Saturday, October 2, 2021

Like the Bad Thing

I'm in a bad mood today. It might be the weather (windy, hot, dry), or it might be a feeling that everything I've done recently has only been half-done (yard work, friendship, whatnot). But the last time I felt this way, it was because I hadn't written anything in a while, and once I wrote I felt better. (Like constipation.) Blogging isn't really what my muse has in mind, but it'll have to do; all the other projects on my plate require too much research. Those projects include a long essay on Tarantino, a long essay on two dance films, and two other film essays that haven't shaped up yet. 

The Tarantino essay was something I accepted as a lark but it's taking on much bigger proportions. I half-joked to Matt that I felt sure no one else in the world would ever again ask me to go on at length about Tarantino, and I definitely could have written the thing without research or refresher-watches, just bullshitting for several thousand words. Alas, my tactics have changed. I've borrowed or bought a lot of books about him and am reading them, slowly. My target is Kill Bill, and I had a very safe, simple thesis about it before I started reading. Now I think there'll be a few prongs. 

what you get when you ask me to write about something

The main one is that Kill Bill is a hinge, an artistic midpoint, and the films themselves express Tarantino's waning interest in mixtapes and growing interest in the static Western. That's pretty easy to prove. He kinda laid it out for us. The tougher sell is writing about rape-revenge films and other exploitation genres that Kill Bill draws from, and critics have mostly ignored that angle. (Just incidentally, every single writer-at-length on Tarantino is male.) Obviously, his films are such rich texts that no one book or essay will explore all possible angles for his work, but I'm amazed at how many writers seem to have missed one crucial influence or another. They don't seem to be reading each other. One guy's writing about samurai films, the other's writing about Westerns, but they're not writing about how those two genres both go into the T-blender (and how they echo each other outside the T-blender anyway). Not all of us can have brains as encyclopedic as Tarantino's, but I expect people with PhDs to do better than this. All I've got is a library card and I plan to do better. 

[I understand that Tarantino has, at best, a questionable personality. He's fallen in and out of favor with the public so often that I'm sick of worrying about it and am just gonna write about his films.]

I might have mentioned here that the last essay in the bad film book, the one I haven't written yet and should have written three months ago, is a dual piece about Showgirls and Staying Alive. Staying Alive is easy, few people have bothered with it, but a surprising number of people have written about Showgirls, and that has made me intimidated to start. It's a movie in which I have limited interest. I guess the kinder way to say that would be focused interest, but I said what I said; I don't enjoy watching it as much as I do the other movies I've written about in this book. So there's that too, that in studying it I have to watch it and think about it a bunch. I shouldn't have saved this essay for last, I should have saved an easy one for last, but I love the grotesque and delicious Staying Alive so I thought that enthusiasm would carry me through. 

I'm kind of glad I didn't write the essay over the summer, though, because the other day I had an idea for how to rejigger the entire book that I think will make it better and more saleable. I was telling Marissa about how Showgirls has been "reclaimed" by writers who argue that it's a good movie, not a bad one, and how silly I think that is. (She agreed.) The same thing has happened to famed bomb Ishtar, which, look, I know Elaine May deserves a good reputation, but Ishtar is terrible. It's terrible! Don't redeem it, don't reclaim it. It's bad. That's it. 

I started thinking about about why people bother to "reclaim" movies at all, why they try to prove they are good rather than just letting them be bad. Multiple reasons for this pattern exist, but the main thing I'm sure of is the cognitive dissonance. The critic knows she has good taste and yet she likes this movie that is objectively bad, so she has to turn it around and make it good to make this preference make sense, and she uses all the power of rhetoric she can summon to do so. 

There is just no need for this. It's possible to like something bad without redeeming its reputation. Just go on and like the bad thing. They won't take your membership card away. 

The best example for this in my own life is Girl in Gold Boots, an MST3K classic that is truly a shitty little movie. It's skeezy and cheap and badly made (by one of the schlockmasters of the 60s, Ted V. Mikels), about criminals, go-go dancers, and generally people with bad lives and no taste. I genuinely love this movie. Not just the MST of this movie; I love the movie, and I really, really don't know why. There's nothing in it that's good, nothing I can argue for as having objective quality. But I have such affection for it. I watch it when I'm sad. 

