Trees

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Does pain still count if you don’t express it? If it exists only in the hidden places, in the fetid muddle at the bottom of your mind or the pinkening pressure of your eyelids, carved into nonessential bits of you that rub at the raw side of your clothes, does it exist at all? Does it matter? What matters is that hungry child on the other side of the globe. What matters is the mob, the milk, the rain cloud, the trigger. Survival in its crudest form. What right does a feeling have to exist at all and why can’t you beat the fucker null with comparative logic: you are here, safe, rich, sheltered; you are not there. What trick of the human soul makes you bleat when felled, like a sentient tree, to make a sound only you will hear in any case. Why do you lie there on the forest floor, wooden arms reaching heavenward as if you have a right to add anything but nourishment to the soil? You should be standing! Get your roots together and make a nest for the sparrows.

You have it good. Why do you need to be heard?

Photo by Russell James

Photo by Russell James

Debt

ryderw22Tuesday morning at the cafe. My manuscript is marked throughout with notes saying {more here} in all the places where the shovel hit caliche. The {more here}s represent gaps in the dialogue, failed attempts at description or character reaction—places where I couldn’t think of a single damn thing to say. I’m always aware when I add a {more here} that I’ll owe myself the words at some point. Those little flags aren’t going to delete themselves.

So here we are. Seventy-five {more here}s, and me with my coffee, thinking ah, pickles. Now what’ll I do.

What do you owe yourself?

Wolf

It’s 2:24 a.m. Are you asleep? Did you flip the pillow, settle your cheek, bliss out to the sound of your heartbeat in the down? Does your back hurt? Is your temple damp with tears? Are you fighting, fucking, necking, coming, sleep-jamming to Mr. Manning’s radio while the street lights wash your PJs white and red? Will anybody love you? Will you die before the dawn? Is it Mardi Gras in dreamland, all foil beads and thongs? Is a black hole forming in the space behind the morning, sucking your joy away. Will you wake up muddled, gritty and befuddled under that lumbering silence, that shuddering stillness, that unholy oneness that makes your molars ache. Turn your head; your eyeballs drag along behind and ponderously alight: curtain, blanket, closet, door . . . Your house is crackers and sugar-glass, one small bad wolf with a squirt-gun could melt the whole thing down. It’s 2:26 a.m., are you sleeping now?

How’s your sleep?

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Photo by Aneta Bartos

Blue Balls

I saw a movie today in which nothing happened. No build-up, no payoff, no shootout or car chase or first kiss or courtroom drama. No mystery, solved or lingering, no childhood romance or complicated family life, no dilemmas relating to career or parenting or religion or old-school morality. No glorious technicolor dreamcoat. No unintended leaks of laughter. No CGI. Or soulful interactions, or nuanced flicks of an eyelash. No blow jobs in the alley. No torch singer on a piano. No afterlife, or altered life, or simple life, or coma. Except in the audience, I am sorry to say.

Nothing. Happened.

Have you read any books like that?

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Wank

The gimmicks are starting to pile up. In addition to the candy dish and the coffee shops, the fine-point Pilot PreciseGrip pen and crappy spiral notebook, dog walks and Pinterest board and the down pillow under my special ass, I have decided I need a soundtrack. It’s not a recent decision, by the way—I always create a soundtrack, it’s part of my Process, dude—but it’s safe to say I’ve reached the obsessive point in putting this one together. I have mixed and burned seven CDs in the past two weeks. I carry the latest incarnation everywhere and play the songs almost every time I step away from the page, as if a few hours of intermittent thought about my child, say, or the state of the Middle East might cause a fatal distraction that will keep me from finishing my book. It’s true that the music does help, but as with the other gimmicks, its main value is in girding me against the terrifying prospect that I’m in this all on my own.

I wonder why it is that creative work seems so untrustworthy. Faced with a mountain of data entry and two months left to complete it, I wouldn’t feel the impulse to burn sage or paint henna on my writing hand. I’d get down and do it. I have always tried to approach writing with a worker-bee mentality, but the fear is ever-present and must be beaten down daily (with a crappy spiral notebook and seven CDs). My superstitions offer relief from the anxiety of coming at writing empty-handed.

