Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Funny Then Angry Then Funny Again, Hopefully Poignant and Stirring Essay About Being a Woman in America Right Now

In 1997 I was enrolled as a theater student in a small college’s somewhat prestigious program. The buildings were from the ’40s and so all had wonderful booming acoustics and peeling linoleum, and a slightly geriatric smell that lent our studies a proper academic gravity. It is this smell I recall now when I think back on this moment, a moment that has burned me up for close to 15 years. My anger—at the creep, at myself for not confronting him, at Teeth for allowing it to happen—double, double toils and troubles inside of me, bubbling over two more times in my life. I’ll get to them in a moment.

In the morning’s movement class, we learned stage combat from an accomplished pro, a guy with a square jaw and comically perfect teeth (Teeth) who worked weekends at Knott’s Berry Farm doing the stunt show, and still shows up every now and then in the fight scene of a movie I’m watching. But movement is about so much more than visual tricks—it’s about inhabiting a character, bringing it to life through skillful manipulation of your posture, your walk, your center of gravity. Richard III, of course, is crippled and perpetually in pain, his arm pulled in and a spine curved into a protective hump, giving him a cowardice and cruelty that will impart itself also in his voice. The class exercises looked like great fun to an outsider, but they were constructed to train us to view body and voice as one instrument—push one button and the noise is different.

We were in the smaller of two theaters, a homey structure across the street from the main campus. The exercise that day was “Sculpture,” where half the small class was cast as sculptors and the other half as silent, malleable clay. My partner was a fellow who’d joined the theater program just that semester, a mousy, slightly older guy whom we all thought of as creepy for the way he squinted from behind his glasses and had the rigid movements and speech of a scientist. We placed bets on why he was roving around a theater department full of 19-year-olds: pedophile trying to do better, idiot, bucket-lister with a terminal illness. He bragged about completing the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in L.A., which is like bragging that you went to Starbucks U. And given his skills, we mused that old Stella must be auditioning students solely on ability to pay.

That’s the other thing: this guy had money—compared with us young struggling actors, anyway. He was rumored to have been paid pretty handsomely to do some kind of consulting for TV shows like “ER.” He promised us all he’d arrange a trip to a real set, crow about how he knew Ron Howard, and would wear the ball cap from a movie he was supposedly involved with (“Bruce Willis is starring”). Even though he was creepy, he was assigned to be my sculptor for this exercise, and I was a Serious Actress. Wiping my mind clean, I let this man put his hands on me, trusting in the spirit of theater to bring nobility and decency to the world.

Seven of us were being formed by another seven sculptor classmates, under the watchful eye of Teeth, who crossed his arms and strolled between our pairs. At first, everything was fine: the creep gently pushed on my shoulders, indicating I should go down on my knees. I kept my face blank and my eyes closed, as ordered. Then he pushed on my back, pulling my arms out to support me so I was on all fours. I was concerned about where this was heading, but still trusting in the exercise, when he bent my elbows so I was now crouched on the stage floor with my ass high up in the air, my right cheek resting on the floor. The stance was active, not passive, meaning I was still supporting myself with my forearms. As everyone finished positioning their partners, Teeth said, “Sculptures, when you open your eyes, I want you to make a face that matches the position of your body.”

I was bamboozled! I’d been had! There was only one face I could make in this pose, and that asshole knew it. Both those assholes knew it. The only reasonable face to match this pose—this active, ass-in-air-face-on-ground pose—was to look like I was in the throes of sexual ecstasy, a humiliating cherry on an insulting cake. I didn’t see the theatrical merit in this position at all. In what play would you be seeing the actress’s rump thrust into the air like this, Uncle Bleeding Vanya? Does Lady MacBeth seduce her husband into committing murder most foul by jutting her arse to the rafters and commanding him wordlessly to have a go?

That’s not even the most outrageous part. This is: right before I was to open my eyes and freeze in my chosen face, with half the class watching (including my then-boyfriend), the creep—not the teacher, the creep!—made a big blowsy point of lecturing me, “Now remember, you’re acting, so you have to commit to this.”

I wanted to leap up and rip his throat out. You? Mr. Stella Fucking Adler, are going to lecture me about acting, you creepy slime, you name-dropper with halitosis and flat, embarrassing line deliveries? I was Nina in “The Seagull” on this very stage! I cried real tears during my final monologue!

The fact is, I would have done anything for theater. It was my Destiny. I wanted to be an actress since I was five. I clung to the dream through a tough childhood. I was showing a talent for it too, which committed me even further to the humble study of it—as humble as any 21-year-old actress can be. I obeyed every order from directors, executed each command with as much dedication and integrity as was possible. I wanted more than anything in the world to go from here to Yale, USD, Louisville, Juilliard. But it wasn’t even that the creep questioned my devotion to acting that enraged me most; it was the taunting way he acknowledged that he had put me in a sexually degrading position, and that I couldn’t do anything about it.

