Friday, January 31, 2014

Reading Is Magic for Muggles!

[In trying to find a clever title for this post, I Googled "reading slogans" and some of them are exactly as lame as I remember from my elementary school library. This list. Egh.]

One of the things I love most about learning, especially learning in multiple fields, is how everything winds together. This week we read Plato in one of my classes, and were discussing the allegory of the cave; I mentioned in class that if you come from a film studies background, the allegory of the cave is always where you start, because that's what cinema IS. Two or three of the students turned around in their chairs to look at me, and although they could have been thinking "God, shut up," or "You are such a suckup," I think (from their faces) that they were thinking "Wow, I didn't put that together, but it is so cool."

It is! School is cool! And it's remarkable to me the way that philosophy verges on language verges on linguistics verges on math verges on philosophy. That's a tiny circle, but it can get bigger very easily, because everything does connect. You can interpret the allegory of the cave, just to take one particular foundation of Western thought, in any of a dozen fields of study and I'm pretty sure it will shed light (heh) on all of them in some way.

Sigh. Learning is so dreamy.

I've ended up with two classes this semester instead of three: Major American Novels II and Hybrid in Narrative. One is a very standard, straightforward class on...major American novels and the other one deals in experimental lit, both reading and writing. I believe that they will reflect very interestingly on each other. There have already been connections, of course, barely two weeks in. I'm bummed out about not getting into either of the other two classes I was gunning for, but them's the breaks.

We began in Novels with The Sun Also Rises, which I tried to read in my high school years and which bored me so horribly that I went back to...jeez, what was I reading then? García Márquez? I found it a lot easier to read this time, but I don't think I'll ever really love Hemingway. Some of the other students in the class also found the book boring. Next is As I Lay Dying, which I've read and liked, and I'm kind of giddy with anticipation about what the folks who haven't read any Faulkner are going to think of it. Some of them are going to hate the shit out of it, and I can't wait to hear about that.

Incidentally, at the beginning of 2014, I started a paper journal to record my impressions of all the things I take in: books, movies, operas, etc. In part I did this to keep those opinions away from this space, because I was using them as an excuse to put up posts on days when I couldn't think of anything to write about. In part I did this to collect all my intake in a way that is actually easier to index and recall than what I have here. (The search box on this site is so unreliable that I kind of can't believe it.) And a third part was that I could write as much as I wanted about books and movies, without worry that I'd bore anyone but myself; the piper to pay is that I have to write it all by hand. 

So I've been reading at the same pace as ever, but talking about it somewhere else. In January I've read some Ann Patchett, some Robert Stone, Mary Gaitskill's first novel, a biography of David Foster Wallace, a fascinating novel by Lionel Shriver, etc. And I did a ten-day marathon of all six original-series Star Trek movies, about which I had a lot to say. But I feel far better organized when I divide my life into separate boxes rather than tangling it all together.

Of course in reality it all goes together, like all the fields of inquiry do. But that doesn't mean you're as interested in the whole pattern as I am.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reblog: Unsightly

Today, my work appeared on Role/Reboot for a second time (yay!) in the form of an essay defending pubic hair. In the interest of riding that wave, here is a blog post about body hair that I wrote and posted here in December of 2011. Some aspects of it are no longer accurate, as I don't teach yoga anymore and I do actually leave my pits unshaven for months at a time, a practice I've grown to love. But that's a whole other post. Enjoy! 

It's Catalog Season in our mailbox, and the other day we received a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog - we probably purchased a single gift from them three years ago or something and are now on their holiday list ad eternium. As is the Schlemmer way, they had a lot of cool stuff in there, but something that particularly caught my eye was a home electrolysis...thing, a little machine about the size of a lady's electric razor that did permanent hair removal after numerous repetitions of swiping the thing over your unsightly body hair.

At first glance, I thought, YES, this is like a zillion times cheaper than salon electrolysis would be, and yes I'd probably have to swipe for several months in a row, but NO MORE SHAVING MY UNDERARMS, thank God, sign me up.