I got to thinking I could write about the mystery of loving this movie, could try and dismantle the - to quote myself, in the Plan 9 book - mechanism in me that loves bad movies. I don't know if I'll ever understand what makes that mechanism run, but I can try, and in the trying I might uncover some cool stuff. 

Then I started thinking about where this essay would fit in with the others. So far I've written a book that intends to explore the ways that bad movies are bad: how they go wrong. If I add this essay, along with another, I might be writing about something else altogether: how we as audience approach bad movies. 

The other one I'm thinking about is on After Last Season, which is truly the most baffling piece of cinema I've ever come across. It's the only movie I've ever seen that has completely resisted my attempts to analyze it. Even in the most opaque art films I can determine influences and the filmmaker's general concerns, and sometimes intentions, but this one...it's a piece of outsider art from a person who doesn't seem to have any creative urgency at all. And look, it's terrible, too, don't get me wrong, it's incompetent in every particular. But more interestingly, it fails to cohere around any significant ideas or intentions, creating something that's almost abstract, coupled with mundane failures of filmmaking. 



How do we approach a film so poorly made that it offers us no entry points? With Neil Breen, we can figure out what the films are saying about the man who created them, but After Last Season doesn't speak the way Breen's films do. It's anonymously bad, but outrageously so. What do we do with it? 

These angles, to Season and Boots, alter the angle of the book. They make the book more thoughtful, and more about the audience than about the movies themselves. I think they make the book more useful as criticism and hopefully more interesting as essay; I have to admit to being stumped by Season and to loving Boots, and I have to work out what these reactions mean in a wider context of studying bad film. 

Writing the Plan 9 monograph was a breeze. These are much bigger challenges. But now that I've thought of these ideas, this more significant arc for the book, I'm having a hard time giving them up. 

And would you look at that. The hour I spent working on this post has cleared my bad mood right up. Gotta love that Senokot. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Water and Waiting

Of late I've been trying to get rid of clutter. I am bad at this. Usually I feel the need to purchase more things in order to get rid of the things I already have: I want containers to organize stuff that should just get thrown out, for instance. In this case I bought a fancy scanner so I could scan in all my old files, stretching back before college, and I took up a lot of space in the living room setting up the scanner along with a shredder to dispose of what gets scanned. It's worked, though; I've gotten rid of a lot of paper, and in its place have a half-dozen bags of shredded stories, poems, notes, and articles. 

For whatever reason, I didn't like the idea of tossing these shreds in the recycling bin and having the city haul them away. I wanted to personally transmute them into something new. So, naturally, I bought more stuff: the equipment needed to make handmade paper. 

I took to this practice immediately. It uses the hands and the eyes and water and waiting. I have enough shredded paper to make hundreds of pages of handmade paper, and I may yet use it all; I had hoped to use this paper to create hand-bound chapbooks of my own work which I could sell or give away (literal transmutation of old creative work into new creative work), but I'm not sure that will happen. The handmade paper has a lot of alphabetic fragments on it which might make new work printed on it hard to decipher. 



The process of going through all my old documents has been freighted with emotion. My college papers show me that I write almost exactly the same way about film now as I did in 2002, and that I cannot write a decent paper about anything else. My old stories and novellas are terrible, far worse than I remembered, with fun [ed.: not fun] surprises I'd forgotten about altogether. I'm embarrassed for these stories, and for me, because I sent them out to magazines in all seriousness. Horrifying. 

I only vaguely recognize the person I was in college. She wrote comments in the margins of her course readers that were sometimes insightful and sometimes painfully dim. She had relationships with people of whom I do not remember one eyelash. Her opinions were strong, but pretty poorly informed. I can see the writer in her straining to surface. 


In other news. 

This weekend I begin teaching an online course about overcoming perfectionism. I've been flogging it everywhere possible, in as many social media groups as I can. I can't wait for it, in truth; writing and assembling the materials got me excited about sharing anti-perfectionism strategies. (If you somehow missed all my shouting about the course and are interested, you can sign up here, until Friday or Saturday I think.) 


I got to talk to a major inspiration of mine on the phone and I was a big pile of scribbled anxiety in the shape of a person, but I don't think he noticed. 

The Plan 9 book is chugging along toward publication. Still no news on a release date, but you'll hear about it, o readers of blog. The cover is great and I can't wait to share that with you, too. 