——

A few days ago, piggish radio clown Rush Limbaugh went down in infamy (again) by calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke  a “slut” for testifying before Congress against the Fortenberry, Rubio and Blunt legislation “that would allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage, and then respond that the nonprofit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis; particularly when so many legislators are attempting to defund those very same clinics.” That’s not all—he demanded she release sex tapes, compared covering women’s contraception to sharia law, and went on to slander her and her fellow female students over 53 times in three days. So here I am, quaking with this old familiar rage again. In November, the New Yorker published a piece about Planned Parenthood’s early plight, about how women associated with it were arrested, humiliated, beaten. About how a woman even daring to talk about contraception was outcast and scandalized. In 1916, people. That we are still having this conversation 100 years later, when 99% of American women are using contraception, is troubling enough, but the tacit complicity of America in the subjugation of women—the derailment by conservatives, both female and male, of any policy that establishes our sovereignty over our own bodies, including coining the term “feminazi” to describe any woman concerned with women’s rights and health matters—is appalling. Never mind that boner-inducing Viagra is defended by these same blokes as a “legitimate medical condition,” whereas the Pill, which can prevent ovarian cysts and treat PMDD, acne, and a slew of other debilitating symptoms of hormone imbalances, is derided as a sex aide. As the bumper sticker goes: If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.

                              Sluts, 1916.

Exactly ten years after the Sculpture incident, I was studying writing at grad school in North Carolina. It was a low-residency program, meaning you could live anywhere and just needed to show up for one week twice a year. We were all—professors and students—in the hotel bar after a day of seminars, workshops, and readings. We were sharing the bar, it seemed, with a clutch of Midwestern salesmen on some corporate mission to bring stupidity and tackiness to whatever room they inhabited. An important note about my state: my mother had just been murdered about two years before, by her boyfriend. I was the one who found her body. As I sat in the hotel bar on this night, I was waiting to go to trial, which would involve leaving my home and job, boyfriend and dog for a month to go back to California. Each week I was told to pack and give notice at work, only to have it postponed at the last second. This happened off and on for about a year. I was having recurring nightmares about being trapped in that darkened bedroom alone with her blood, her spirit angry and unsettled in there with me. This was my state when a chubby middle-aged man in Dockers grabbed my ass.

He did it in front of his friends, like a show. My people didn’t see it—they were on the other side of the bar. What ensued has been better and more comprehensively discussed in an essay called “We Hit People,” published here by Prime Number Magazine. After the fight was over and he’d been sort of reluctantly ushered out of the bar, I crawled off to cry in the lap of a female novelist I was terribly intimidated by, but who would be fully aware of how terrible the world is for women. I let go. I  ranted through my tears that it wasn’t fair that men felt they could put their hands on us, bend us to their will, and kill us if we didn’t submit. I cried that I was taught to be proud of America and its freedom, but that the system is designed to make you feel ashamed if you don’t fall in line, that even my well-intentioned male friends patently accept the paradigm and sneer at me for not being satisfied with my “equality.” These are the same men who have said things like “affirmative action is reverse racism” and “I protect Rush’s right to free speech, no matter what he says.”

The ideology behind both sentiments may be pure (I prefer “precious,” like my college boyfriend’s stoned political posturings), but the sentiments themselves, bereft of context, are as irresponsible as they are useless. Free speech isn’t what’s at stake here—it’s society’s support of, through compensation and consumption, violent and hateful messages about women. About anyone: Jews, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants. As Sir Thomas More suggests in “A Man For All Seasons,” when we remove every barricade from our right to do and say as we please, who can stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

If that troubles you still, you could look to Howard Zinn’s trope that you can’t be neutral on a moving train. As for me, I walk with my keys positioned so I can jab them in the eyes of an attacker. 1 in 3 of us will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That train’s not just moving; it’s hurtling down a mountain.

——-

The creep on the stage that morning had the right to do as he pleased with me—and he exercised it in a bit of a vicious, unkind way. He did not do it for the theater, or even to test my resolve or ability as an actress; his unnecessary, hectoring lecture made that clear. His intention was to prove he had power over me in that moment, that no matter what my feelings were, I had to obey, even though the only plausible face I could make to go with such a pose was a perverted mask, something beneath any actor, even one from Stella Adler.