Then I thought about it some more. I thought about the idea of actually having no hair under my armpits. Ever. Again. Or on the tops of my toes; the little golden hairs that have grown there since I was in middle school are deeply humiliating to me (which is why I'm telling the whole internet about them). Or...well, no, those are the only two places that have hair I'd like to be permanently rid of. I'm kind of conservative that way.

The more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the idea of forever removing that hair. I never let my underarm hair grow out for more than a day or two, in part because I don't like to show hairy pits to my students when I'm teaching yoga and I teach a few times a week. But the idea of it gone forever was very disconcerting.

I think it's because I've never quite reached comfort about the amount of hair removal women are societally requested/required to do, and which I go on and do in order not to be frowned upon in femininity. Every time I see a woman with publicly fuzzy pits, I give her a little mental fist-bump: way to not conform, grrl. I wish I had your fuck-'em-all attitude. But I don't. It's not a step I feel comfortable taking, and that kind of bothers me, that I'm not gutsy enough to let my armpits be what they are and to hell with anyone who'll disdain me for it.

There's always the "I want to be as awesome as Patti Smith" defense.
Which, you know, is a thing.

I can't think of any occasion in the future where I'd want my armpit hair to grow, nor can I think of any kind of life situation I am likely to experience in my remaining years on this planet where I won't regularly "need" [want? have?] to remove it. But that hair is a part of me, the real me who sweats during exertion and gets crud under her toenails and relieves herself via urination and defecation. These are human things, and the way that our society paints over them with obsessive hygiene and creams and powders and soaps and unguents of every possible configuration, consistency, and aroma, is something that I'm often grateful for (on subways, etc.) but I'm also often kind of dubious about. It smacks of a lack of acceptance of our essential humanness, and it leaves us all with a shade of illusion over the bits we most genuinely have in common, for better or worse.

So although there's a big part of me that can only think of how awesome it would be not to have to scrape my armpits raw every day or every couple of days, there's another part that's warning me no. Don't ditch that unsightly hair. Our unsightly parts are the parts that keep us grounded and whole, the parts that prove that under the most expensive perfume and the most perfectly coiffed hairdo, we are still beautiful animals with feet of clay.

Or, as the kids say, everybody poops.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Avoiding the Act of Sitting

A couple of years ago, a cable channel adapted Bag of Bones with Pierce Brosnan. I thought it wouldn't translate very well to the screen, and I was right. One of the most (unintentionally?) hilarious aspects was the depiction of the main character's writer's block. Brosnan sat at his desk and talked to himself, put his head in his hands, screamed, drank, etc.

Aside from the drinking, I don't know that I've ever done anything like this when I'm blocked. Usually the block is just there, in the back of my head, like the knowledge of death. And in its nudest form, it's as uncinematic as depression, because if a blocked writer forces himself to sit in the chair and stare at the empty page/screen, he will not scream or mutter or do anything, really. He will sit. And sit. And sit. Eventually he will write to relieve himself from the act of sitting. That's how it works.

Writing about how I'm not writing would have been quite boring, which is why I tried to write about it in a brief, amusing way. I wasn't blocked, exactly, but I was having trouble with the act of sitting. I drafted a post early last week about the problem with one of the two big story ideas I'm kicking around right now, which has to do with whether I should figure out character first or the epiphany first, and which has ended up being so chicken-and-egg-y that I can't even get started. But I'm leery about posting extensive details of ideas I haven't written yet, lest someone more talented and less scrupulous than I decide to write the same story. Besides, I did end up writing something last week.

I wrote just when I said I would, on Thursday afternoon in between classes, and then later when I couldn't sleep. It's short, under 2,500 words, and the idea is pretty one-note, and to be honest I think it might tip further toward erotica than lit, but at least I wrote. And got the idea out of my head. All weekend I almost started on one of the two big ideas, but instead I did homework and watched Darling and avoided cooking.

My classes this semester are still shaking out, but I'm taking at least two where we're reading a book a week. The third class might also be a book-a-week class, or it might be a theory-oriented class where we're reading what I'd call philosophy texts. In college, I was a philosophy major, and I did a lot better with my readings after a professor revealed the secret to philosophy texts: always read them twice. Just do it. Even if you think you understood them, even if you think you don't have time. That is the reading assignment for which you make time: reading them twice. So I've got that secret in my pocket, if that's the class I end up with.