Of course, the maddening reality is that I am alone in this endeavor. I am. You are. Nothing beyond your cranium can save you. You can Scrivener the motherfucker, or wear your Rushdie T-shirt, or scribble in the margins, or stand on a wide gray beach with a stick in your hand, you can toke your plot or change your font, jerk off or drive off or crank up the Copper Blue and send a smoke signal heavenward to summon the god of writing—dear god, please save me from the terrible whiteness—but at some point you have to face the fact that the fucker is all in your brain.

Wank on that, baby.

How brave are you?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Hatter’s Hat

I am at the cafe with my stack of pages. I’ve decided that what my book needs is more. It needs riffs, and run-ons, and conversation, and twinkle lights. More threesomes. An excess of lovers. Amplification, illumination. More, more, more.

Two people take a table nearby. A lady is on her cell: This is Lauren—Lauren—and I need to reach the home office urgently. Please can you put me through? I need some advice on this deal, we’ve got to run a background check. . . .

I wish I had a home office. I need advice. I hang up crying after talking to my husband and try to assure myself it’s hormonal. Is it hormonal, home office? Will we ever bridge the distance or is this what my life has become, what I’ve let it become: one square mile and a palm tree, water all around. Or is this a pool of tears? Did I fall into the rabbit hole when I put my pen to the page? Am I falling still, end over end, my sky-blue skirt around my ears, soil on my mary janes? If I eat that mushroom, will I shrink or will I grow? Should I try to steal the hookah? Should I wear the Hatter’s hat? We need to run a background check, home office, who are we dealing with here. This is Averil—Averil. The realest part of me is the backside of a clock that runs the wrong way round.

What would you ask the home office?

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Five

I’ve been on a job-application binge the last two weeks. I’d love to say that employers are banging down my door, but sadly this is not the case. I wonder if it’s my answer to the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years question, which has come up repeatedly and never fails to annoy me. What’s the right answer to that one, anyway? I hope to be alive, let’s say, still clothed and with a roof over my head. Still married, still writing, still free to walk the streets. Clearly the answer to an employer should fall along the lines of: I hope to be moving up the ranks! Acquiring new skills! Happily and slavishly devoted to the man, hoo-ah!

Look, I get it, and I can bullshit with the best of them. But what about my real work? What about writing? Where do I go from here?

I can’t decide whether it’s helpful to think long-term about writing. I tend to be a goal-oriented person and a real worker bee, but even knowing that about myself and retracing my steps as a writer doesn’t seem to indicate any clear direction for my future. I’ve considered starting a series with my next book. I have some rough ideas about what that might look like and it isn’t unappealing. But writing a series scares me a little. It’s such a long-term commitment, and what if the first one bombs? Or worse, what if I got bored with the characters? Boredom is death for a writer. Imagine slogging through book three of a trilogy when you were sick of the world you’d made by the end of book one.

Maybe it would be better to stick to single titles. I could write a sexed-up new adult book, maybe, or try to make like Gillian Flynn and hit the lottery with book three by sticking to my tried-and-true. Psychological suspense is the bomb-diggity as far as I’m concerned; I could write this stuff for a long time before it got old. But what if my thrillers aren’t that good, what if they wither on the vine? Would I bail? Try a new genre? Throw myself at my agent and demand that he hand over a bestselling plot?

I have no idea. All I can see at the moment is the manuscript under my nose, begging me to finish the rewrite.

What about you? Where do you imagine you’ll be in five years, writing or otherwise?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Moonrise

After a week of whirlwind family time, day trips and laughter, the house is nearly empty again. I am at my desk, watching the moon rise through the tips of the pine trees and into the pale gray sky. I’ve held all my children and my husband and my niece and my sister, and although they’ve scattered again, I am soothed by the reminder that I still can call them mine.

