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.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

Film #6: C.O.G.

C.O.G. is based on a David Sedaris essay of the same name. The film follows David, who’s run away from his family in New York to Oregon where he plans to pick apples. First he works on a farm picking apples from trees. In just a couple of weeks, he’s offered a job at the apple processing plant. He has a run-in with a man from work who tries to rape him, so he can’t go back to the factory, and he can’t go back to the apple farm, so he ends up with a bitter, born-again vet who tries to teach him both how to cut slabs of jade into novelty clocks and how to accept Jesus.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

There was a lot of meat in David Sedaris’ original essay, and the writer/director made excellent use of it, leaving all of Sedaris’ salient points intact and expanding the religion theme to movie proportions.

My one question was whether the viewer would need to know David Sedaris and/or his work to understand everything going on, since the director chose to downplay David’s homosexuality until the end, and the actor playing David may have been a little snarky (like Sedaris himself), but he didn’t have either Sedaris’ soft, high-pitched voice or his slight stature. There was very little to suggest that the character David was gay, aside from one scene where a farmhand asks him if he has a woman and David denies it vehemently.

Otherwise, the film captured Sedaris’ own brand of unsparing, self-mocking humor. There were some really great lines: “What have you got against the Bible?” “It’s poorly written.” And there are many scenes that made me laugh in sympathy for a kid who was clearly trying to find himself and stumbling painfully in the process.  If this movie were picked up for theatrical release, I’d go see it again.

Film #4: Upstream Color

In Upstream Color, a man and woman whose lives have been destroyed by some blue stuff attempt to regain control of their lives by defeating the foley artist who keeps pigs.

Overall rating: 1 out of 4

Here’s the catalog copy for this film:

Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being – a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

What’s supported by the film itself: the woman’s name is Kris. She meets a guy whose name we never know. The rest of the catalog synopsis came from the director’s mind and went onto the catalog page without ever touching the film itself. The catalog also says “With its muscular cinematic language rooted in the powerful yearnings felt before words can be formed, Upstream Color is entirely original, mythic, romantic…” well, there’s more, but it’s equally bullshit.

The director did get up before the film, but all he said was that he would be back up at the end of the film to apologize for it. The audience laughed, but the joke was entirely on us. I left before the Q&A after the film, so I didn’t get to hear any of his justification for a film that had both the Pirate and I asking “What just happened?” as we walked out of the theater.

It made me think about a couple of lectures I attended at the last grad school residency where we talked about the rules of writing that we have all heard, and when it’s right to break them. The thing I kept thinking is that this film was 100% show with 0% tell, which meant that there were a whole lot of places where something was happening, but the audience couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. If the filmmaker (who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited and did cinematography and music) had deigned to just TELL us what he was thinking, the way he did in the catalog blurb, it would have been a much better film.

Sing Out Loud, Sing Out Strong

My nephew called me today to tell me about his grades this semester. He’s been working for the past 8 years as a sort of cabinet refinisher, and he told me that he looked at guys who’d been doing that kind of work for decades, and realized that they all had the same glassy-eyed, brain-damaged affect of long-time drug users. My nephew has a wife and two small kids, and he realized that he couldn’t afford to stay in a job that would leave him a mental cripple. The problem was, he’d never been exactly a great student. He wasn’t very motivated in high school, and even at the job he has now, he’s been working at the same level, without promotion, for 8 years. He hadn’t quit in protest because he needed the money, and had begun to believe that he couldn’t do anything else.

He decided to try nursing school, realizing that he first needed to complete about a year and a half’s worth of prerequisites in math and sciences. He enrolled at a local community college, and from the minute he told his boss “I can’t work late anymore because I have school,” his idea of himself began to change.

He was calling me because he was disappointed in his English grade. Until now, he’d been getting all As and high Bs, but now he’d gotten a 79.8% in the class, which translates to a C. He was disappointed, and he felt that he’d let everyone down. He told me that he’d been getting a solid B until the last class where everyone did a presentation. My nephew is prone to panic attacks, and has been on medication to treat them. He’s also got nerve damage from a near-fatal surgical accident that mean that his speech can sometimes be halting, and he occasionally stutters. The thing is, his mind is as sharp as can be – it just sounds like he’s a little slow. I suspect this is at the heart of his failure to be promoted at his current job, or the fact that the family’s expectations of him have been low. He went on to give me a litany of other ways in which the teacher had undermined his grade – telling them to use MLA format for website citations and then not accepting those citations, telling him that he wouldn’t be missing anything important if he skipped class to go to his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, then docking him points for it.

But I told him to write to his teacher. Tell her that he’s disappointed in his grade, and that because of things that were held against him in error, he got a C when he deserved a B. The worst that could happen was that the teacher would say “No, my grade stands,” and then he’s no worse off than he is now. In terms of overall grade point averaging, there’s not a lot of difference between a 79.8% and an 80%, but emotionally, a B is much better than a C.

It made me think about a seminar I took more than twenty years ago. I was doing childcare, and I was the head of the largest professional childcare association in the state of Arizona – an organization I had founded myself. The seminar was meant to make us think of ourselves as businesswomen, and to hone our business skills. At the end, we were each handed a survey sheet that asked us to grade ourselves on our performance in the class. “If we’re grading ourselves,” I thought, “I’m giving myself an A+!” The instructor collected the surveys and then, without looking at them, told us that whatever grade we had given ourselves would be the grade he gave us. Many of the women expressed dismay, having given themselves Bs or Cs.