All of the classes seem absorbing and worthwhile, but the workload is intimidating. Yet another excuse for avoiding the act of sitting. This week I want to get started on the big idea (the one without the chicken/egg problem), because dribs and drabs of it have been bursting out into my notes for weeks. This story is READY TO COME OUT. But I'm worried about its ambitions and fearful, as always, that I'll fuck it up. I guess moms are probably worried about the same things with their kids, but when it's time to go into labor, it's time to go into labor.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Brief, Imaginary Interview

Imaginary Interviewer/Inner Critic: So...why haven't you been writing blog posts about writing lately?

Me: Because I haven't been doing any writing. In months.

II/IC: And why is that, pray tell?

Me: Because I can't get started. Because I'm too excited about school starting. Because there are all these books to read and movies to watch. Because I'm afraid I'll screw up whatever I try. Because it never feels like I have the time to set down in stone for writing, even though I fritter away hours every day (a few wee chunks at a time).

II/IC: So it's not a matter of having no ideas.

Me: Are you kidding? I have ideas coming out of my ears. I have two big ideas and one small idea and new commitment to the wikibook and that resolution to revise Highbinder and etc. Ideas are by no means the problem.

II/IC: Are you worried about other parts of your life becoming too sloppy if you get involved in one or all of these projects?

Me: No. Matt will pick up the slack if need be. He can see that I'm struggling and that I want to write very badly, and he keeps making suggestions about when and how to make it happen.

II/IC: You have ideas, and you have time, and you have the encouragement of your spouse. I'm not seeing a good explanation here.

Me: Yeah. Tell me about it.

Even my subconscious is muscling in on this problem. I had the same kind of dream four nights in a row this week; the content is inappropriate, but let's just say that I know what my brain is telling me to do. The small idea I mentioned above was more or less dropped in a neatly wrapped package in my lap on Tuesday morning by the dream I had. A scream from the tangle of my subconscious: WRITE THIS, STUPID. I can't believe it'll take me more than two hours to do up a draft of it.

And yet.

It might be this afternoon, actually. I have a couple of empty hours and access to a nice quiet library. Wish me luck in not finding other things to do instead.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On the Occasion of the First Day of the Semester

This morning I start my second semester toward getting an MA in English. I don't think I can overemphasize how well I know that this degree is not technically worth the paper it's printed on, much less the tuition that I will ultimately spend to attain it. Nor can I fully explain how thoroughly my first semester convinced me that I made the right choice by going in for the degree.

A recent online discussion in which I participated got around to arguing about "in-demand" graduate degrees, and "using" vs. "not using" a graduate degree for which good money is paid. I am grossed out by this kind of rhetoric when it comes to degrees of any kind. Education is a gift, and to talk about that gift in a way that only acknowledges its dollars-and-cents utility is repellent to me. What do I gain from pouring money into my brain? Only everything. How and when do I use it? Every day, in every way. Someone on the thread asked, point blank, why you would select a graduate degree that isn't "in demand," and I said, point blank, "Oh, gee, to learn? To improve one's life and mind?"

My choice to get an MA in English is, in a way, indefensible. I was raised by a very literate mother and I tend to read everything I can get my hands on; I've already read, just as a consequence of being me, fully half the books on one of my syllabi for this semester. Even if I wanted to, I can't teach with an MA, and (IN THEORY) if my career path is to be a novelist, the MFA is the "useful" degree, the terminal and teachworthy one, the equivalent of an MBA for a financial adviser. (Sort of.) A lot of people who would certainly know might say that there's little an MA can offer me that I can't get on my own, and that my time and money would be better spent on writers' conferences, library fines, even an MFA - but not on what I'm choosing.

If someone asked me straight out why on earth I'm bothering with an MA in English, I would acknowledge it was a fair question and then desire to explain at length. I want to understand literature better, which is a process I'm not sure is entirely achievable just through reading. I want to spend a few years learning (yay for learning!) in a structured way, because I learn better in structured environments than I do on my own. I want to meet new people, folks who love books and learning too. I want to take creative writing classes at the college level, dammit, something I've never yet managed to do. And, critically, my first semester stimulated me and made me cheerful in a way I couldn't have predicted and hardly understand, except that I want more of it.