My therapist recommended that I put together an actual schedule for my days, now that outside work doesn't shape them. I did: read in the morning, lunch + break for something on TV, write in the afternoon. It's amazing. I'm finally coming back to reading after a series of halting breaks, and my project is to empty out the shelves of unread books I might have mentioned. So far I'm doing a good job. It's all a part of cleaning and culling, trying to have less clutter in my life. Or at least temporary empty space, before I buy more clutter to take the place of the old. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Two Bookshelves

I'm not quite on schedule on the bad film book, because May has been a Break. I've tried to rest and sleep aggressively to get my body back to normal after stopping horse work at the end of April. Of course that means I have insomnia and weight gain, and I've almost completely lost my concentration. I'll get back on track in June, I hope, with the book and my body. I'm trying to finish a cross-stitch project that turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than I thought, and when that is done, a small daily residue of despair, of not-finishing, will evaporate. It should be done in the next few days. 


It's a very fun piece, but larger than expected (I even misjudged how much Aida I'd need, which is why the upper and lower borders are tiny), and the purple is just...so much. I'm going to end up using two full skeins of embroidery thread on it, which I believe I've never done on a non-kit project. My larger projects have tended to represent a show I was binging while I stitched, and this one is Bob's Burgers. Just started season nine. 

I'm reading Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz, and it's...interesting. I don't know if I'd call it a good book, but it's absolutely worth reading: dense with beauty and steeped in a rare way of seeing the world, breathless with love, seductively artless. Few books have the persistent, seemingly haphazard, lapping movement it has. I half-wish I'd read it while I was a Fitz fangirl in my early teens, or at least known then that Zelda was a writer too. I find it interesting that my education on Fitz didn't include that information. 

I'm also audiobooking The Secret History. Outlook hazy so far. And I'm reading shorter books at as fast a clip as I can manage while still working on Lisa. This month I reorganized my bookshelves, you see, and discovered that I have two entire bookshelves full of books I haven't read. Like, not two shelves, but two bookshelves, two shoulder-high pieces of furniture fully loaded with books not yet read. So I'm trying to move through them. 

My bookshelves have been messily stacked instead of organized for over a year. It used to be my favorite thing to do when we moved, but the last two times, I organized them just a few months before we were asked to pack them up and move again. So this time I waited ages before organizing them again. As many books as I have now, it's tedious instead of fun to keep doing it (and I really didn't want to jinx us into moving again). But I finally got to the point where it was more annoying not to find the book I wanted than to spend a week stacking them on the living room rug and reassembling them on my shelves. 

In forward-facing writing news, a bunch of stuff has appeared or been published lately. This essay about the Teen Agers, which surprised me by doing pretty well, and this essay about Cop Rock, which surprised me by sinking like a stone. This interview with Kate Durbin was a small part of a large raft of publicity for her new book, but it meant a lot to me. This podcast featured me, about as enthusiastic and opinionated as I ever get. This issue of a fascinating literary project featured a bunch of my horse cross-stitches (keep clicking on the spinning object at the bottom). And this very nice review of Ceremonials appeared. 

In inward-facing writing news, I started a new blog for the book project I might be doing after I finish the bad film book. That project is a catalogue of the films of 1977, and I'm not sure of the final form it will take - a general discussion of trends and significance that mentions many films, or an encyclopedic listing of the films and how they cohere to trends and significance. In any event, I'm watching as many films from that year as I can, and offering up my notes on them here. It's less a blog like this one than it is an online notebook to help me track my progress. 

One thing I'm less learning than I am seeing in action is how much old years are like new years. Most of what I'm watching is mediocre, or genuine dreck. While I still think 1977 is meaningful in cinema history, I also think I've likely seen most of the gems already, because they have lasted and been talked about. There's a lot of cinematic dreck in a given year and we live through it in real time, but the stuff that's worth watching later usually sits in the thresher, glittering, while the chaff blows off and away. Watching more of the films from a given year demonstrates that films aren't getting worse; we just don't usually watch the bad ones four decades later. 

What's ahead of me is a lot of hard work, no matter how you slice it. After I finish the bad film book, I've either got the 1977 book or the Casablanca book ahead, and I have three finished or near-finished books I'd like to get published, all of which have very different audiences. I should probably find an agent if I can, although I'm frustrated and doubtful about that, and it's too long to get into why. I'm contemplating plunging into an extremely difficult long-term project (not writing, but literary) and am genuinely scared of the work it will take to do it. 

