But Is It Worth It?

Last night, my husband and I were driving along, and he started to tell me something about the weather. What he actually said was “Today broke all kinds of records—” but I cut him off. I just lost my house to global climate change. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s real, that it’s bad, that it’s getting worse.

Right after the fire, everyone asked me whether we were afraid of rebuilding, and I glibly told them “I’m not worried about fire. There’s nothing left to burn.” At the time, I believed that. My brain needed something hopeful, something optimistic to hang onto. I don’t know if I believe that now.

Politics is getting ugly. The Republican party in California has admitted to putting up fake “ballot drop off” boxes, an attempt at election fraud. The man who sits in the White House is on television calling for racist militias to ensure that he doesn’t have to leave the White House, regardless of the election’s outcome. And that man has not just abandoned environmental regulation, he’s rewarded companies for exploiting what few resources the planet has left (including human beings). The planet is dying.

It will take years to rebuild our house, and in order to get the money to rebuild it, I have to list every single thing that was in the house that burned down. As I list, I can’t help but feel judged. I have too much of too many things. Why did I need sixty assorted candles? Or fifteen decks of tarot cards? Or a dozen music boxes? How could I conscience having all those things when so many people have so little? I will likely not replace those things, but why did I have them in the first place?

I suspect part of my despair is the fact that we’re renting a house is Saratoga, a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb. And when I say “wealthy,” I mean that the house we’re staying in is worth about $3.5 million, and is far from being the largest or nicest house in the neighborhood. As with most suburbs, there are two kinds of real estate: buildings where one buys things, and buildings where one stores and displays the things one has bought. The grounds of every house are manicured, managed, sculpted into a look that is “natural,” with very necessary quotation marks. I haven’t seen a dead animal, a fallen tree, an inconvenient rock formation anywhere. The people are lovely, but it’s like tv. It doesn’t feel real to me.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of rebuilding. I’m starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable, not just about rebuilding, but about life. I’m finding it difficult to find a way forward. I’m looking for reasons for, if not optimism, then at least some mental ease.

Thanks For Your Concern

“I just want you to be healthy.”

“You look so uncomfortable.”

“You’d feel so much better.”

I’ve heard it, usually coupled with some kind of advice that I’ve heard a thousand billion times before. Advice like “get more exercise,” “eat more vegetables,” and “drink more water.” I’ve done those things, and was probably still doing them. And I’ve lost weight. And then gained it back. And then lost it again.

And people say those things as though I might not have thought these things myself – as though I hate myself with such intensity that I’m committing suicide by cheese (although if I were going to off myself, that would be my choice).

But they’re not saying it because they’re actually concerned. They’re saying it to signal disapproval without sounding actually mean. “I just want you to be healthy” is code for “I feel disgust watching you eat.” “You look so uncomfortable” is code for “I feel uncomfortable when I look at you.” “You’d feel so much better” is code for “I’d feel so much better.”

But none of these barbs disguised as concern or advice help, because that’s not how it works. If it were as easy as “eat less move more,” everyone in a wheelchair or hospital bed would be obese, and everyone who ate vegetables and exercised would be skinny. But I’ve been obese my entire adult life (with occasional flashes of thin), and I know as well as you do that it’s so much more complicated than that.

Environment is a factor. Hormones are a factor. Psychology is a factor. Genetics play a part. If your family is heavy, you’ll be heavy. My mother’s family is from Scotland, and that side of my family is typically short and sturdily built. We totally look like the kind of people who can throw telephone poles and carry a sheep under each arm. My father’s side of the family are Mexican, and are generally taller and thinner. I started out with a 50/50 shot. Guess which I got (cue sad trumpet).

Long before I even considered surgery, I ate a healthy diet and got plenty of exercise, and seethed whenever someone expressed “concern” about my size. So I just stopped listening. I cordially invited those people who felt the need to comment to shut the fuck up.

If you were really concerned about me, you would tell me you love my dress. You’d tell me you read that story I got published. You’d tell me you think I’m smart. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t want me to feel like crap about myself by not-even-subtly telling me that you feel bad looking at me. That’s your problem, not mine.