It was a hard choice. There's some family baggage for me around graduate degrees and their tuition. I have a lot to say about it. (Obviously.) But in this space, the thing that I really want to say is that I don't think the decision to get a graduate degree should depend on its nuts-and-bolts utility. Certainly I think this is true in humanities fields, where utility is often irrelevant to the life of the mind

, but even in more practical disciplines, why not pursue a degree because you want to learn, because you want your life to be a little bigger than it was before? I believe it's folly to go after education with a concrete, utilitarian state of mind. How can you have any fun learning with such a rigid perspective?

I don't expect to "use" my degree in any more practical manner than every day, in every way. It won't get me a job or a promotion, and while I think it will make me a better writer, I might be able to get the same improvement with time and practice rather than tuition. I'm doing it anyway. Some people travel in planes, see the world with passports, but I walk into classrooms and bring my notebook.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Puzzle of the Thatcheresque Woman

So, I'm Facebook friends with a couple of film professors due largely to dumb luck. I learn a lot from the opinions and links that they post, and sometimes I wander onto their comment threads and embarrass myself in front of all the other PhDs they're friends with. It's something of an exercise in What Might Have Been, because my life could have taken that direction, too, toward film studies and film professorship. Some days I wish it had.

Not long ago, a conversation about Point Break led to a more general conversation about Kathryn Bigelow, who has directed lots of stuff. Her career is unusual in that she is 1) a female director who 2) doesn't stick to art films and 3) doesn't make movies nominally for women, a la Nora Ephron. A really smart woman on this Facebook thread noted that Bigelow made her mad because - I'm condensing a long conversation, and not actively trying to put words in her mouth - she didn't take the opportunity to be a feminist, or at least didn't do so pointedly, through her films. The owner of the thread stated that "When you have a chance to strike blows against power, but don't, then you are supporting power."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What We Do in the Ladies' Room

This morning I went to the CSUN campus to take an essay test. It's called the UDWPE, and it's a degree requirement for undergraduates at CSUN (and I think in the Cal State system entire, because a friend who's a professor at CSULA has to grade them, the poor guy). It's also a requirement for admission to the master's program, and even though that's still pretty far away for me, I thought I might as well get the test over with now instead of later. The GRE is still to come. I read the samples and signed up for the 8 AM test time and this morning, I dutifully went and waited in line behind the most fidgety human being I have ever seen, not excluding toddlers. Dude could not. stand. still.

Anyway, I was finished with my essay (for better or worse) when there was still a half-hour left, and we weren't allowed to leave early or read or do anything but work on the essay or stare at the wall until time was up. The testing room had a raft of old maps bolted to the wall above the blackboard, and one of them, about a quarter pulled out and stuck there, its bottom dowel tucked behind the newer pull-down screen for the projector, was in German. I looked at the maps for a while and thought about teachers who had to use them and students who had to learn from them; how frustrating to the school's budget that borders changed so often; why was this one in German?

I raised my hand, the proctor took my exam temporarily, and I went to the bathroom. Two women were inside. One was in extremis of some kind. The other chattered nervously.

"I'm sure she'll let you out, I'll just tell her."


"It'll be fine, don't worry, I'll just explain."

(murmur) "I don't..." (murmur)

"I'll tell her the whole thing and she'll let you go."

I flushed and went out. The one woman rubbed a paper towel between her hands slowly. Her eyes were frightened and threatening to spill. Liquid of some kind spattered her shirt. Although I don't know what her voice ordinarily sounded like, I knew this was not it. She talked as if through mud.

The other woman had darker skin and black, slightly greasy hair. She kept up with the reassurance, detailing in what direction she would walk into the room and describing the clothes of the person she would speak to after she left the ladies' and, presumably, went back to a testing cell.

I waited until there was a pause and then asked the woman with the full eyes the questions I'd rehearsed in my bathroom stall. "Are you all right? Do you need help?"

"I should be fine now," she said, glancing down at her shirt.

"All right," I said, smiled at her, and left.