A writer’s craving for solitude is so innate and profound that at times I think we forget the point of our self-imposed isolation: human connection. We come to rely on the expression of written words instead of verbal ones, on x’s and o’s instead of real hugs and big sloppy kisses. Written words are safer, less impulsive. If your tendency like mine is to be annoyingly demonstrative with your affections, writing is a way to dampen the impulse and keep your distance from the people who might feel smothered by such undistilled endearments. It’s a form of emotional camouflage. It’s a way to reach out without having to look into another person’s face to see whether he accepts or rejects what you have to offer. Maybe what that all adds up to is nothing more nor less than cowardice, for all that we think we’re being brave.3a43194afc19378bcd70f221c23ebd87

My first husband used to tell me that I was too passionate. (I thought of him yesterday while watching a movie called Downloading Nancy (god, what a moronic title), about a woman whose life is so bleak and haunted that she hires a guy to kill her during sex. Anyway, there’s this scene where Nancy and her obtuse husband are at a company party, and she begs him to dance until finally he agrees, and she’s dancing at last and smiling and twirling under the corrugated ceiling strung with crepe paper streamers and dispirited balloons . . . and when she opens her eyes, the husband has wandered off and left her there alone. That scene was my first marriage.) Later boyfriends would disagree, baffled: It’s not possible to be too passionate. But it is, of course it is, and so I’ve spent the past twenty years in a slow withdrawal, unhelped by this new crack-junkie dependence on the written word. Maybe part of me feels that by channeling my passions into writing, I can turn them into something more palatable. Or at least set them a little aside.

But I wonder if it’s a case of being poisoned by the cure; sometimes I feel as emotionally boxed-in by the fix as I was by the original problem. Which is why being with the members of my family who don’t read is good for me. They only know of me what I choose to express, face to face, which forces me to say aloud the things I would normally suppress.

Or not, as is more often the case. I left several things unsaid last week. I tempered my endearments out of habit. Not fatally so, I mean I squeezed the stuffing out of them from time to time and gave them all my glib I-love-yous, but still I’m not sure I got the point across. I’m not sure there’s a way to express a love as big as this; there are only inadequate human attempts to connect—any way we can.

How does writing affect your relationships?

Damp

Summer is here. My produce box is all peaches and corn and smooshed-up tomatoes, and where the hell are you? And by that I mean, where’s your work? Last month I sucked, but on Saturday I wrote a lovely paragraph. It had rhythm, originality, it was hip and tight, with an unobnoxious chain of alliteration that appeared of its own accord. I was so happy about my paragraph that I lost a good twenty minutes while I sat and admired it.

Today I am at my window with my face like a hothouse flower pressed to the glass. Even my words are drooping, plopping one by one to the page. My arm has stuck to the paper. My eyebrows are damp. Twin pools have formed over my collarbones. But such is the power of the paragraph that instead of dragging my sweaty kid down to the lake for a dip, I have peeled off my bra and I’m propping my glasses at the bridge of my nose, my slick and shiny nose, and though my nape is a swamp I am standing like Marilyn over a tepid vent because I wrote something that for once does not suck and I’m damned if I’ll leave when I’m on fire.

What’s the last sentence you wrote, and where did you write it?

Photo by Veronique Vial

Photo by Veronique Vial

The Swarm

Last night I had a crazy dream:

My car is infested with bees. Just a few at first, buzzing around, darting out the open doors and crawling around the floorboards. But soon it becomes apparent that somewhere inside the car is a hive. Anyone who tries to come near is frightened away. The bees grow in number, and as we watch they begin to swarm into discernible shapes: a wolf, a bear, the head and torso of a demon. They are chasing me, everywhere I go, into every house and room, they swarm through the crack under my bedroom door, follow me out the window and all through the neighborhood. My little dog makes a run at the bee-bear. It snaps her head into its mouth, shakes her, tosses her body to the ground. I am screaming, mute and maddeningly slow as if underwater. I’m begging a stranger to call animal control. I can’t, the lady says, I don’t know the number. She’s afraid of me, I’m the target of the demon bees, she wants nothing to do with me and I realize with fresh terror that animal control will never believe that bees could behave this way. I am stung on the back of the hand, the site of a cluster of cutter’s scars. The bite is red and festering hot. You are allergic, my mother says, call 9-1-1. My arm is swollen and numb, and when I wake at last I realize it’s gone to sleep. It flops disembodied on the sheets for several seconds before the feeling returns, as if a blanket of needles is being dragged up my arm.

It takes me about thirty seconds to analyze the dream: the bees are words. It’s a dream about writing.

* * *

Yesterday I finished a questionnaire for Alice Close Your Eyes, which will appear at the end of the book. One of the questions was, What is it like to write about people with such intense, painful stories?

