Where Do They Go When They Die?

I think his name was Skyler. Or it could have been Schuyler or Skylar – I never saw it written down. I first knew him as “that guy that looks like your friend Duane.” This from my husband, pointing out a skinny kid sitting at the bus stop. Once he was pointed out to me – the resemblance between him and my friend was uncanny – I saw him everywhere. He bused tables at the restaurant where we ate breakfast on Tuesdays. He stocked groceries at the store in town that also sold cool purses and fun lamps. He was forever either waiting at or walking home from the bus stop closest to the end of our street.

bird on a fence

I heard his name from his mother one day when he’d come into the restaurant with his mom while the Pirate and I were having breakfast. While he went into the back to take care of something, his mother complained to the waitress about the problems he was having with his boss at his other job, and I was impressed that such a young kid – he was probably 16 at the time – was working two jobs.

I saw him walking around town with a pale-skinned brunette, and was happy that he’d gotten himself a girlfriend. I saw him at the high school when I dropped my older kid off in the mornings or at school events and asked my kid if she knew him. I began to wonder if he noticed me noticing him. I almost felt like I was stalking him in some random, accidental way where I didn’t really mean to see him all the time or know anything about him, but I did. It surprises me to this day that I never exchanged a single word with him. If I passed him in the supermarket, he continued to put cans on shelves without saying a word. When I drove past him at the bus stop, I never stopped to give him a ride, and he never waved his hand in greeting. I wouldn’t even know if I was as familiar to him as he was to me.

And then he died.

His parents helped him buy a sports car for his high school graduation. Part of the reason he’d been working two jobs was to save for this car that he’d been wanting for years, and I admire that kind of perseverance in a kid. The night of graduation, he and his girlfriend and a couple of six packs went for a drive. And none of them made it home.

Ray Bradbury

When I heard about Ray Bradbury passing, I thought about Skyler. He was the kind of kid that Bradbury wrote about. Cool in an average-kid way. Someone that you know, but not nearly well enough. Kind of like Ray Bradbury himself. I’ve never read anything about Bradbury, apart from what was written on the back of dust jackets. To me, I didn’t need to know about the writer in order to enjoy the work. When the big flaming green head in The Wizard of Oz yelled “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I took those words to heart and have never interested myself in biographies of writers, behind-the-scenes tours of Disneyland attractions or the special “making of” features on DVDs. I don’t care how the effect is achieved. I just care that it’s there.

But what that means is that the Bradbury I knew is wholly one of my own making. And what I make is a guy who had a cool job, and who did his cool job really well for a long time. He seemed like a regular guy who probably wore old man pants that made him look a little like a chimpanzee, and ugly button-down shirts, and washed his hair with bar soap. I need to think of him as human, rather than superhuman, because if he is superhuman, it makes it a little harder for the rest of us who write to measure up. If he’s just a guy with a cool job that was good at it because he worked hard, well, I can do that.

Skyler might have grown up to be a cool guy with a cool job he was good at. Wherever he is now, he gets to be with Ray Bradbury in the place in my mind and heart reserved for those people who have impressed themselves on me, even though we’ve never met.

In Dependence

Sorry I haven’t been posting much this past few days, but I’ve been helping my mother move.

When I was a kid, she talked nonstop about her big dream, moving to San Diego and living by the beach. But we took fewer vacations to San Diego than we took to San Francisco, and that’s why, when I moved away from Phoenix, I moved to the Bay area. Now, nearly 15 years later, Mom has finally decided to move to San Francisco as well. Instead of the sunny beaches of San Diego, she’s got the shitty, cold beaches of San Francisco.

There are a few things about moving anywhere that are just crap. One of them is having to wait around to get your internet hooked up. My mother didn’t realize how much she depended on the internet just to feel connected to the world until she didn’t have it anymore. Just before she left Phoenix for the last time, she called me and told me that I didn’t need to pick her up from the airport – she could just take BART to Balboa Park and then take the 29 bus to within half a block of her house.

I didn’t even know that. She knew it because she looked it up.

I didn’t know about Shazam, the service that lets me quit asking people “What’s this song? The one that’s playing right now?” until my mother told me. Or about Pandora, Angry Birds, or a million other really convenient things. My mother, the 70-year-old connectivity whiz kid.

But now, the poor woman is sitting alone in her new house, the house where she can’t watch her Roku, or stream something on Netflix, or answer any of the emails that are piling up because all her old friends miss her, or even comment on this blog post, telling me that I’m wrong, she wouldn’t take the 29, she’d take some other bus. In the two days we were there to help her, I was annoyed at how hard it was to answer email, read people’s blog, etc., from my phone. It’s hard to remember what it’s like to live without the internet, even though I’ve had internet for less than half my life.

It does make me wonder what the future will look like for my kid. She goes to a school that doesn’t believe in computers, but that doesn’t mean we shun them at home. She has never lived without global connectivity. Will she one day be able to IM her friend on a moon station? Will she be able to have connected devices implanted into her skin?

Will she be just as dependent on it as I have become?

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.

 

 

Only the Rich Can Afford Nothing

I’ve been watching a terrible lawyer drama show on Netflix, and much of the action takes place in the lead character’s apartment in New York. You can tell she’s rich because the apartment is the size of an airplane hangar and none of the furniture touches each other. There’s enough space to do an entire gymnastics floor routine without knocking over a single chrome vase or coming close to touching a wall. Even the other character, who lives in a hotel room, has enough space in her hotel room that you can’t ever see the whole room from a single camera angle. I’m jealous because you can see practically my entire house from one camera angle.

I live in a small house with a lot of stuff in it. Bookshelves full of books, a huge hutch full of dishes and glassware and tchotchkes that people have given me from their travels, stuff inherited from my parents and stuff given to me by my children. Some of it I bought myself from catalogs because I fell in love with the way that it looked in the airy, richly-furnished make-believe world the catalog created. I’ve always liked looking at catalogs because the rooms in catalogs are like storybooks of lifestyle possibility where every tight space is cozy, every bedroom is airy, every dining room can seat twenty and every home office is neat and tidy.

The opposite of that look is squalor – the condition of being dirty, overcrowded and miserable, with its insinuation of poverty. When movies, television or books want to show poverty, the irony is that they show possessions. Clothes-strewn floors, pots and pans on counters, toys littering the floor. The poor have plenty of stuff, but no space in which to put it.

That’s the thing. It’s not that the rich necessarily have more stuff than the poor (although one assumes they have a better class of stuff – more fashionable clothes, nicer pots and pans, more expensive toys). It’s that the rich have someplace to hide their stuff. There’s a catalog/website called “Frontgate,” and it bills itself as “luxury decor for America’s finest homes.” A large part of what they sell is storage. Places to hide nearly everything, including litter boxes, electrical cords, and any dead bodies you may have lying around your backyard.

There’s another class of people who appear to have nothing: monks. Monks are expected to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, and therefore not just to not have anything – they’re expected to not want anything. It’s a noble ideal, and one that many people recognize as praiseworthy without actually cultivating it themselves. Monks in their stuff-less existence have less to distract themselves from the larger questions of life and therefore can devote themselves to pursuing the larger truths. Monks are better than you and me because they have chosen to pursue real answers to life’s mysteries, rather than the fake answer of material gain.

Maybe that’s why the media portray rich people as having so little stuff. They want you to believe that the rich are actually better than you. Not just better off, with not only more cool junk, but with more expensive furniture to hide that cool junk behind, but better. More virtuous. Privy to answers about the inner workings of the universe whose questions you can’t even afford to ask.

The sorrow and the pity is that so much of America has bought that lie, even though they can’t afford it.