it? he asked me. It sounds good.

I don't know, I told him. I stopped listening.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Take my phone. Please.

The joke over the summer around my house was me misplacing my phone (a daily, sometimes, multiple-times-per-day occurrence). Whenever it happened, my daughter would sing the line from that glorious Lizzo song Where the hell's my phone?

Then we'd do the iPhone Find My iPhone search and a buzz would come from under the couch cushions or buried deep inside my purse and everyone would laugh and I'd say something like, too bad I can't glue my phone to the side of my head so I can keep track of it better, sort of like in the novel Feed, by M. T. Anderson, where people basically have their phones implanted in their brains.

(It's no joke, Mom, my son told me recently. That's totally the next step in phone technology.)

My son is also the one who told me that our dependence on our phones and on social media in general is similar to the addictive feeling we get from gambling.

I believe him. Each click on a website -- checking Likes on a post, searching for funny memes and videos -- gives us a little surge of endorphins, just enough to keep us clicking, and just enough of a charge to ignore the fact that most of what we're digesting is silly or stupid or in many cases toxic and evil. Side note: we are now, in this country, getting a real time civics lesson in how government propaganda works.

(Don't believe me? Reread the passage in 1984 where the main character is told that Qasem Soleimani has always been his country's number one enemy. Um, I mean the passage where he's told that his country has always been at war with Eastasia.)

I don't want my phone attached to my brain.

I don't want it in my hand all of the time either. How did something that didn't even exist for me ten years ago become such an addiction?

The answer goes back to the gambling thing and it's why I'm glad I don't live near a casino. But here's something funny: I do live near a casino. There's one in Columbus and I don't even know exactly where. I don't have to be a slave to my phone.

I don't have to continue to consume media passively and uncritically either.

Anyway, this month, as an experiment, I'm setting aside my phone-- for everything except it's original use: talking on it. (and okay, texting/messaging, because it is the only way my kids communicate with me). I'm also limiting my time on social media.

If you need me, call me. I promise I will answer the phone.

If I can find it.