Like wrangling bees.

What is writing like for you? Any revealing dreams you’d like to share?

Photograph by Richard Avedon

Photograph by Richard Avedon

Gesture

“What I’m trying to say is that ‘genre’ is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply ‘commercial.’ Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?

“One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.”

I’ve had this excerpt and my response sitting on the back burner for some time, but it seems I lack the courage (and probably the intelligence) to deconstruct my reaction to it. I will only say that there’s a lot of blue-collar girl in me, and when I read stuff like this piece by Arthur Krystal for The New Yorker, my hand itches to make the universal jerk-off gesture in response.

Can’t we all just get along?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Deadhead

This morning we took a walk around the new neighborhood. We found a park on the shores of yet another enchanting lake, where two bald eagles were fighting it out with a flock of infuriated starlings. We discovered the community center, which bears further exploration, and a small dock where children are allowed to fish. We stopped at the edge of a meadow to talk to the owners of two large dogs, who welcomed us to Lacey and gave us tons of advice and told us how much we’d love it here.

I needed the pick-me-up, because a pre-dawn reading through my pages after a week away has filled me with a mixture of shame and despair. I know that first drafts are notoriously ugly, I know I can fix what’s going wrong, but christ what a gargantuan mess it all seems from here. Like looking around your house and realizing that everything you own needs to be cleaned and packed and loaded and hauled and unpacked again when you get where you’re going. But although the analogy begs to be expounded upon, my friends, please don’t agree that writing a book is just like moving. That it’s like building a house, or making a long journey while never looking up from your feet, or working a jigsaw puzzle, or bathing a toddler, or fucking a donkey, or deadheading the roses, or writing a report about birds the night before it’s due. Today I refuse to be comforted. My misery wants company and platitudes need not apply.

Where’s your project on the fucked-uppedness scale?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Bamboozled

Lacey, Washington.

The move is behind us now and I am in my new writing room, surveying the boxscape and swilling yet another cup of coffee. Over the past couple of days I have vacillated between relief at our new, more manageable rent and the sinking feeling that I’ve made a mistake by choosing this house in a town where once again we will be utterly alone. Now that we’re getting to know the place and I’m settling in, I see more clearly why I was drawn here: it’s because the floor plan, particularly the kitchen area, strongly resembles the one my sister lived in for years. A house where we gathered often, where we cooked together, where we laughed and ate and drank, where we celebrated birthdays and Christmases and Father’s Days, back when our dad was there to be celebrated.

Strange the way the mind works. I didn’t consciously choose this property because it looks like my sister’s house; in fact, if I had pinpointed the source of my connection to the place, I would have overridden it and found something newer, more convenient, and with fewer honey-dos for my beleaguered husband. (He’s outside now. It’s 9:30pm and he’s mowing the lawn. On Father’s Day.) The fact that my subconscious has bamboozled me into what may not have been wise choice makes me uneasy. What else might I do as a result of some unacknowledged homesickness?

My sister divorced after we moved to Portland and she’s got a new place of her own. I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever see my brother-in-law again, or the house they shared, or whether we will all be together the way we used to be. Change is inevitable. On the surface I accept that. But I wonder if this house is an attempt to recover something that’s been irretrievably lost.

Does it ever seem that your subconscious is steering you off-course?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Lunch

I’ve been following a new PRI project called Food For 9 Billion: What’s For Lunch? It’s a look at the world’s eating habits and how people are adjusting to climate change by eating more sustainably and trying to eliminate waste. Some of the stories have made me realize how much food we throw away at my house and how unacceptable that is. I mean, the heel of the bread is still bread, right? And it’s not like those bananas gave no warning that they were going round the bend. That bit of leftover cheese could flavor a white sauce for the handful of dried pasta at the bottom of the bag. Add a couple of almost-over cherry tomatoes and you’ve got yourself a lip-smacker. The point is, I can and should do better at managing our family’s consumption by flexing a little creative muscle when meal times come around.

Also, I’ll admit to a certain amount of voyeurism when it comes to people’s grocery carts, and I’m always sneaking a glance at the table next to mine in case they’ve ordered something better than what’s in front of me. So I’m going to enjoy the hell out of the Instagram photos that are beginning to trickle in from around the world in answer to that burning question:

What did you have for lunch?

