Saturday, August 29, 2009

Strong Feelings About Words

Over a week ago my blogging role model Mothership ( from Motherhood the final frontier, a blog I highly recommend - ) attempted to rope me into a meme. I tend to resist this sort of thing mighty fiercely. But the ideas behind it snuck into my head and influenced the radio-rant station that plays in my head when I forget to obsess about politics, religion, finances, and what is for dinner. So in the interest of drowning out the current din in my head about such exciting topics as how to make myself get more exercise, I am going to tackle these questions.

Which words do you use too much in your writing?

The sad thing is that the word “ the” is literally overused in my writing because when I get tired I just write it two or three times in a row like a sort of type-stuttering. I also have to take the word “very” out of almost every sentence. There could easily be an argument made for the overuse of “I” as well.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?

I hate it when new, probably unnecessary buzzwords are introduced and then heinously overused. Examples? Sustainable, and sustainability have replaced the old fashioned concept of just plain sensible. When did something that is not wasteful or designed with build in obsolescence in need of a special word? The same goes for carbon footprint, which is just another way of saying relative piggishness (high carbon footprint) versus relative stewardship of the planet (low carbon footprint). I am glad that use of these words has made wise use of resources trendy but I wish we could have just kept it in style all along.

Another word that I would like driven out of the language is the use of “got” when describing something that nobody would wish upon himself or herself. I got banana's at the store. I got some good news. Fine, no problem there.
He “got” raped? He got mugged and murdered? I don’t think so. He got a rash maybe. Although in the interest of not blaming the victim perhaps we could say he suffered from a rash. Agency is key- if people are always going out and getting mugged, murdered, and ripped off, then how are we to stop any of it? In the same line of thinking I would like to see the phrase “ blaming the victim” retired from the language because nobody does it anymore.

What’s your favorite piece of writing by you?

That varies from day to day. I hate most things when they are just finished, but if I leave them alone for a week or longer and come back then I am entertained by my own irreverence. I am pleased with this one;

What blog post do you wish you’d written?

I have several favorite blog posts. My favorite concept, that I wish I had thought of is from Vagnino Monologues- a series called " so you think you don't like poetry" that offers wonderful accessible poetry to change the minds of poetry haters everywhere.

My favorite romantic story is

Who I still owe for this

What is the strangest thing you have ever been asked to write about?

I don’t have to be asked to write about strange things. It comes far too naturally. More likely, I have to be asked, repeatedly, and with increasing volume not to write about all the strange things that happen daily in my family.

Name three favorite words…

Liminal, Jungian, and flourless chocolate cake.

And three words you’re not so keen on?
Cognizant- Please replace with aware. I just like the way it sounds better. It is less stuffy- and aware is one of my most favorite words and concepts.

Victim- just get rid of the whole concept. Replace with awareness.

Codependence- again, be done with the whole concept. Replace with awareness. I think I have a theme going here.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?

I have several. My role model as a writer is my father- who never fails to use writing as a way to explore his passion for art, music, and dance while financing his need for constant travel. My favorite writer as a child was Roald Dahl and I recently discovered an amazing children’s story by Saman Rushdie that was very much in that league.

I have a grudging respect for Elizabeth Gilbert, a huge deep love for Anne Lamott, and a wavering affection/annoyance thing going with Augusten Bourroughs. I also love David Sedaris and my small and reasonable goal is to somehow write like all of them, only better.

What is your writing ambition?

You mean apart from the Booker Prize and being on Oprah’s Book Club? I just stole that line from Mothership, and I don’t think American’s get the Booker, but I am open to all possibilities. I would actually rather win the Newbury Award than any other, once I get my 1980's version of "Go Ask Alice" ready for the young adult readers of the world. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Give Me That Microphone

Growing up I had an absolute horror of public speaking. It was so vicious that I intentionally let my grades droop at the end of middle school to avoid any possible chance of being chosen to give the graduation speech. The thought of standing up in the school gym, in front of the students of my small, insular, mostly supportive school was beyond terrifying. I was also the kid who could only mouth the words when singing ( in large groups) at assembly and I tried to get permission to take a shower in my clothes after gym. I was generally thwarted by life. My father was chosen to give the guest speech to my class and I had to get up and introduce him. He added insult to injury by playing a drum and asking the whole room to chant with him in Yoruba. Wince, hands over eyes, hide under the stage.