 

 

That Dream Where I’m Not Crazy

It’s been happening everywhere – people’s bodies found at home, at their offices, at restaurants, their brains and hair and blood spattered over every surface, as though they had just burst. The worst part is that the group claiming responsibility is, on the one hand, so disorganized that they have members who don’t even realize that they’re part of a terror cell. How do you feel if you’re a high school kid whose mom has asked her to carry a package to band practice, and that package contains cash, fake documents, or bomb components? Sure, that kid has heard all the rhetoric, but she’s too young to fully appreciate that blowing people up rarely helps anything.

I stumble on something that resembles a Tupperware party. The hostess has brought in a large aquarium with sand strewn with big, fake-looking plastic clams and treasure chests. The aquarium is full of actual sea water, and the guests are pulling things out of the water and opening them to see what prize they’ve won. It’s a decorative hair comb! It’s a jaunty hat! There are men and women there, and everyone’s in that giddy mood that accompanies the prospect of getting something for nothing.

My friends and I come in to see the host’s face temporarily fall, then a mask of smug derision fall into place. “You’re too late. They’re with us now.” We go around the table, confiscating people’s prizes. Some of the people fight us, because even though the prize cost them nothing and has only been in their possession for five minutes, they will feel cheated if it’s taken away. We show them the truth: the hair combs and hats and other baubles are all made of C4 with tiny detonators. It’s not much, but certainly enough to blow someone’s head off. The faces are suddenly pale and much less enthusiastic, swiveling in the hostess’s direction, looking for denial. Her smile hardened and glittered.

We threw the aquarium and its contents into the ocean (conveniently a few feet away), and we grabbed the hostess and threw her in too. She didn’t even try to swim, and I noticed as she sank that her body looked already drowned—bloated and wrinkled and pale.

But now her people are after me. I head into a coffee place to hide, but they’re there. They bought the place not long ago, and are using it as a source of information. People never think of servers as spies, and have unguarded conversations over latte. A woman approaches me, and I know that she’s trying to kill me. So I act like I’m high. I want her to think that I’m incapacitated and will be an easy mark. She’s young, she might buy it. I ask her to direct me to the bathroom, and she takes me in the back down a long hall. I start opening doors off the hall, telling her that they should put in 3-way doors – the kind that can have up to 3 different rooms on the other side of them, depending on how you turn the handle and open it. She looks smug and relaxed, so while she’s fumbling in her pocket for something, I disappear into one of the doorways that leads to an outdoor area. She thought it led into a broom cupboard, but the 3-way door thing is true, and I know how it works. I’m outside before she can follow me, and use my superior knowledge of forbidden physics to step over the patrons’ heads to the outside.

I’m out of her reach for now, but they’re still looking for me.

Gratitude is Bullshit

There is a disturbing trend among liberals to talk about gratitude. Everyone’s encouraged to have gratitude for the abundance in their lives. Everyone’s supposed to be grateful for all their blessings. On the surface, it’s a lovely sentiment. People should be mindful of the fact that they live privileged lives, and use that awareness to inform their interactions with people who are less privileged.

But it never goes that deep. It stops at “be grateful because you have it good.” The new Gratitude encourages insularity – think hard about what you have so that you aren’t thinking about people who don’t have anything. Gratitude is selfish. Being grateful for what you have invites the desire for more – more stuff (more friends, money, recognition) equals more gratitude, right?

This year has been full of horror: while the world was outraged at 12 people killed in attacks on Paris, thousands have died in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. Pakistan is a mess. Syria’s civilian population is fleeing, and many in the United States have insisted they’re not welcome. Here in the United States, Donald Trump has been steadily rising in the polls on a platform of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Black Americans are being gunned down in the street under laughably thin pretexts, with no consequences to the shooters, despite the fact that those gunned down are unarmed.

Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you beside yourself with rage? Because you’re grateful. You’re looking at your pile of Christmas presents and thinking “I’m so grateful.” Maybe you volunteered at a shelter or a soup kitchen as part of your holiday celebrations. Were you angry then?

I’m not saying that you should spend all your time with your teeth gritted and the veins standing out in your neck. I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t be grateful for the good things in your life. I’m just saying that it should never stop there. Feel good about what’s good. But feel bad about what’s bad. Feel bad enough to want to spend 2016 working to change it.