My mind raced through the alternatives in the seconds before opening my eyes: I could feign a grotesque death, having dropped from my hanging rope with a broken neck; I could be listening with mild concern for an oncoming train. But his pious little lecture—Now remember—let me know that he fully expected me to endure an uncomfortable moment. Just take it. So when the moment came to freeze in position with our faces, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue, my mouth open in a cartoonish grin. My classmates giggled and shook their heads. Teeth looked disappointed. Then, to really drive it home, I loudly moaned “Errrrrrr!” like I was severely retarded. He’d made a mockery of the exercise, of my commitment, and so I mocked him right back. “Errrrrr!” I continued, trying to work up some drool.

The creep wrung his hands and slunk back. I can see his distress now, possibly aggrandized by the selectivity of memory. But in my head, that’s how it goes: I refused to be bullied into being a good little girl. You can tell me to shush, to accept things as they are, to not fight back, to love unfettered free speech and to just endure what is being said about me and about women, no matter its effect on society or on the policies that affect women’s lives.

But I will simply reply: Errrrrr.

"Don't SCREW with me, Burt!"

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A Dragon Looks Ahead

Fnert, I need to get my life straight. I was a better adult as a kid than I am as an adult.

Okay, so I still have the lousy work ethic I had as a kid. Must ask someone who wasn’t raised by wolves: is a work ethic born or bred? If bred, then I was cheated out of one and must nail one together somehow.

If born, then I’m off the hook. Procrastinators of the world, unite tomorrow! Sometime in the afternoon or whenever.

I have a good life, but I can’t feel it. I’m too busy with anxietymonster. Quick, do nothing!

I second-guess every decision, and then third, fourth, and fifth-guess it. To blog/tweet/update Facebook status/write essay, short story, novel or not to blog/tweet/update Facebook status/write essay, short story, novel? That is the question. And we all know what happened to Hamlet. Hell, he took the whole family down with him.

I don’t care that, at 35, my finest eggs have likely been laid; I refuse to have a baby until I’m no longer Hamlet. Also, do I want to bring a child into a world where “Toddlers and Tiaras” is perfectly legal but a nipple slip is apocalyptic?

This entry wasn’t supposed to be about my reproductive fence-sitting, but it is about fence-sitting in general. I do nothing because I worry too much, and I worry too much because the worst thing I can do is invite criticism from the likes of me. It’s a nasty business, self-loathing.

Because I cannot seem to write in a diary anymore (I’ll claim the decreasing ability to write longhand as a form of evolution, like a shrinking pinky toe and having no wisdom teeth), I’m here going to state my resolutions for this year, the Year of the Dragon. My year! May my passion, damnably high standards, and fertile mind drive me to riches and not ruin.

1. Pick my battles. I have only so much time and energy. Most of the time, when I start to blow up about something and chase it down the rabbit hole, it’s because I want to avoid the Thing That Shall Not Be Named*.

*: Writing my book

2. Get my old ass back. Not what you think. I used to be a terrific ass. Someone once even called me “braying.” Ten years of theater and improv taught me not to second-guess myself – to throw out jokes even if they don’t work, do voices, make faces, say outrageous things. Even if no one else got me, I used to crack myself up. What a wonderful gift. I’m becoming Captain Bum-Out

3. Get my old ass back. Now it’s what you think. I’ll get in amazing shape and take a bunch of vanity pictures, because it’s all downhill from here.

4. Sing in the car every time. EVERY TIME. Sing in the shower. Sing while cleaning, while cooking. Sing, sing, sing.

5. Stop obsessing over how shitty my memory is getting. Everyone’s memory is shitty. I need to commend myself on my extensive knowledge of ’80s pop culture and relatively firm grip on grammar rules and just relax about not being able to call up my favorite lines of poetry in conversation. Those people are assholes, anyway.

6. Stop hating women who are getting accolades for doing what you think you could be doing better.  It’s not their fault you’re a lazy person with serious mental problems. Also, good for them/us. Start seeing women as sisters, not ghastly phantoms here to torment you for your shortcomings. (Some women honestly do suck huge donkey dicks of mediocrity, but enough about Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler.)

7. Hug more. Not every problem needs to be solved. Arms do what brains cannot.

8. Finish the goddamned memoir. My great-grandma Zelma Swift would have said “You don’t make a pie with your head, dummy.”

9. When it comes to writing and submitting work: Grab snake. Toss.

10. Rely less on meanness to be funny. Tina Fey said in a 2004 interview with Bust magazine that in your teens and 20s you can be mean, but keep it up, and you’ll be a cunt by 40. There’s a wonderful challenge in being funny without being mean. I mean, I’ll still say mean shit of course. Of COURSE. It’s funny to say mean things, especially about real assholes. But I need to put a few more tools in the shed. Photoshop helps.