I wanted her to need help. I didn't know what ailed her, but twenty more minutes of staring at the maps over the blackboard was all that awaited me in the classroom, and I wanted something to do that was more interesting and urgent than that. And I very much wanted to help someone who was so plainly distressed.

She probably threw up, I thought on the way back. Maybe a stomach bug. Or just nervousness. Or something else more severely wrong, although I hope not.

With nothing else to occupy my mind, I marveled again at how little real humans in trouble resemble actors in trouble. When there's something wrong with someone near you, it's apparent, and not from the histrionics you see in movies but from the cast of a complexion or the strange animal quality in a pair of eyes. People always act differently than you think they will - I believe this may be a truism of life in general - and laughter within grief or sudden calm in the face of horror makes far more sense in the moment than it does in fiction.

One of the things that I'm concerned with in my writing is bringing the influence of fiction on us humans into sharp relief. My characters are often preoccupied with what would happen in a fiction when something "real" happens to them.
I'm looking at this knife, and I'm thinking, oh, come on, this isn't really happening, someone come and tell me I've been Punk'd. <-- from my first published story, written, oh, 2003ish. 
In the movies, they always say It isn’t what you think or It wasn’t like that, both sentences I might have said when my mother caught us, me and Ariana Daly, tangled together in heat on the couch. <-- from a story I wrote this spring. 
The tale of the woman in the bathroom is barely a footnote to my life, but I could make it into a big thing if I wrote a story about it. I could make her me, or I could make her my best friend, or I could make her a stranger upon whom a great deal hinges. But I couldn't replicate her sludgy voice and the off-right color of her skin, both of which I'd have to exaggerate or explicate in different ways to make it clear to the reader that Something Is Wrong. It's little detail that the lizard brain in us locks onto in order to make sense of our families and our predators and our situations. But that stuff is too small, too instinctual, to make sense in fiction.

It's a shame. That was a real scene in there.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, Last Bookstore

I read a delightful book in three sittings over the last week and a half: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. There was so much to like about it that I can't even explain. A specific positive thing: for a large portion of the book we heard directly from Bernadette, and then for a while we didn't. When her voice came back toward the end, it felt like I was hearing again from an old friend whose mannerisms and quirks I'd somewhat forgotten, and I was instantly familiar with them again as soon as I heard her voice. That's how much Semple brought these characters to life.

One of Bernadette's main character traits is how bothered she is by the hassles of daily life. Long lines, philistines, chitchat, not being able to dig her keys out from the bottom of her purse. This type of thing has occupied my mind almost without fail in the recent past - how much trouble everything is, from daily hygiene to getting downtown. Like Bernadette, I too understand how impossible it is to Create when there's so much of this stupid stuff dragging you down.

Yes, I'm making excuses. I should've been writing lately but I haven't.

Yesterday morning I revised one story a little bit and another story heavily, and I gave genuine, actual thought to starting a new story, one about a journalist and a bad person (two separate characters). I also did five loads of laundry and started the process of eating all the bits and pieces of leftovers that stuff our fridge from the holiday bacchanal. (BTW, I have a new favorite drink: the Hotel California. Matt found it for me after I wailed "Isn't there a drink with champagne AND tequila in it?" whilst beached on the couch. Turns out, there is, and it is perfect.)

Another thing that happened over the holiday: one of my stories appeared. The publication is Wilde Magazine, the story is "The Hands of Men," and it's the second piece of fiction in the issue. You can find it here, although unfortunately the magazine is not free to read. (Trigger warning for sexual violence.)

And I got a few "we liked it, but it's not for us" rejections. Sigh.

I finally made a pilgrimage to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A., and it's really not to be missed. The music, the smell, the art collective. I had this full, trembly sensation in my heart about halfway through exploring the space. It was the feeling of being moved profoundly by the wonderfulness of a place, how it was created and nurtured and believed in, but it was also the feeling of heartbreak, because no matter where I wander, no matter where I roam, no other place in the world will ever be so perfectly suited to me.