I'm feeling discouraged, is the point. Lots of things are clicking, and I'm certainly counting my blessings. But although there are five shelves of books I've read, my eye keeps jumping back to those two I haven't. 

There's one other thing on my mind, to do with talent and effort. I tried writing it here but it ended up long enough to be its own post so I will post it another time. Stay tuned. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Reduced to Summary

On February 10, a book blogger wrote a post dissecting some of my reviews at Locus, mostly of books by people of color. She discerned a pattern in my reviews that indicated racial prejudice. I believe that she called me out usefully on some mistakes, and that she otherwise selectively read and quoted me in ways that misrepresent my body of work. 

This was all ignited because I reviewed the second volume of an epic fantasy series without reading the first volume. That choice infuriated readers and book bloggers, whose attitude toward books differs in significant ways from that of book critics. One blogger decided to look closer at my work, and these two issues - my purported racial prejudice and my choice to start with book two of a series - got conflated, when I'm not sure even the blogger intended that. 

There's a great deal to be said about all this. The question of whether it should be a requirement to read books in series from the get-go in order to assess later books is an interesting one, when I stand back from it. Up close, the philosophy dissolves. For a few days I was a useful strawman for a lot of necessary arguments on Twitter about book criticism, even though I don't believe everything that's been said about my work and my critical posture is accurate or even helpful. I'm glad that my work has stirred up conversation about diversity in publishing, even as I'm devastated about being the subject of so much wrath. 

I think I became a target for everyone who is mad about authority imbalances in book criticism. I respect that, but given how little I'm paid and how little I'm known, I find this silly. Hitting me is not really punching up for almost anyone. 

I drafted a very long blog post explaining what I think and feel about this whole incident, how painfully it hits me given my history with race and racism, and some of the personal and professional aftermath. Ultimately, I don't think it's useful to make public. The above is all I want to say for now. 

Also, there's a lot more for me to tell you. 

Electric Dreamhouse Press, a UK publisher headed by my friend Neil Snowdon, is going to publish my second book this year as part of their line of Midnight Movie Monographs. My monograph is about Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. I wrote this short book in the space of about six weeks in mid-2020, and I haven't had such fun writing a book since Highbinder (which still languishes, alas). I'm really pleased about joining the small but scrappy field of Ed Wood studies. 

The book contains my central arguments about why it's worthwhile to study bad film. I've been building on those arguments to write a series of essays that I hope will be a whole book about bad film, eventually. I've written about Ruby (1977) and about a series of 1940s films starring "the Teen-Agers," and up next is Death Bed: The Bed that Eats. Other essays will be on Cop Rock, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and a tricky dual piece about Showgirls and Staying Alive. I'm ahead of the schedule I made for these essays, which feels good. 

However, I keep getting intuitive signals to work on the Casablanca novel, which has been at a bare simmer in the back of my head for years. Last night I attended a reading with Lance Olsen and Lidia Yuknavitch, and something Olsen said temporarily turned up the heat on that burner. I've made a very tentative plan to write that book once I'm finished with the bad film essays - sometime in the fall, ideally - but if this keeps up, I'll have to pause the bad film essays and set to the novel. I simultaneously feel excited about the project (I haven't written a novel in years) and preemptively annoyed. It's going to be so much work. 

Anyway: the Plan 9 book represents pure joy for me, as it was an intellectual problem which I got to solve to my satisfaction. That the result will be a book (and a beautiful book at that, given EDP's past performance) is extra whipped cream on an already-nice sundae. I found out about the Midnight Movie Monographs series around three years ago, and idly wondered what movie I could write about for 100 pages. My mind supplied Plan 9 from Outer Space, and even though it was a weird choice, the more I thought about it, the more I supposed I could do it. How would I write 100 pages about Plan 9? Well, last year, I wrote until I found out. Thankfully, Neil was interested in what I produced. 

Both of my first two books, as it turns out, will be about weirdnesses my mind picked up and played around with, private obsessions I never thought would go public. Of everything I've written, these two books are the most fringely me, and I'm bemused that they are the two going out to bookstores in bound form. I think this means you ought to write what you love, or at least that I ought to write what I love. 

As for the third book, I recently made a (digital) handshake agreement with Blue Arrangements to publish my conceptual novel, Victorian Spam. It's a tee-tiny press, just two people, and all of us are burdened by lives and jobs and other projects, so we are all taking a relaxed attitude to the timeline of this book. I estimate that it'll appear in 2022, and it, too, is super weird. Yay! 