Alright, Intermess. You’re my witness. Also, look for my t-shirt, soon to come: It’s not oversharing if you never undershare.

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Filed under lists, self-help, Uncategorized, writing commandments, Zen and shit

This One Goes Out To The Ones I Love

On someone else’s radio, I hear that it is over. The band, after 31 years, is calling it quits. It’s the kind of news that floats over you like a zeppelin, slow and glittering, an anomaly in an otherwise familiar sky. Obscene….if you could just figure out what it is.

Like any death, it requires a chewing of the lip, the mind lashing itself out again and again like a whip, hoping to catch another crumb of information. No, no, just a bit more, please.

I first discovered R.E.M. when I was 14, an unhappy freshman in a new school district, one foot propped up on Poison and Def Leppard, the other on They Might Be Giants and the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. My Aunt Patty ordered me to sit down on her couch as she faced me with her guitar in her lap.

—I just learned this. Listen to the words…”

She pressed play on the CD and the room was filled with the mournful insistence of Mike Mills’s church organ, Peter Buck’s frantic and Appalachian mandolin, and Michael Stipe’s prayerful missive in “Half A World Away.” Out of Time had just been released and the airwaves were blowing up with “Losing My Religion,” the insipidly cheerful “Radio Song,” and the even worse “Shiny Happy People.” I look back on these now with singular fondness, but at the time, they were…whatever.

Now, Patty was strumming along and singing, pausing now and then to repeat certain lines to me: My shoes are gone/my life spent.

She closed her eyes and shook her head.

—Beautiful, man. Beautiful. The storm it came up strong…This is about Jesus, this part. It shook the trees and it blew away our fears.

—Huh, I nodded.

These were the days (imagine, kiddies) before Google, so the lyrics of R.E.M. songs remained notoriously arcane, the result of Michael Stipe’s combination of overly educated references and stubborn mumbling. Over the years, I’d hear this particular song interpreted as being about alcoholism, salvation, and obsessive love.

That was the thing about music in those days, before virtually any sliver of information you could possibly want was immediately available: you could decide what it meant, you could place meaning on it yourself. We scrutinized every Mona Lisa smile on Michael’s face in a video or publicity photo, every coy liner note. The three documentaries and videographies I own on VHS are ribbed from rewinding and repeating scene after scene after scene.

When Patty had played me the entire album—the steel pedal cries of crazy what you could’ve had, the Southern rock road-trippy twenty thousand miles to an oasis, the darkly sexy I’ve been laughing/fast and slow—she gave it to me, and put on their sister act of sorts, 10,000 Maniacs. We listened to Blind Man’s Zoo and In My Tribe, every song an epic tale of hardship, poverty, racism, evil, politics, and ruin. That music could be about so much more than puppy love or the id—that it should be!—came to me that afternoon like the messiah, the ocean breeze lifting the curtains and a too-perfect Orange County autumn downscaling a domestic life too turbulent to tell anyone about. But Patty knew. And in Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant, she perhaps knew I’d find a soundtrack to my pain and anger, which I wanted desperately to believe was the pain of the whole world, if only to be in some company. It was that majestic epiphany repeated decade after decade in 14-year-olds the country over: the rite of rock ‘n’ roll passage! My father’s was Pet Sounds, my young uncle’s was Pink Floyd, my husband’s was The Ramones. Mine was R.E.M.

My dad gave me his Guild mahogany, a dreadnought I could barely get my hands around. On his visits, I’d hound him for chords, making him listen to Life’s Rich Pageant’s “Swan Swan H” and teach it to me, moving and mashing my soft fingers onto the steel strings where they should go. I built my first callouses on that song.

Instantly, R.E.M. led me to the people who would become my friends, some of the most influential people in my life, my chosen family. My sophomore year, I got up the nerve to audition for a play and started hanging out in our high school’s theater, which is where I met Jamie. A cute green-eyed brunette with a guitar on her lap, Jamie was playing and singing 10,000 Maniacs’ “A Campfire Song” in the theater, while her stupendously adorable flannel-clad boyfriend Jerry sang Michael Stipe’s part. Bee to honeysuckle, I hovered. I showed her “Swan Swan H” on the guitar, and she made me a mixtape. Together with Jerry and their friend Linda, we formed a loose fan club that seemed to grow by the month. Next came Kate, the Georgia peach, and Kami, the oddball Seattle transplant that I idolized. Then Eddie, the wild-eyed imposter from a neighboring high school, who stole Jerry’s lead in that summer’s “Little Shop of Horrors” as well as Jamie’s heart. Me, I belonged to Michael Stipe.