As I have aged my ability to be embarrassed by anything anybody else does has been worn down by the wild unpredictable whims of my loved ones ( with the exception of my grandmother's love of using loud french as a secret language to talk trash about other people in public- somehow " stupide" never seems to be as hard to decode as it should be). I have come to enjoy my father's willingness to sing, dance, shout, and do martial arts while also giving a slide lecture. I have come to join the rest of the family in our loud, competitive story/joke/outrageous lie telling. I may even have become one of the loudest tellers of myth and hyperbolic truth. I have also grown much less fearful of individual performance, thanks to an incident at the registry when my skirt elastic gave way while I was holding a baby and a toddler. Maintaining dignity in granny pants without losing my active toddler, dropping my baby, or losing my place in line was instructive.

Perhaps one reason I have learned to keep talking, or walking, or whatever I need to be doing is that I have rosacea. When I am hot, angry, passionate, or have eaten spicy food, or anything I am allergic to I turn bright red, not just my cheeks but my throat and chest. I am a teacher, and opportunities to be hot, angry, or passionate abound on any given day. Wearing a turtleneck up over my nose all day gets old after a while. I learned that if I just kept on talking and moving and making sense, a little, that I could in fact live through it. And I learned that the less I cared what I looked like, or what other people thought about me, the less often I flushed in public.

Oddly though my ability to hold it together in my classroom did not carry over to less performance anxiety in other settings. I can keep the conversation moving forward in my own space, or with my own family, but put me in a new group and I am as shy as I was when I was three. But then recently a good friend asked me to go with her to an open mike event and just check it out, as she was considering reading some of her creative writing. I went with her and listened as people from my community told stories, sang, rapped, read random passages from books, joked, and ranted. I felt a strange affinity for these people, most of them strangers. I wanted to try it.

The next time my friend and I both signed up. We were very nervous. We smoked cigarettes. My bladder behaved as if I was nine months pregnant. I coughed, and wheezed, and trembled. But when it was time to just do it I got up and told a story without notes and words came out of my mouth, words that made some sort of sense. I felt so dizzy with basic fear while I did it, but then I felt a wave of ease when I finished. And then the next week I did it again, only this time I read something I wrote. And this time I did not feel shakey, or incontinent and I was able to stay in my head while I did it, so I can actually remember what I said. I was also able to pay better attention to other people because I was not so caught in fear of my own potential failure.

I am going to keep doing this- and move to combine things I have written with stories I have always loved to tell. I am going to write new work that is specifically designed for performance live. Perhaps, like my father, I will add some music and dance and singing, but perhaps not.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What I really wanted was an Ivory Elephant.

A few days ago I was stuck in line, in Dunkin Donuts, behind a woman who was to my mind the epitome of all that is wrong with society. She wondered if she could order the special, a large coffee and a muffin. But, instead of coffee she would like some ice tea. Lemon, no raspberry, no on third thought, lemon. With ice, and a slice of real lemon. Lots of ice, two straws. And, instead of a muffin, would it be possible to substitute a bagel? I watched as the young woman who was serving her struggled to maintain a friendly demeanor. I watched as the line behind this woman got longer and longer. Then she wanted some water, for her son. No, not just water, also with a slice of lemon. Oh, could you dump some of it out and add more ice? And another piece of lemon. I had plenty of time to think about what exactly was making me so irritated. I am very sympathetic to people on special diets, the gluten allergic, diabetics, lactose intolerant, and others. I am not troubled to go out to dinner with friends who want to ask the waiter questions, or see if there is a way to use soy milk instead of cow milk in the latte. It was not what she wanted that troubled me so much as her apparent unawareness that the store was short staffed and that there were quite a few people in line behind her. Or was she aware?
When I got finally to order I asked for a large latte with caramel. The patient young lady brought it to me, and then rang up a regular coffee, saving me several dollars. . She winked at me. I made up a story in my mind about how I was being rewarded for ordering something off the regular menu. I accepted my bargain beverage, and wandered back out into the humidity still thinking about people who want something just a little more.
I thought of an old friend who is a contractor. He told me that people tend to pull this same stunt, only on a much larger scale, when they have work done in their homes. He told me that just recently he had built an elaborate staircase for a couple in an affluent suburb. The wife had changed her mind a few times about the type of wood she wanted, but had settled on quarter sawn oak. My friend had worked very hard to build a staircase to a standard of craftsmanship that was normal one hundred years ago but is now almost impossible to attain. He was very proud of his work. On the day he finished the wife stood at the bottom of the stairs, which curved up to a landing and then curved again . She remarked that maybe it would be better if the stairs came down on the left side instead of the right. How hard would it be to take them down and put them back the other way? My friend managed to communicate with her that while it would be possible , it would not be done by him now or ever. He also might have mentioned that should she so desire that he rebuild the stairs entirely out of ivory, , that he would not be interested in that project either. He might have made fun of her posh but put on accent, or copied her dramatic hand gestures. Let's just say it was not a meeting of the minds. But his imitation of her saying in a whiny voice "I know I said I wanted a stair case, but what I really had in mind was an elephant, a big white elephant carved out of ivory..." was quite endearing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Grandmother Explains It All