Picture from the LA Times
Oh, well. At least I found it, right?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Resolute, 2013 Edition

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Buy less. I call this a success. I still bought lots of stuff, but I bought a LOT fewer DVDs and books (books especially). Mostly I went to the library and used Netflix and Amazon Instant rather than buying, buying, buying, and I stuck to my budget a hell of a lot better. The gnawing feeling in my gut for more stuff has lessened a lot, particularly when I go into stores. My debt is lower and my student loans are getting paid faster, although they're also adding up faster due to CSUN.

2. Be reticent. Utter fail. It's possible that keeping myself to myself is not who I am. Particularly not in classes.

3. Learn to apologize less. Success. I no longer really care if you think me liking the shit I like is stupid. I liked Silver Linings Playbook, do you hear me? I liked it, and I'm glad I bought the DVD, and I think I'll watch it today.

4. Keep reading. Big success. I did all the things under this number over and over this year. Most times I considered oatmealing out on the computer in front of stupid junk, I thought don't get dead, and I read or watched something new instead. (Most times, not all times.)

5. When writing, live in beginner's mind. I think success. Every new story feels like a new experience, now. But the way that I look at writing a story has changed entirely, so I'm not sure if it's beginner's mind or just...different.

6. In friendship, roll with the punches better. Good success here. Not so much with family, but with friendship, better.

7. Finish KUFC and write another book. Success on the former, fail on the latter. But I did write a slew of stories. Seven or eight, I think. Not enough for a book in terms of word count, but it's okay. I did not dally.

And, for 2014, here are my goals/intentions/whatever:

1. Remember how good accomplishment feels. Highly effective people don't procrastinate, but as far as I can tell, everyone else does, and as you likely know, it's a rotten way to live. For a period of a few weeks, usually, I'm able to keep up with my life, and I always feel better (and sort of smug) when I do. Slips start happening, though, and before I know it there are no clean dishes or clothes and we're eating out of the freezer and I have no idea where that smell is coming from. (Allie Brosh told this story far better than me.) But when I manage it - when a story gets written in a week instead of a month, when we eat home-cooked six nights out of seven, when I meet my work quota every day for two weeks in a row - I like myself a lot better, and I need to keep that feeling more prominently in mind than the feeling of "but I LIKE eating goat cheese out of the wrapper on the couch in front of MST3K."

2. Watch less MST3K. Because really, it's not normal.

3. Fucking revise Highbinder already. I need to rewrite the climax completely and rework some other small things that the new climax will hang upon. It's probably not even a week of work, but I'm a little stumped about what actually to do in place of what's already there, and I (irrationally, terribly) don't want to break up the as-is manuscript to fuck with it. It will be SO much more effective after the changes, but I do not want to make them. Of course if I have a whole year to accomplish this, I'll do it, right? (I've been putting it off for six months.)

4. Go on at least one adventure. Whether it's driving somewhere cool in the West, or camping at Joshua Tree, or going to Sequoia National Park to hike on Endor in the forest, or something. Not a luxury adventure, either, like going to Vegas. A real one.

5. Adjust expectations about writing projects. In 2013 I learned that trying to execute big ideas can end in heartbreak. Yet I also learned that little ideas can yield very satisfying results. Critically, I learned that I will always have my notebook: as long as I write down whatever I want to write about, I can go back to it months or years or decades later and it will still be there for me to write or rewrite. I still have a few big ideas that I haven't tried yet, or that I haven't executed to my satisfaction. Maybe I'll try writing them in 2014, and maybe I'll learn that they're not ready, that I should try again in 2019. I need to realize that it's okay for them not to be ready, or for me to try and fail at big ideas. The notebook will be there every year. I'm getting closer to accepting this, but I'm not there yet.

6. Balance more toward writing than submitting. The latter is, ironically, not how you build a career.

7. Get better at setting boundaries. I flunked the boundary test a few times this year and I want to do better at it.

8. Re: school, slow and steady wins the race. I tend to rush through lots of things, and I don't want to do that with the CSUN experience. My first semester was fun, and I want school to stay fun, instead of pressuring myself to hurry up and get the degree.

I have a little sign taped over my desk that says "Do your best," and I try to actually see it every day (rather than seeing it as part of the common noise of my desk). That's the general resolution for my whole life, and it applies to the normal New Year's things like exercise and work and so on. Not just do those things, but do my best, not my half-assedest, at them.

What do you want to do your best at?