Never mind, Dear Reader, that our man was gay—or rumored to be. Again, this was before the Information Age.

—Stop it, you guys. He’s just sensitive!

This would set the stage for a long line of gay boys I would devote myself to so completely, stubbornly ignoring all the flags. Flags like being involved in musical theater.

A CD-listening bar opened not far from school, and we all clustered at it, spending our meager money on imports, rare live discs, and listening to compilations. We’d take votes on the lyrics to “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”—Runner boots and blister banks and jellybean, Boom!—and the girls would tease me as I demanded we watch that moment in my taped MTV “Unplugged” session—AGAIN—at the end of “Low,” when Michael Stipe dips his head against the microphone and stares right into the camera, directly in to my soul with his stern, dispassionate blue eyes.

—He’s gay, Erin.

—Shut up, he loves me.

—He loves men.

—Your mom loves men. Look at him. Watch! He’s going, Erin, I’m so tormented without you. Look at how curvy and tormented my lips are.

This was the same year that I received The Most Important Piece of Mail I Have Ever or Will Ever Receive Ever: a large white envelope with neon pink and green streaks on it, addressed to me, from the man himself. I shrieked and squealed and ran around the house, calling Linda and Jamie, tearing open my letter. Yes, it was a form letter beseeching me to Rock the Vote, and yes, it was the same letter sent to everyone in R.E.M.’s fan club, but I taped it up on my wall next to a full-page portrait of him torn out of Rolling Stone, and I fell asleep looking at it every night.

Automatic for the People came out when I was a junior. My mom and I were sharing a one-bedroom apartment; we had twin cots—seriously, cots—and a desk between them with my ghetto blaster on it. It was brand new, the size of a battleship, and it had this rad ability to “memorize” which tracks you wanted to hear. Every night, I made my mother fall asleep to the vibralicious and mellow tracks “Sweetness Follows,” “Try Not to Breathe,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Star Me Kitten,” “Nightswimming,” and “Find the River.”

—Jee-sus, my mom groaned one night. I’m going to kill myself.

In between Out of Time and Automatic, of course, I dove into the entire discography. I got Green on cassette tape (in an interview, Michael said that the reason they named it Green but colored the case orange was because if you looked at the color orange long enough and then closed your eyes, you saw green) and listened to it the entire Thanksgiving weekend drive up to San Francisco. I copied my friend’s Chronic Town and felt my DNA actually alter when I first heard the muffled, tinny recording of “Wolves, Lower.” I bought the Dead Letter Office special release with Reckoning on it and decided that the jerky danceable “Harborcoat” would go on every mix tape I’d make for the next 10 years. I listened to Murmur and dreamed of running through the sunflower fields around Athens, Georgia (surely there were some) in a beret and Pendleton coat, hand-in-hand with Michael Stipe.

Have you ever loved someone from afar for ten years? After ten years, the roiling insanity of your love simmers to a bed of glowing embers, parts petrifying into you, becoming your bones. A heat lingers, and could be enflamed by a song, a video, the news of a new release. My love glowed warm-to-hot all the way through Monster (moved to San Francisco for college, tried acid, Jerry Garcia died, panic attacks, Kurt died, “Let Me In,” gave up and went home to SoCal) and New Adventures in Hi-Fi (played Lady Macbeth at new college, fell in love with leading man, painted him pictures, discovered Radiohead, “Leave,” pined away many cold autumn nights after he’d broken my heart). By now, it was pretty certain that Michael Stipe and I wouldn’t end up together. And, okay, yes whatever, that he was out of the closet for reals.

And at that exact moment of acceptance: he appeared. Jamie and I, through a stroke of crazy luck we kept repeating whenever we went to shows together, wound up backstage during the Up tour, talking for about twenty minutes to…Mike Mills? Well okay, so Mike Mills wasn’t Michael Stipe (who feebly waved at us fanboys and girls and said “G’night! I have to go to bed now”—by the way, the man is tinyleprechaun tiny) but still! It was Mike Mills! The harmonist. The brilliant organist who virtually made Out of Time what it was. The bassist with the sweetly tiny-eyed, moleish face in all the early ’80s posters! I tried to keep my breathing steady as I complimented his spatulated fingers, assessed that he was a Sagittarius, and as we exchanged email addresses. I took that piece of paper to a Kinko’s that very night and laminated it, Jamie and I giggling and screaming, then calling much of the old gang to revel in it.

I’d call that the conclusion of my R.E.M. obsession. It just…was time. As it is time now for them to quit. Bill Berry had, for the sake of his health, moved to a farm, and I’d moved into parts of my soul that were better quenched by Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, and PJ Harvey. I was excited by vibey new British & Canadian bands: Coldplay, Doves, Elbow, Broadcast. I was discovering Clarence Carter, Tom Waits, Fat Possum Records, Son House, Skip James, The Pogues.