None of these three books has anything to do with any of the others. Ceremonials is lyric fiction, Plan 9 is straight nonfiction, and Victorian Spam is...other. All of them are ekphrastic in some way, and I created all of them, but those are the only two elements I can think of that they have in common. 

As for the fourth book...I finally, finally, finally finished the Misfits essay back in December. A couple of weeks later, I got an important blessing from one of the real-life characters in the essay. Thus, Weird New Shit, my book of hybrid film essays, is really truly completed. It's taken me four or five years to write and assemble these essays, which is four or five times longer than I usually work on a book, so I'm thrilled to be done. I'm shopping it to a few presses I think will like it before I try agents, and have consequently racked up a few rejections. 

I don't think there'll be news on that one for some time yet. My expectations for it are so large and unrealistic that it's probably better to let it settle as a project before it goes into the world, anyway. But I do suspect it'll be the fourth book. Mostly I'm glad to be done. 

Somehow I never put it on the blog that an essay of mine was published online at Conjunctions a few months ago. It's called "All Cities Burn" and when I shared it in November, I said I thought it was the best thing I've ever written. These days, with so many different projects coming to fruition, I don't really know if that assessment has meaning. Read it and let me know what you think. Maybe the most arresting thing I've ever written? Either way, being in Conjunctions is an honor. 

While I was struggling through the emotional aftermath of the February 10 incident, I started cross-stitching tiny portraits of the horses I work with. I've made about a dozen, using various patterns and editing them as needed to communicate what the horses look like (and act like), and have a couple more to go. My plan is to give these to the owners of these horses as parting gifts; I've given my notice at the barn, and will be stopping work there within the next month or so, I hope. I'm sorry to go, but the work is tearing up my body, and I'm turning 40 this year - too old to withstand another summer like 2020's. 

The one portrait I can't seem to settle on how to make is for Quinn, a gorgeous Friesian cross who is smart and eager and generally a lovely horse once he gets out of his anxious head. But he almost never succeeds in doing that. I love him so much and will miss him so much and I don't know how to capture him in cross-stitch without doing a massive, photorealistic portrait, much bigger than 3 inches wide. I don't have time for that. But how can I sum him up in such a small space? 

How can any of us, horse or human, be reduced to summary? 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Sameness

This morning I dreamed that I had to unclog a drain. I pried the top off of a side-loading washing machine and used a plastic snake on the drain, which was around the diameter of my spread hand and covered with a flat white cap. Eventually I pulled out a clean, dry, thick lock of hair, tied together with a ribbon, about five inches long, which was the same color as mine. Then I discovered that the white cap was actually black, and it had been covered by a piece of bread and peanut butter, pressed PB-side-down on the top of the cap to further clog the drain. 

Once I had scraped and wiped this, I started scooping a bunch of junk out of the machine - it was white and curded, like cottage cheese, or melted Styrofoam. No smell. I noticed that the junk was yellower and more hardened toward the northeast corner of the machine, and realized I had to break up and remove that part first. I began to worry that the junk was actually part of the machine's workings (an insulator?), and that I was doing the wrong thing by removing it. Once that uncertainty had truly penetrated, I woke up. 

I've long wanted to write a blog post about all the good writing news of the past two months, but this dream was so specific - the textures, the emotions - that I had to get it down somewhere. I do not know what it means. I did watch The Stuff yesterday, so that's probably where the white junk comes from. (Don't give me Freud, please.) 

It feels weird not to do resolutions this year, but I don't know what I would resolve to do. Clean more, maybe. Stop complaining about the stuff I always complain about. Keep to my book schedule, so as to write all the things I mean to write by the end of the year. But I'll only fail myself if I fail those intentions, and I do enough of that, thanks. 

The days are all the same, and I thought I knew what that was like, since life in southern California moves like that, and I've worked at home for long periods before. But this kind of sameness has a hellish edge that reminds me of one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, where the petty criminal thinks he's gone to heaven because he always wins at the casino table and bangs as many pretty women as he wants, but in fact it's hell, because there's no challenge, he always wins, there's no danger or risk, and life without risk is...not heaven. 