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Room

This Friday we’ll be moving again. It’s not going to be easy to leave Portland or our tall blue house by the lake. (And the goslings are bristling with feathers. I so wish we could stay to see them fly.) But our new place, though crusty and strangely lacking in baseboards, has its charms. Next weekend I’ll be unpacking my books in a room of my own. 2885044057_a1ed9aacd7

Let me tell you. The room is at the front of the house, with a window looking over the rhododendrons to the curved street at the end of the drive. On the far wall is a lovely brick fireplace, and the third wall opposite the window is a blank white canvas, which I can line with bookcases and photos of my family. There’s no door to close, but the room situated in such a way as to be out of sight/mind from the rest of the crew while I’m working, and the TV is separated from ‘my’ room by several walls so I won’t have to hear the damn thing at all except when I want to. I’ll have my recliner in the corner. My desk under the window. A fire burning on those rainy winter mornings when the house is quiet and all I want to do is think about my stories.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that a writer needs a dedicated room in which to work, or expect that I will overflow with creative energy once my desk is feng shuied into alignment. I will still spend a lot of writing time at the library (OMG, a new library to explore, I just realized!) and the coffee shop (oh, a coffee shop, too!), because it fills me with confidence to slam down the pages while a crowd eddies around me. But I’ll admit I’m charmed by the book-nook. I’m conjuring visions of myself in geek-glasses and bed-head, with my pages in my lap and my little dog asleep by the fire and all the stormy afternoons when I’ll be able to say, It’s a perfect day for writing.

What makes for a good writing day? Is that a mood? A situation? A deadline breathing down your neck?

Market

Yesterday my son and I went to the farmers market. (The haul: potatoes, carrots, cherries, asparagus, strawberries, ruby chard, blue cheese and onion bread, and one carrot muffin.) The market is a groovy place. All those fresh-scrubbed faces, the dewy rows of green and red, carrot-tops swaying like a damsel’s hair from the crook of a shopper’s arm. I like the simplicity of the cash transaction: ~ Here are some radishes I’ve grown. They’re good for you, and beautiful in their humble way. Would you like some? ~ Why, yes I would, they smell so…radishy! I admire the farmers for the dirt on their boots and the way they’ve scrubbed it from their fingernails, for the pride they take in bringing the literal fruits of their labor to the marketplace. There’s no second-guessing, no ambiguity about the benefits of what they’re selling. No angst, no drama, no apologies. A farmer doesn’t think, I’m small-time, I have no business here, with my small table of leafy greens. I should pack them up and go home and eat a bag of Doritos. No, he smiles, offers what he has, engages in conversation over the relative spiciness of the mustard green and tells you it’s delicious when sauteed in garlic oil.

It’s difficult for a writer to adopt the farmer’s mindset; ours is not that kind of trade. It’s a psychological transaction, and the book itself, the physical item, is only the packaging. What we’re selling may or may not be good for the consumer. If it’s ugly, if it’s misshapen and bruised and overripe—and we sort of know it is, via a long series of rejection letters and critique—how do we sell it? Do we acknowledge the polluted soil? The moldy berry at the bottom of the carton?

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Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Candy

Many thanks to Indy for leading me to this gem of an article:

Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.

People who create know this. They know the world is all strangers with candy. They know how to say “no” and they know how to suffer the consequences. Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:

“‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

“No” makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, anti-social, uncaring, lonely and an arsenal of other insults. But “no” is the button that keeps us on.

How do you guard your time?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Edges

When I pitched the Blackbird proposal to my agent, one of the first things he said was, That’s ambitious. I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant at the time. The book existed beautifully in my head, ticking backward through time from the murders to the causes, a delicious bite of fucked-up psychology in each chapter along with a through-line of sexual pathos to keep the fuse crackling. It’s a good story. I feel it there still, at the back of my mind. But in trying to pin the words to the page, it’s becoming clear that this back-to-front structure is a sonofabitch. Instead of writing the scenes in order, I find I’m having to take runs at the story by first laying down the current-day action, then working in the subtext as I revise each scene. Later still, I’ll make a third pass to add the back story, which at this point exists only in my head, but which is driving the characters onward (to death and destruction, cause I live for that shit).