R.E.M. continued to make music, much of it less appealing than the older stuff, but still wedging their way indelibly into my life. Up had just come out when I fell in love with, yes, a gay man, who scrawled the lyrics I want the stars to know they’ve won on a paper napkin for me, which I took as proof that I was right all along: sometimes they are just “sensitive” (and they are, but this wasn’t one of those times).

When the man who is now my husband and I were still “just hanging out,” we talked about the importance R.E.M. had for us when we were teenagers. We watched my VHS of  MTV Unplugged, and it hiccuped as I pointed out that moment in “Low” where Michael Stipe stares right into my soul. But it was no longer Michael that I yearned for, but this kind, smart, curious, wandering—and totally heterosexually sensitive, I might add—man beside me, waiting for me to get the clue already, his soft corduroy jacket warming my elbow.

My friends from those days are still my friends. We’ve seen each other less and less, talked to each other less and less. We’ve flagellated, spun around, settled, and hardened, the grooves of our lives pressed by the music that drew us together in those wobbly and malleable days. And though we are spread across the country, and have grown lazy in our communications, assuming Facebook will seal us together without our efforts, I think about each of them often. Moreso, this week.

To my high school friends and yours: My memories of you are of when you were young. When you knew nothing and knew it all. When you wore flannel and baggy jeans and wrote notes with your hands. When we didn’t know the words to our favorite songs, when we had to guess them for ourselves, to explore the edges of a universe that was beginning to open up to us, of coffee and cigarettes and the Pacific Northwest and war and sex and art and identity and all those other things we would alight upon unsteadily until we found, each of us, our unique solid footing.

Today, with some of us devoutly religious and some devoutly atheistic, with some leaning red and some heartily blue, with some unemployed and idealistic and some responsible and trustworthy, we will never again be as alike as we were in those days.

Then again, maybe we always will be, in ways that count to me. As this sad, strange zeppelin passes overhead, it plays upon its surface a zoetrope of scenes and voices: Linda’s taunting misnomer “Michael Stripes” and how she still makes me laugh until I can’t breathe; Kami gluing bizarre magazine cut-outs on a cereal box to send to R.E.M.’s fan club and the incredible work she does now raising kids and her village’s kids to be explorers and artists; Jamie singing “Me in Honey” with her guitar and how she still wails a guitar and a high note like no other woman I know. Sweet peachy Katie, and wild, untamed Eddie. A group of strange and deep kids drawn together by our love of a strange and deep band—and kept together, however loosely, by our memories of that love.

Thank you for the music, Mike, Peter, Bill, and Michael, and thank you for my friends.

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>What’s the World Come To?

>I’m reading a 2001 essay by Rebecca McClanahan, a professor with whom I have been lucky to study at grad school (however brief—I was a fiction emphasis, and she’s a well-known non-fiction writer). It’s called “Book Marks,” and it has to do with her obsession with the marginalia of used books, particularly with the written clues left by this woman who had checked out a book of poetry at the New York Public Library just before she did: her annotations, circles and underlines, and various bits of self left between the pages (a smear of red lipstick here, a strand of graying hair there).

The essay is from a well-worn copy of The Best American Essays, 4th ed., a book I bought used from Amazon at the start of my first year of grad school. I was unemployed, so I took out student loans and chose the cheapest of the cheap books—the front cover of my copy is permanently flipped back and the notes in the margins (written in ink) practically outnumber the printed words.

In her essay, McClanahan forms a composite image of the woman who possessed the book before her based on the phrases her pencil found, like “serviceable heart” and “Grey-haired, I have not grown wiser.” She recognizes herself in what this mystery woman has found significant, and worries for her—for where these poems will take (have taken) this woman, and how dark it is there.

My own book is filled with the notes of some mystery woman—if I can stomach calling her a “woman”—who writes in the soulless and unhurried bubbles of a perennial eighth-grader. I remember learning to write this way from my more popular peers in junior high: the a, c, u, and g are all just an “o” accessorized with a curl or stem; I can practically hear her whisper the count of two humps or three as she conducts her neat m’s and n’s; her y is a gaping and vulgar thing, whose tail comes up to meet its mouth.

This is the handwriting of an idiot. Of someone whose brain drones and hums at a steady, predictable pace, unsullied by ideas or memories or anxieties. Were it not a college text, I would go easier on the girl/woman. But come on. You can vote for President of the United States at her age.