It turns out that a lot of people go through life undervaluing themselves and their own efforts, thinking that it’s up to other people to notice when they’re doing well and to reward them accordingly. I was not raised in a family that lavished praise on others. I learned early on that if I wanted to hear good things about my performance and my choices, I had better say them myself. It stood me in good stead later, when I worked at an electronics firm and began and ended every conversation with my boss with “And you should be paying me more.” It worked – I got more raises, more often than my co-workers. It helped me later in my career when I would work into every argument with my boss the phrase “I’m not wrong,” and mostly, she believed it.

I’m not saying that blowing one’s own trumpet is always a good thing. The people in my family are a smug group, and can come off as obnoxious (I’m not naming names here, and it’s unlikely that the guilty parties would even recognize themselves). But I’m saying that if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, it behooves you to speak up about it. I’m hoping that my nephew’s teacher sees the time and effort he’s put into his classes, the fact that he’s raising two young children, working full time and still going to school, and cuts him the slack he deserves. He’s not one of the insufferable members of the family, but I think it’s time he learned how to sing his own praises.

Accessory After the Fact

Hair is an accessory, like a belt or shoes. Most people don’t wear the same belt or shoes every day, so why would you wear the same hair?

I started dyeing my hair when I was a kid. I was dating a guy who bore a marked resemblance to Ron Howard. He was dumb as a stump and didn’t have the ambition that God gave a grasshopper, but he had the most beautiful strawberry-blond hair ever. After I kicked him to the curb, I realized that I didn’t need him to have access to lovely Titian locks. It was then that I first turned to the embrace of Miss Clairol.

Strawberry blonde, chocolate cherry, black, copper…first I went through all the natural colors. But then, after I hit 40, things took a more interesting turn. When my grandmother died in 2002, I started dyeing my hair black. But in 2006, I started adding fire-engine red. And then blue. And then green. Think Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Then I shaved my head. When it grew back, I went entirely green. Or blue. Or purple. Or some combination thereof. I shaved it again and as it grew back, I went leopard print. Platinum blonde with a black streak. Now, a platinum mohawk with pink leopard print sides.

My hair as of the beginning of March 2012

I used to wonder why every freak on every bus, at every bar, on every airplane seeks me out and shares their alternate world view with me. But, if I'm honest with myself, I can see why they might believe I share their unique views.

Tuesday, a friend who saw the new do for the first time said “I would be afraid that people would laugh at me.” I told her that I’ve never been laughed at, and another of my friends laughed at the very idea of my being laughed at.

I have to be honest: never, in all of the years I’ve been dyeing my hair, have I ever thought “What will other people think about this?” The first time I shaved my head, one of my co-workers (at the time, I worked at a large company) asked me “What is your boss going to say about it?” I told him that I had no idea, and I didn’t much care.

I’ve always believed that other people’s opinions are none of my business unless they choose to share them. The great thing about that philosophy, is that it dovetails nicely with human behavior. From the time I got my eyebrow dots in 2008, I realized that people’s reactions tell me everything I need to know about them.

People who hate the way I look, people who judge me as stupid or crazy or otherwise lacking, they write me off. There’s no good telling me that my style is terrible, tasteless, offensive, etc., because I am obviously not a receptive audience to that message. Those people say nothing to me, and I never interact with them. The self-select out of my social circle.

Those people who admire it, and by extension admire me for doing it, will mention it, but they always qualify it with “I could never do something like that.” They’re paralyzed by popular opinion, but they somehow wish they weren’t. They want the vicarious pleasure of associating with someone who isn’t constrained in the way they feel themselves to be constrained.

The last group are the people I’ve come to think of as “my tribe.” They may not have the same tattoos, the same dye jobs, the same piercings, etc., but they do share a similar trait: none of them worry themselves about what other people think. They make art, they found businesses, they create grassroots social movements. They see the badges of my opinions and they love them.

I’m proud to be one of them. Or even just to look like them.

Hanging On/Letting Go

Yesterday, I mentioned to my therapist that I felt guilty about having stepped down from the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. I produced their first-ever annual report, I took the lead in re-imagining their website (the new, less-sucky website debuts soon), I took part in re-thinking the relationship between the library and the Friends.

But then I started grad school (December), I bought a house that needs an entire new kitchen (January), I moved my mother from Phoenix to San Francisco (February),  my husband went back to work (February). While I’m all for doing good in my community, I can’t feel good about it when it’s at the expense of taking care of my own family.

My therapist told me about a woman he knows who used to be married to a friend of his. She left his friend for a man she worked with. They moved from a relatively unpopulated state to San Francisco, where she rose to be one of the most powerful people in her profession in the entire country. He said that she wouldn’t have thought twice about pulling out of anything that didn’t suit her, and she wouldn’t have wasted time feeling guilty. He described her as powerful, but also ruthless, uncaring and bitchy.

I’ve often heard that people with lots of power are assholes. That the way to acquire and keep power is to stop caring about the feelings of lives of other people. So, in a way, I could view my guilt as a sign that I’m a good person, that I care about the fact that, by stepping down from responsibilities I had taken on, I’m effectively foisting them off onto someone else, which ultimately isn’t very fair.

But frankly, I don’t think I’m that good a person. The truth is so much less flattering. The fact of the matter is that, from the day I accepted the responsibilities, they were MINE. I got the fun of dictating how things would go. I got to pick fights with people with the self-righteousness of I’m Getting Things Done. I got all the acclaim once those things were done, because they were done well. I owned my shit, and I am not good at sharing.

Perhaps that’s it. I’m not guilty because I’m a good person and I recognize that I’m causing inconvenience to others. It’s more like I’m feeling guilty because I realize that I’m being a selfish 2-year-old and my superego has caught me and scolded me for being a Very Naughty Girl.

I’ll figure it out before my next therapy session. Mostly because I’m sitting in my room here on Time Out until I do.