I'm not saying that contentment and peace are bad. Just that I always had the option to get in my car and go somewhere if the sameness of my lovely life started to make me itch. I'd look for a workshop to take, sign up, and have something to look forward to, particularly if it was somewhere I could drive and I'd never been there before. (For other people, this practice is known as "vacation," but I never learned how to take vacations in my family of origin, so my version is workshops.) Minor adventures. I can't imagine how difficult this has been for people who thirst after major adventures, as giving up my minor ones is challenging enough. 

The days are all the same. When I lived in danger, I thought that sounded great. It is, for a while. Until it isn't anymore. 

I'm listening to two audiobooks right now: We Were Witches by Ariel Gore and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Both long overdue. The way each deals with witches and women directly contradicts the other, which is fun, because I know which side I'm on. 

Maybe I'll finally write that blog post with all the good news next week, or the week after. The days are all the same, so writing another blog post can pass for a big change in my routine. In the meantime, I'm running out of documentaries on cults to watch, especially since so many of them are padded and contain less information than the corresponding Wikipedia pages. But I'm getting so much cross-stitching done. I partially designed this piece and I'm disproportionately proud of it. 


Friday, October 23, 2020

Congestion

Yesterday I slept most of the day, on and off, dozing and then getting up to eat or watch a movie and then dozing again. It felt really good. Not much in my life at the moment is urgent, like, with a deadline or consequences, so I'm drifting a little. Spending whole days sleeping is good once in a while, like yesterday, but today, drifting does not feel good. I want to want to do things - writing or chores or editorial. But I don't really want to do any of them, or at least not one more than the other. In trying to decide what to tackle and how, I'm a little frozen, so instead here I am writing a blog post. 

One thing did get done today: my husband and I bought a cemetery plot. The timing may seem weird, but: plots always go up in cost, we have a little money to spare right now, and we're sure about where we want to go. I feel so good about this decision - having a big, final, expensive choice all settled and in order, getting something done as rare and useful as this - that I want to tell everyone, but it's also an odd, macabre thing to talk about or announce. I feel like we bought a house (a very small, very inexpensive, very specific kind of house), but with virtually none of the hassle and responsibility of being a homeowner, so I want to rejoice. Given what we actually did buy, that's weird, right? 

The weather is changing. It's overcast in the mornings now, cool and a little humid, until the sun breaks through and it becomes SoCal again. It's giving me congestion that is definitely not COVID but of course, fear, anxiety, etc. 

I've watched a pile of movies lately, from In a Lonely Place to Repo! The Genetic Opera, including a couple of docs, one about giallo (thumbs-down) and one about cult film (thumbs-up-ish). In general I am tired of the conversation about film mostly being among men. I am tired of that. Watching Magic Mike for the first time I thought about the male gaze, and how that film goes with its flow while kind of stumbling into the female gaze now and then, which doesn't make much sense because the premise depends upon the female gaze, thus the ultimate gender philosophy of Magic Mike is really kind of a mess, which of course has been true for Soderbergh since sex, lies, and I considered the wildly different attitudes of women at male strip clubs and men at female strip clubs, and how wherever you go the phallus is the point, and how deeply goddamn annoying that is, which led me to "W.A.P.", and then I just stopped thinking about it altogether because I really needed another feminist to bounce all this off of, but it didn't stop me from feeling sure that more women need to talk and more men need to shut up in film discourse. In general. Across allllllllll the genres and pockets of participation, from buffs who don't really know what they're talking about to talking heads on Hitchcock DVDs. There were guys in the cult film doc who were barely coherent. It pissed me off to have to listen to them. 

For quite a lot of years now I have wanted to own a full-size replica of Tom Servo. It took six weeks, but the one I bought on Etsy finally arrived. Here is a picture of me with him, and I promise you, I really was this excited. 


After taking the pic, I put him on a chair and just looked at him for a minute, smiling like a goober. I don't know why this puppet brings me so much joy, why I'm such a fan of this inanimate channel for comedy, really I do not know - but I am, and it does, and now he sits next to the TV so whenever what's on the screen is uninteresting I can just look at him and grin. 

Are we all as deadened and drifting as I am? I think I'm okay - there is happiness in my life (clearly), I can do what I need to do in order to live without dragging through it, I don't care much about missing dinners out or parties or concerts, I still feel love and sorrow and all the emotions in between. But all my days are the same, one upon the other, and it means I have a condition that's sibling to boredom but not quite it. Foreshortened motivation, based on having nothing at all to look forward to, no consequences for failure or sloth. I like my quiet life, and even though the days stretch out, I can always find something either practically or artistically useful to do for my brain. Yet I feel like two-thirds of myself. Whatever's missing is not fatally missing, but I do notice its absence. Is this familiar to anyone out there? 