The pages are also filled with the encircled words she does not understand, with an impressively straight line ending in an arrow that points to the definition as it is explained to her—either by Mirriam-Webster or a brighter roommate. “Gauzy” (“thin, light”); “Audible” (“loud enough to be heard”); “Harlequin” (“traditional comic ch.”). She sometimes gets these definitions wrong, like “Auburn,” whose arrow explains “White;” sometimes, her definitions are puzzling, like when she writes “In ancient times, an unbreakable stone,” next to “Adamant.” Why did she choose the etymological definition of the word? Was this an extremely helpless mind or an unfathomable genius?

More disturbing still are her summations of the text. This is the essay’s first line: “I am worried about the woman. I am afraid she might hurt herself, perhaps has already hurt herself—there’s no way to know which of the return dates stamped on the book of poetry was hers.”

Next to it, the bubble writing reads “Cares for others.”

Another paragraph down: “There’s no way to know for certain that the phantom library patron is a woman, but all signs point in that direction.”

The student writes “Then why worry if you don’t even know its [sic] a woman.” The absence of a question mark suggests a tone. You know it. It’s that vacant, slurring, dismissive voice that undergrads have adopted en masse—the one that puts question marks? Where they shouldn’t be? The one that makes the now-blameless 1980s Valley Girl “oh my gawd!” into a mentally challenged “uh-eye-gahw.”


The way kids speak these days!

At the bottom of the first page, our Voltaire writes “The author can relate to the mystery woman,” and on the next, after a list of the author’s history with reading Sylvia Plath, Keats, and Shelley, the girl has written, as if struggling to make meaning: “Very into poems.”

“Stymied” —–> “Frustrated.” Which is what I’m becoming as I move through the text, now unable to concentrate on McClanahan’s foray into self-discovery through the literate habits of a stranger, thanks to the inane chatter of this half-wit with the bubbly penmanship. As the essayist describes her lonely college days, in which her dearest friends were the people who’d used her textbooks before her, exploring the clues left by them—a pizza sauce stain on a map of South America, a misspelled “orgassm” between the sentences of John Donne’s “The Canonization”—I can’t help but feel fortunate that I had a social life (too much of one, if we’re honest about it) when I was a freshman. I also can’t help but feel cheated: I wasn’t assigned any John Donne. I also was never assigned any Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I’ve read (and performed) plenty of Chekhov, but I feel bereft. I’d gladly trade my To Kill a Mockingbird experience for The Brothers Karamazov, and now that I’m older and my brain is damaged from trauma and checkbooks and housework, I worry I don’t have the attention span for it.

In other words, I’m afraid this is as good as I’ll get.

I wonder if this girl felt the same way, for even a second, before scribbling “thinks beyond & gives questions to story” as if she is trying to assemble clues, not about a previous reader, as does the essayist, but about the author herself; as if struggling to understand what makes a writer care. About something like words.

By the end of the piece, I have absorbed nothing of McClanahan’s essay but an uncharitable feeling towards today’s youth. Mind you, I’m “today’s youth” to many. I’m sure they overhear my conversations with my friends on the phone, my vulgar “fucks” and “douchebags,” the quacking “mah!” that I use to express dissatisfaction, and think language is dead in America. By the end of the piece, I can relate to the Denise Levertov poem that inspired this essay: though grey-haired (here and there, in certain light), I am no wiser.

I am angry with the world, for what has been lost, for where it is going; but more, I am afraid. Around me, businesses spend hundreds on signs that misuse an apostrophe; “there” and “their” and “your” and you’re” are so often blithely interchanged, that it threatens to become the norm. Even my educated peers tell me to leave it alone, that it has always been this way—the masses will change the language and we have to let it go. When Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, scholars balked at the use of the popular form of English that they found trashy and revolting. They called it “Middle English,” which was a pretty horrible insult. Mind you, this is the English that preceded the English of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Virginia Woolf. If any of these fine people were to stand behind me in line at Target, they’d bury their face in their hands and sigh, “What’s the world come to?” But yeah, Canterbury Tales was to the 14th Century what NWA was to 1988.

Towards the end of the essay, McClanahan begins to distress about the mental/emotional well-being of the reader before her, who seems to have derived support for her suicidal state in lines like “gradual stillness” and “fumes/swirled in our heads and around us.”

Next to it, the girl has written “She does as the woman (maybe she is the woman).”