The recent uptick in the debate about gay marriage, and my jaded response, which is that it is time for us to take a critical eye to the so-called standard version, the one where they man and woman get married, buy some real estate, have some babies, cheat on each other, abuse substances, rack up substantial credit card debt, fight whose parents were the worse influence , gain a bit too much weight ( or conversely take up running to the point of anorexia) stop having sex,and eventually divorce, had brought my attention to the every more maddening attempts of the "defense of marriage" crowd to stake out marriage as their ordained hetero-turf. I had a flash of insight as I remembered one my essential moments truth about my family of origin, and their relative ability to make any sense about anything at all.
I spent most of my summers, from about five to my twenties, living with my grandparents ( and later just grandmother) at their large, moldy, partially winterized home on the ocean. My grandmother was bound and determined to shape me to be the same kind of woman as herself, no matter how much this might anger my own parents, who were not her biggest fans. It has always made me go "hmmm" to ponder how my parents thought it was a good idea to send the kids off to live with their biggest critic. To say that words flew, both to the face and behind the back, in a constant battle for my child-soul, loyalty, and class affiliation, as well as basic understanding of my gender roll, would be a major understatement. My father made no secret of his belief that his mother-in-law was a thought criminal, a person capable of remote castration using her mind alone, and also the traditional rich/bitch/witch and anything else that rhymes with itch. My grandmother made no secret of her belief that my father was a lunatic, a practioner of the dark arts, and even worse, a writer. As a result, for much of my childhood I felt like a push me pull you in a fight of magical proportions. But I gained much from this, because I could not choose sides, without being ripped in half ; I had to learn early on that not everything that people say is true, and not everything they say you have to do must be done, and not everything they say they believe is even remotely believable.
One moment of awareness came when my grandmother first heard about AIDS. She was scared, of course, because she had her hair washed and combed up into a beautiful puffy fluff, and pinned tight enough to stay that way until next weeks wash, by a man she described as a 'flit'. Gay still described pretty purple flowers on an Easter bonnet in her world. And if AIDS was transmitted by touch, then surely she could catch it by having her hair washed? No, not likely, her best friend reassured her, not unless a whole lot more is going on at the same time. Like what? My grandmother wondered. Well, um, urgent whispers. My grandmother sat frozen as her friend explained, in what must have been fairly graphic detail, what she would have to do with her stylist to be at risk. She actually turned pale. Did you know about this? She demanded. Um,yes, I had to admit, I have heard tell. I will spare you the rest of the conversation, in which is was revealed that my grandmother was literally unaware of many of the options on the sexual menu, and this explained why she put unmarried same-sex couples on opposites sides of the house during visits, but put gay couples together. She just thought they were limited to harmless cuddling. Oh, my poor grandfather.
I did encourage my grandmother to attend more foreign films, and I lent her some beach paper back novels that contained some core information. She underlined an entire scene in a spy novel where two women get freaky on a sail boat, and left it out in the hallway so that I could too benefit from this new knowledge. I was stunned that the things I had gathered from the great works of Judy Bloom while in middle school were newsflashes to this woman in her late 70's, but more was to be revealed. A few weeks into her research she sat me down on the sun porch and told me that she had been reading and she had figured out what was causing all these perfectly nice young men to "go gay". It was of course, the fault of the feminists. Feminists, as you all perfectly well know, are all heterosexual women, promiscuous, and boldly bluntly critical of their many male sexual partner's performance. In fact , they rate them in a system that is similar to an Olympic event, not just giving them a score card, but letting them know how they stand up ( or not, as the case may be) to the competition. So when Jane ( the evil feminist) sleeps with Tom, Dick, and Harry ( my grandmother really used these names, perhaps the most mortifying part of the whole conversation, where I felt I was sliding into a surreal gross joke) and then she tells poor Tom that Dick has a bigger package ( not her real word choice) and Harry knows how some better moves ( again, not quite how she put it) and so Tom of course, turns gay. And this is a good move for him because gay men never objectify each other or make comparisons, or even care about size at all. It only matters to women! Of course! More importantly I now understood the cornerstone of the "Brides must be virgins" rules on traditional marriage.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