What I hope I’ll have when I’m finished is a story that’s structurally complex but easy for the reader to follow. What I have right now is a table full of puzzle pieces, turned every which way, and a rising sense of frustration at how long it’s taking me to assemble the edges.

How do you build the structure? Does it take shape as you write the first draft? Do you begin with an outline? Or do you throw scenes at the wall to see if they stick.

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Hard Drive

I’m wedged into my draft at 30K. Everything I write seems shallow and off-putting and juvenile, even the sexy bits, which sound as if they were written by Elizabeth Hasselbeck for Ladies Home Journal. Since when am I afraid to drop a c-bomb?

Why is writerly confidence such a fleeting thing? In the space of an afternoon, I can go from self-congratulatory laps around the living room to gnarled up in the corner at the thought of dying before I can erase this draft from my hard drive. (As if, but for my ongoing vigilance, someone would break in to my computer and steal The Precious away.) Why do we invest so much of our self-worth in these stories, these awful repetitive stories that in the end will probably be read by our mothers and a handful of people who happen to be tuned to the same frequency? Why is it all so fucking important? The top-selling book of all time is crack fiction mommy-porn, in which the POV character carries on a running conversation with her inner goddess while her boyfriend slicks her up with baby oil and swats her bottom with a gray silk tie; do we really think someone’s going to notice that metaphor about the crow on page ninety-four?

Do readers ever read the way we wish they would?

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Breakers

Do you wonder where you’re going? When you walk in circles around your house, or in jagged lines leading out and back, Etch-a-Sketch rectangles around that dot at the center, do you sometimes wish to bend your steps for the long road and keep on walking? I woke up this morning in a fever of shame and exasperation, thinking I’d do almost anything to rid myself of me. If I kept walking through the rain and wind, would my clothes fall away in tatters, would my mind finally empty, would I be reborn on the shores of a distant sea and dive like a porpoise through the breakers and lick the salt from my lips on a bed of sun-warmed sand? Would the tide wash away my footsteps. Would I finally be forgotten, having left no mark behind me. How does one disappear? I’ve made children, I’ve made a home. I’ve left my writing like graffiti on the library walls. I’ve carved my name on the tree and there’s no way now to remove it. Even the smallest child, who dies without taking a breath or a pull at the breast, is remembered by its mother. How do we escape that. How do we go softly away and leave no scar behind us?

Do you wish to be remembered or forgotten?

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Photograph by Russell James

Wand

I have a magic wand. Here’s what happens when I wave it over DC:

  1. No filibuster. A simple majority passes the legislation.
  2. The President would serve an 8-year term. House, 4 years. Senate can keep its 6. No one gets reelected. You serve your term and out you go.
  3. Elected officials would not be permitted to work for lobbies once they leave office.
  4. Anyone citing their 2nd Amendment rights would be made to repeat the words “well regulated” ten times in a row, and recite the definition of “regulation” afterward.
  5. Marijuana would be legal and heavily taxed by the States. Proceeds go toward public schools.
  6. Marriage would be defined as existing between two people.
  7. Massive tax incentives for green energy, massive tax burdens for anything manufactured to run on gasoline.
  8. The military budget would be cut in half. That jobs program would be directed at infrastructure instead.
  9. Pharmaceutical companies would be prohibited from advertising to the public.
  10. Costs of medical care would be regulated to adhere to the CMS fee schedule, no matter who’s providing the goods or service.

Bonus swish:

Government subsidies would be rerouted from burgers and fries to apples and carrots. It should not cost twice as much to buy a pint of blackberries as it does a Happy Meal.

If you’d like to borrow my magic wand and wave it over your government, be my guest. In fact, just keep it. The fucker doesn’t work at all.

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

Fizz

This is the obligatory my-sister’s-in-town drunk post, which for me means a single, enormous huckleberry fizz and a couple of potent sips of my sister’s fireball whiskey. Hello keyboard, where’s the ‘L’.

We’re drinking for medicinal purposes, though, having spent an entire day in the car with two cranky children who answered “I wanna go home” to every suggestion we made. And for once, I don’t blame them. We were supposed to make the drive along the river gorge and see the waterfalls, but due to my profound inability to point my car in the right direction, we ended up eating fish and chips in Astoria and taking a freezing walk along first the beach and then the riverfront, each of us dragging a child by one ear and tripping over a small freaked-out dog who is capable of reaching a whole new register of yowling when a fire engine screams down the road beside her.