Hailing

I had to drive from Bonny Doon to San Francisco. I’ve taken to driving up the coast road, Highway 1, because it’s prettier, and the loveliness of seeing the ocean on the one hand and the fields and woods on the other makes the drive seem shorter.

As I left the house, I paused to send my husband and my mother a Glympse, a way of tracking my progress so that they would know how long I would be.

I was just coming through Half Moon Bay, halfway between Bonny Doon and San Francisco, when I realized that my phone had stopped sending a GPS signal. I turned it back on, and was on the outskirts of town where one of those temporary highway signs sitting next to the road declared in foot-high letters “All Hail Mother Russia.”

A minute later, the Pirate called and without saying “hello,” launched directly into telling me that the Lantos Tunnel on Highway 1 was closed, and that I needed to turn back and go another way.

“How did you know?” I asked him.

“There was a sign on 280 saying that it was closed.”

“Huh. Why wasn’t there a sign on Highway 1? Oh. Wait. There was a sign. Except it didn’t say that Highway 1 was closed. It said ‘All Hail Mother Russia.'”

I turned around and went back through Half Moon Bay, thinking that unhelpful “Mother Russia” was more like a boozy stepmother who flatters herself that people think she’s 20 years younger than she is. Who wears too much makeup and too-tight dresses, who drinks too much and flirts with her daughter’s boyfriends and her son’s friends, and who wouldn’t remember to tell you useful things, like the fact that the tunnel is closed.

Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.

Disestablishmentarianism

Three weeks or so ago, my right hip went out. It hurts to walk. It hurts to bend over. It’s not so much that the motion itself hurts, although it does. The worst part is that whatever muscle lifts the leg forward is weak. My right leg has about a quarter the range of motion as my left leg. It means that I limp even when I’m not in pain, and that my balance is shot.

But for three weeks, I’ve been putting off going to the doctor. At first, I told myself that I had pulled something running. It’s true, the problem showed itself the day after I had done my first 3-mile run in a couple of weeks. I took hot baths, put compresses on it, took ibuprofen. The hip would feel a little better, then a little worse.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just my hip. It was also my knee. This is the same knee that I had injured tripping over the mountain of crap in my daughter’s room. But did the knee problem cause the hip problem, or the other way around?

I’m telling myself these things in an effort to diagnose myself so that I don’t have to go to the doctor.

And then I realized why I don’t want to see the doctor. The last time I went to a doctor for my knee, he said that I needed an MRI.

“I can’t have an MRI.”
“Why not?”
“Because I have a magnet in my hand, and once it’s ripped out of my hand in the MRI thing, there’s no telling where it might go.”
“Why do you have a magnet in your hand?”
“Because I had someone put it there.” (I didn’t want to give this guy the entire long story of what led me to getting it, and it wasn’t relevant.)
“Can it be removed?”
“No.”

He ended up telling me that he couldn’t find anything wrong. Which was his shorthand for “since you decided you don’t want an MRI, I decided I don’t want to treat you.”

I’m not excited about going through that exercise again. I’m in pain, and I’m worried that I’m going to need something like a knee replacement or a hip replacement because the damage is getting worse and worse, but obviously I’m not so worried that I’m willing to actually go to the doctor.

A lifetime of not being taken seriously and being told that all the problems I’ve ever had have been due to my weight, is it any wonder that I’m not keen on the medical establishment?

Buy Me a River

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear me say “Lange & Söhne Grande Lange 1”?  How about “Keith Lloyd”?  “Flora Danica”?  Or “Kallista Archeo Copper?”

If you are a normal person, you don’t think anything. These things have no meaning to you. And why should they? If you wear a watch, you likely wear something that was either a gift to you, or something you bought for less than a year’s wages, a brand that you’ve heard of – Timex, Swatch – something like that.

You also would have no reason to know that Keith Lloyd makes bespoke suits for men, that Flora Danica is the world’s most expensive china, or that if you want a Kallista Archeo Copper tub, you’ll be shelling out $70k for it.

I had to look these names up. I don’t have any of these things, and I don’t know anyone who does. When writers put details like these into a work, they may think that they’re adhering to “show don’t tell,” but if what you’ve shown me is something I can’t comprehend, you’ve just failed.