But Sir, Don't You Know?

My father is a man of great imagination. I have to say I may have gotten some of my storytelling and hyperbole from him. The thing is with my father though, that when he says he is going to do something, no matter how fantastical, age-inappropriate, celebrity stalkerish, or just plain dangerous, he is no fooling going to do it. He is also not going to get smacked down for hubris the way ordinary mortals do, either. He is going to learn a new martial art as a senior citizen, date a Kennedy, get kicked out of Angola with an AK-47 in his face, mysteriously master Arabic in his one year of Law School, you know, that kind of stuff everyone's father does. But once in a while he meets with frustration.
Recently he decided to use the carrot method to motivate some of his students to achieve a goal. Let's just say hypothetically that he wanted them to kick the asses of all the other students at a decent sized university. Let's just say that they had not done this in a while and that if they did win, a big gold carved cup would be bestowed on them, in a ceremony that might look like something from Indiana Jones and the Golden Snitch, if that was a movie. He wanted them to win, quite badly. So he made them a solemn promise. If they could just please bring home the glory of the golden chalice he would reward them by throwing a large party, lots of beer and pizza, and also just for the fun of it, a real live Lion. I don't know about undergraduates, they are a funny bunch. They really wanted to meet the lion. So they practiced and practiced and they punched speed bags while playing "Eye of the Tiger" over and over, and they won a lot of different sport game things.
My father proudly and happily called up Barnum and Bailey, and told them he needed a lion, not for the whole day, just for the afternoon. As soon as the exact nature of his inquiry was understood the circus put the special concierge of circus animal rentals on the phone. This person had a very posh British accent, the sort that would suit a butler in a 19th century costume drama.
"But Sir, don't you know that a lion is a man-eating carnivore? Lions can be quite unpredictable. In the past there have been a number of unfortunate incidents.Do you really think this is an appropriate guest for your event?"
Did they perhaps have anything similar to a lion, maybe just a hair smaller and a hair less man-eating? Like a leopard? or a tiger? The devastating truth was revealed that these animals also can get kind of crazy at parties. There was also the issue of the cost; $10,ooo per hour, for the most elderly, docile, and threadbare of the lions. And that did not include insurance, which might not be easy to arrange.
Many would falter when met with this kind of unimaginative withholding of circus animals from the party environment. Not my father, oh no. Instead he called up another one of those numbers that we all have in our rolodex. Right after "circus rentals" we find "fursuit rentals". We don't? Nonsense. Of course we do, if we know how to throw a decent party. He rented a couple of very high quality lion costumes. He found a couple of shy but eager to dress up students, and the party was a smash.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Running with Brooms- College Quidditch comes of age.