This sort of thing always happens to me. I get lost constantly, even with a map, because maps only work if you can locate the point on the map where you’re headed. I am also hopeless with landmarks, traffic signs, and anything resembling a compass. I once picked up two Swedish hitchhikers and took them all the way to the Grand Canyon, then missed the entire state of Nevada on my way back.

If there’s a prize for dumbass tour guide, I think it should be mine. And I think it should involve a-a-a-alcohol.

Does anyone feel my pain?

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Gremlins

I’m on the hunt for new music. Since I can’t figure out how to make the iTunes store work properly on my computer, browsing usually consists of wandering around YouTube, listening to snippets of whatever the digital gremlins think I might like, then going back to iTunes to make the purchase. Unfortunately, YouTube has developed a profile of my musical tastes based on my willingness—let’s call it desperation—to find something worth listening to. I try to be open-minded about music and give obscure musicians a chance to hook me, which means that my browsing history is more a litany of frustration than a predictor of what I’d like to hear. f48e043a7402d7c193074dc0f1ea8645

Obviously the gremlins don’t understand the nuances of what makes music appealing. I can’t explain that I like this artist for the lyrics and that one for the catchy melodies, but today I’m in the mood for something different. That kind of shopping experience is dead, and I miss it. I miss going into a record store and hearing what’s playing in the background, talking with the hipster at the cash register who’d get into the hunt with me and turn me on to artists I never would have found on my own. I miss the personal introductions by other music lovers who would swoon over a good song, same as me. I miss the happy accidents.

These days, shopping for music has become a wearying visit inside the echo chamber of my own previous choices. I watch a Birdy video and suddenly YouTube is sure I’ll like Christina Perri. I don’t, particularly, though there’s one song I already own that’s not too bad. I click it, and now YouTube offers up Angus and Julia Stone, who I’ve never heard of but decide to try. I’m unimpressed; YouTube is encouraged. Mazzy Star! it says. Lana Del Rey! Echo and the Bunnymen! Fleet Foxes! Bon Iver! With every click I’m further down the rabbit hole, until YouTube is as exhausted as I am and the gremlins are downright snarky, directing me back to Birdy as if I’ve never heard of her.

I ask you. Would a hipster think he was being clever by suggesting the artist you started with?

Obviously the same thing is going on in book world, but this post has already depressed the hell out of me so I’ll leave it to you to connect the dots.

Is it old and crotchety to mourn the loss of serendipity?

Rocks

Yesterday I went on a binge. A Frontline binge. I spent an entire day gobbling up programs about the Wall Street meltdown, the mortgage crisis, the fiscal cliff and the history behind this generation’s clusterfuck of a financial system.

The human element is what fascinates me in all this. The idea of money beyond the point of using it, when the numbers become a scorecard and the players lose all sense of proportion as to what money is and how regular people experience it. The currency here is not gold or paper but confidence. Power. The economy as we know it resides in the form of a few neurotic bald men propped up by their ledgers and fancy suits who can’t answer a straight question about what the numbers actually mean. I really think they don’t know.

Very few women in this game, unsurprisingly, and I don’t think it’s only about the glass ceiling. There’s a fundamental part of me that fails to grasp the psychology here, because this level of competition seems to arise from some primal, vaguely sexual part of the male brain that I do not possess. Monetary scorekeeping bewilders me. This is not a virtue on my part, by the way. I can relate to other forms of greed—grittier, low-rent conflict over love and within families. I understand sexual greed. I really understand obsession. Those things are equally awful. But I can’t make the leap to translate the desire of one person for another to the lust for money. A diamond is a shiny rock to me, I can’t assign a value to anything that is not alive, or at least useful. I keep thinking, why the hell does it matter who has more? What difference can it possibly make as long as you have enough? To have more than you know how to spend seems like madness to me.

I realized as I was watching that I could never write about this dimension of the human soul. Fascinating though it may be, you have to begin as a writer with some basic connection and empathy for your characters. And I feel nothing.

Is there some aspect of the human condition you can’t get your mind around?

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photograph by Ellen Von Unwerth