At the end, McClanahan realizes that the notes in the margins have become their own poem of despair, whose author she longs to find and give hope to—to say, “Wait up, I want to tell you something.” Hers is a story of grace, and mine has none. Her story is that of two older women, educated and weaned on what we can guess is the same canon of poets and writers, one of whom has hope to give the other. My other and I were assigned this book for what appears to be different purposes; I can’t imagine what hers was—a mandatory reading comprehension course? A B.A. in Communications? I feel angry at the gap between us, between our educations. I am afraid of the ever-widening gap between even my uneducated grandparents and the drooling dummies at the table next to me in the café near the college. I worry that “intellectualism” is increasingly denigrated by folksy moose-shooting politicians, orange-peopled reality TV shows, and gossip magazines, and that it has already begun to inform voters’ decisions to support (or at least turn a blind eye to) Congress cutting funding to schools.

I am angry that I know the meaning of “dirigible,” and that this girl has been turned loose on the world thinking it is merely something that “can be directed or steered.” I know it for a silver, bullet-shaped ship that is somehow lighter than air but can carry hundreds of people. It was once the vision of the future: a sky filled with these wonderful humming things whose ingenuity, while one time awe-inspiring, would now be commonplace. Where the brilliant minds that conceived it were respected, trusted, and put in charge of building a beautiful world. Never mind the Hindenburg; I would love to live in a world like that.

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>The Perils of Working From Cafés

>

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>How Depression Feels To A Writer

>Or, Why I Don’t Go To Media Bistro Mixers Anymore:

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>Back to Work

>I’ve been watching Dexter. What three seasons of watching people get stabbed won’t do for a trauma you’ve gotten too comfortable with!

Honestly, it doesn’t elicit more than a small twitch anymore. Used to be, someone would get stabbed or have their throat cut in a movie and it would send me into a trance for a while. I’d have to get up and walk around, shake it off. Now it’s just a quick jerk into the dark place, and I’m back.

Small trips to the dark place are good for me – I’ve always been a darkly humored person.

The day of my wedding, I told my friends to let me know my husband-to-be arrived safely, because I was certain a tractor-trailer would kill him on the way there.

Things can’t go this well for this long, can they?

I told my husband I want three children, because when one dies, you’ll still have two to keep you going. I was serious.

But this is what you do – you hope for the best and plan for the worst, right? It’s just smart. It’s survival. At least I hope. I hope big. And I have this vague—not belief but—premonition…it will all be grand. Who knows? It could be delusion, another survival mechanism.

But I’m writing this book. I know how again. And my short story was picked up by North American Review, so I can no longer use the “I suck” excuse. I will write every day until I write as well as that again, remembering E.L. Doctorow’s words.

Ugh. Hoping I can do; planning for the worst I can do; watching throats get cut and reading coroner’s reports and reliving my own police interview I can do. It’s all this goddamned work that I can’t stand.

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>Open Letter to the Guy Who Has Volunteered to Be My Husband

>I pity myself a lot. I thrash about, stay in my pajamas all day, let the laundry sit in the washing machine, refill my mug with hot water four or five times until the tea leaves have nothing left to give.

I lie down in the bath and blow bubbles. I stare at a shard of grout becoming dislodged from between the tiles. You ask me what’s wrong and I look at you like you’re the world’s biggest idiot. Same thing that’s wrong everyday, duh.

There are a hundred pieces of paper scattered on the floor of the office, each one is covered in ink, codes and symbols that mean something to me. They mean I am a terrible writer. They mean I am a coward. They mean I do not have the language to narrate the trip I took to the moon. How many people get to go to the moon? It should have been a better writer instead of me. “They should have sent a poet,” exclaims Jodie Foster to the galaxies laid out before her in that ridiculous movie Contact.

There are pieces missing and, instead of writing them, I twirl the covers around me in bed and make myself into a burrito. I stare at the TV. I spend hours feeling my heart slam into my ribs.

I am obsessed with myself. My self. Self self self self self.

And this morning, when I whimpered, having been denied validation by another literary magazine—when I said, “I can’t write a story better than this one”—you went wordlessly to our stacks of books, the ones that we don’t have shelves for yet, and flipped through all your editions of Best American Short Stories from the 90s until you found the contributors’ notes from Rick Bass and Poe Ballantine, both of whom fell into depressions, each clinging stubbornly to a story that had a fatal flaw in it that he refused to acknowledge and change, unable to fully see that flaw but ever sending it out until an editor illuminated it for him, and saved him.

I can’t believe my good luck. You cling stubbornly to me despite my flaws, my insufferable suffering!, but some part of you can see the masterpiece, and trusts me to continue to edit, explore, revise, and append until I am the best version of myself.

Or at least the version that will get us some fucking money.

Thank you for marrying me. I’ve got your back.

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>P.P.S.

>That’s not true. I want to tell you everything, but I don’t think I can speak the language.

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>P.S.

>And there are some things I just don’t want to tell you.

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