Today one of my colleagues assisted a student in writing a paper about our school's proud tradition- Intercollegiate Quidditch. We have a fine team and participate in the World Cup. As soon as the student left we rushed to investigate . I learned that the sport, which has been moderately adapted from the Harry Potter version ( due to technical difficulties with flying brooms and recruitement of golden snitches) has blossomed into a sort of dodgeball/soccer/running mad in a cape with a broom between your legs and trying to snatch a couple of tennis balls in a sock out of the back of the "snitches" shorts- mayhem. I could not find any live video on line, just some compelling photographs of the recently developed official brooms, which look a bit like rifle handles with black toothbrush bristles at the end. I was able to determine that Quidditch is coed, muddy, and played mostly at fancy schools like Princeton and Amherst.
I have many questions, many of them unanswerable until next fall's Quidditch season, when I plan to attend as many live games as possible. But one thing that immeadiately came up was the way in which Quidditch is fast becoming an American sport. The logo is the outline of a broom riding athlete against a red, white, and blue shape that brings to mind the major league baseball insignia. Does Quidditch have the same presence in the United Kingdom? Alas, it seems not. There is a web site designed to "Find Quidditch Partners in the UK". The best thing about it is the survey questions. Rate your level of interest in the sport from "obsessed", "enjoy it" "gotta be in the mood" and "not that good". Skill level? Choose among "Waiting to Bloom" and "I suck" among some other more optimistic possibilities. A gentleman named Lee, 39, from London, also interested in Yoga and FourSquare, is the only person we managed to match up with.
I look forward to the day when Quidditch makes strides into secondary education, and a gifted snitch can obtain the golden scholarship to Princeton to play in glory. I also hope to see Quidditch, perhaps with some what more forgiving rules about full body tackling, introduced to younger children, so that they may find the chance to mix a favorite book series, a cape, and a little rough outdoor play in a new American hybrid- fantasy sports that take place with real players. Magic, clearly phallic brooms, mud, reading appreciation, costumes, and athletic prowess; If this sport doesn't have something for everyone then I can't think of anything that does.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Othello 2

There is an article in the NYT today called "Teenage Girls Stand by their Man'. Apparently it is shocking and surprising to the writer, and several people interviewed, that teenage girls would want to blame Rhianna for getting smacked around by Chris Brown. The article is in the fashion and style section. Of course! Because only girls who want pretty purses care about this whole silly thing anyway.
The thing that sends me off the deep end is the ending, where a teacher suggests that the way to get these kids thinking is to have them write a new ending for Othello, one where Desdemona gets help in time. What would that look like? Perhaps adding a time machine, or the intervention of Jesus, or both would help, as it did in my current favorite film Hamlet 2. I mean, why should anybody have to die in a tragic play? It's a bummer, and it wrecks the sequel because the cast is all dead. And if we can rewrite Shakespeare, we can rewrite the private lives of pop stars, and then maybe our whole culture. Are you happy now? Good.
Okay, lets do this. But before we do I need to mention one of my all time favorite student papers. One of my students wrote a paper about Othello a few years back. The thesis was " Othello killed Desdemona because she was a cheating whore, and if my girlfriend cheated on me I would kill her too.". I had to hold still and breathe just a little before I gently suggested that he might have missed the part where Iago set her up, or that other part in class where we talked about how the whole double standard made it possible for him to do that.
Here is my suggested new ending for Othello. Jesus beams down in the time machine and holds a prayer circle ( kind of like the Bush in the Oliver Stone version) and everybody suddenly realizes that Iago is a manipulative sociopath ( who needs hugs, and prozac) this leads to the awarenesses that women have just as much right to sexual agency as men, being genuinely kind and pure and loving is so much more important than silly gossip, and come to think of it war is wrong, and so is racism. Everyone becomes gender neutral, a similar shade of pretty blue, gently environmentally socialist, and then they sing, loudly, about how therapy is going to help everyone. Curtain fades, as they all wander off to the female orgasm meditation circle. Aw.
Then Jesus gets back in the time machine and lands on the White House lawn. Soon Republicans and Democrats are similarly overcome with so much empathy and genuine hope for social justice that it feels like a warm bath on ecstacy. It spreads world wide, ending violence, oppression, bad taste, reality television, and pms. Did I mention that all world religions suddenly realize that they share a ban on killing and a do unto others rule, that if followed would end war and the necessity to carp about religion? Just love each other people. Stand by your man, stand by your woman, and stand by your designer purse. Fade out.