I’ve railed about the laziness of using brand names as description before, but in the wake of the news that another Dan Brown potboiler is coming down the colon, I felt it time to mention it again.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Pirate is sitting across the table from me writing his own blog post. He just got an email from the Sundance Institute about six films chosen to counter the “delusions” of Valentine’s Day. The thrust of the email is that normal love stories are unreal, and the desire to think about love in a way that makes you happy is not just naïve, but stupid.

I’ve been disturbed for a long time about the trend to denigrate anything that isn’t 100% good and wonderful and wholesome – and, in fact, even some things that are. For instance, I defy you to name a single popular musician whose work has earned a gold record or won a Grammy or has otherwise reached a large audience, but whose personal life has not been the subject of tabloid gossip. In some instances, such as Jennifer Lopez, the tabloid gossip outstrips the star’s recognition for her actual work. In the case of artists like Michael Jackson or Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), or even Richard Wagner, people’s opinion of their behavior colors their opinion of the work.

Politicians, who, up until Kennedy, were mostly well-respected as civil servants trying to do good for their constituents, are now among the most likely to have their private lives dissected in such a way that the kind of lapses in behavior that all of us have from time to time are magnified, discussed and interpreted in ways that paint those people as monsters.

People whose personal lives are beyond reproach aren’t safe. We can’t believe that anybody is truly good, so in the absence of actual dirt to dig up on people, we start rumors.  When I was a kid, it was completely uncool to admit to liking Mr. Rogers, even if your childhood was uncertain and you found his unceasing expressions of support and acceptance comforting. People express the same rancor even toward fictional characters who don’t show a negative side – characters like Barney the Dinosaur or Mary Poppins (who acknowledged that she was “practically perfect in every way”).

I object to this ongoing need to strike down anything or anyone that makes us feel that we should try to be better people. When you’re in love, you want to be a better person so that the object of your desire is proud of you. When you admire your heroes, you strive to emulate them and work hard to accomplish your goals. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what media thinks is wrong with that – there’s no way for them to monetize that feeling. America is run on the principle that for our economy to work, everyone must be buying things all the time, and if you’re taking long walks in the woods, holding hands with your beloved, or staying in and cooking spaghetti for two, or sitting up all night talking, you’re not spending money. You need to be reminded that love is false, and to get someone to walk with you, eat with you, talk with you, you need to buy a lot of stuff that will keep them interested.

Similarly, if you’re committed to being a better person – a better athlete or singer or artist – our society tells you that what’s important about those people is not the results they deliver. It’s the image they present. So you need to have the clothes and the hair and the dazzling white teeth, not the hours of exhausting work developing yourself at a skill before anyone even notices you. Because nobody makes any money off that.

So, what are we allowed to love? What are we allowed to express unashamed delight for?

We’re allowed to love our favorite brands. In fact, companies spend billions of dollars trying to ensure that we do love our favorite brands. Brands are not just lines of products, they’re lifestyles, dreams, aspirations. You’ll never be able to have Warren Buffet’s success, but you can buy the same kind of espresso machine, vacuum cleaner, paper towels that he does, and feel that you’re somehow the same.

We’re allowed to love food. I Googled “I love food” and got 985 MILLION results.  Food has become ridiculous. In most restaurants in America, the portions are excessive – 2-3 meals’ worth of food served to each diner, thousands of calories in each course of each meal. We’re told that this is a good thing – that more food is a “value,” and we believe it because we can’t get enough chocolate cake and french fries. 

We’re allowed to love sex. America is famous for its twofold relationship with sex – worshipping it on the one hand with advertising that sexualizes everything from cars to clean dishes, and villifying it on the other hand as shameful and sinful. We can say that we love sex so that all of our friends will know that we’re normal, but we aren’t allowed to demonstrate it, or even say it too often. There’s a line here, folks.

But America can’t monetize love or admiration. Those things serve no purpose in the Corporate State, so they will be rooted out and discarded, replaced by dissatisfaction, insecurity, and the notion that if I buy something, I’ll feel better.

Lemme know how that works out for you, Corporate State. In the meantime, I’m married to that guy who’s also sad about love-bashers, and tonight we’re staying in and amusing ourselves by having a long, interesting conversation. Take that.