Anyway, come see me read (virtually) at Vroman's on Monday. Deets here

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Retail Feet

I haven't written anything other than book reviews, emails, and tweets in three months, and the reason is my day job working with horses. I cannot adequately communicate how hard I have pushed my body in these months. I feel as if I've used every single cell, from scalp to marrow, to work and sweat and breathe and then work some more. 

The physical burden of these months has reminded me of the job I hated the most of any I ever had, selling women's clothes at the mall. I used to cry at night because my feet hurt so much. I cried when I cleaned the dressing room mirrors in the morning, feeling so trapped and aimless in the recycled mall air. I was miserable beyond belief, and part of the reason was that my body was not built for the job. I asked my coworkers what they did about their feet hurting, and they just shrugged. I asked if it drove them as crazy as it drove me that the music tape repeated every 2 1/2 hours, that we heard the same songs in the same order every single day for months, and their answer was along the lines of "what tape?" 

Both these answers boggled me. Hot vines of pain wrapped around my feet by the end of an eight-hour shift; I thought I'd rip the speakers out of the ceiling and hammer them to pieces if I heard "The First Cut Is the Deepest" one more goddamn time. (To this day I shudder when I hear one of the songs from that tape.) The other people in my life at the time mostly worked retail too, and my complaints puzzled them. "Complaints" doesn't really cover it; working retail crushed my spirit, melodramatic as it might sound. Everyone else was like, well, yeah, it's retail. It was like pointing out the brimstone and the demons burning you on the ass with pokers and hearing, well, yeah, it's hell. Get over it. 

My best explanation for this is that I'm not built for retail. It takes a specific constitution to withstand retail: physically, you need the feet for it, and mentally, you need a kind of psychological reef on which repetitive behavior can break without breaking you. I don't have retail feet, and I don't have a retail mind. What I find absurd (Kafka-type absurd, almost-funny-but-horrible) about this is that out there in the world, retail is considered a low bar. Anybody can get a job at the mall. But coping with that job is, for some people, a labor that will destroy them, while others can just shrug indifferently. 

Mine is not the hardest job at the barn. The guys who muck and feed work a lot harder than I do. I feel ashamed that I can't do as much as they can. But I don't have retail feet. When I get home I have to rest, aggressively. It's embarrassing that I can't bounce back, have to treat myself with Epsom salts and excessive couch time, but it's how my body is built. I had to accept it back in my excruciating days at the mall, humiliating as it was when everyone around me met the demands of retail without a flinch, and I have to accept it now. 

Because of owner vacations and COVID, my workload was much heavier across August and September than it was for the first seven months of the year - right at the time when the weather is the most demanding. This summer I've done nine-hour days, walking 10 miles and climbing 500 vertical feet and lifting one 20-lb saddle after another onto the backs of moving 1200-lb animals, in 95F heat. And then went back and did it again the next day. Which means that my rest periods have extended to almost all the days I don't work. Which means that I haven't written anything. 

Since my job as a writer is largely about thinking, the almost-year of this job has been overall good for me. It seemed at first like working at the barn half the week, totally out of my head and into my body, and then working at my computer the other half, totally out of my body and into my head, would be a perfect life. 

But I don't have retail feet. 


Although I haven't produced much of anything new (and I miss it, and I want to, and I'm a literal year behind on finishing just a single essay, and I really want to start a new long project, really bad), I've continued to submit old stuff. That has led to a pretty significant publication coming at the end of this month, God willing. 

Also, a hybrid essay I wrote in I think the first class I took with Higgs, or maybe the second, got published in Wig-Wag. It was rejected twenty-three times before Brad Efford accepted it and then blessed me further by wanting to make very few edits. Now that it's in the world, some of the smartest people I know are telling me it's incredible. I want to be humble about this, but the truth is I know it's incredible. I know that every sentence in it is deliberate, that its threaded-together layers of meaning make it hard to parse but worth the trouble, that it was rejected so often because editors didn't get what it was doing or because their publications weren't daring enough for it. I included a slew of obscure, flashing references to critical theory and a comment on Fred Astaire's hands that the reader won't get unless she already knows the story; deal with it. I don't care that the Sun would never publish an essay like this because it's too weird, too disjointed, too up its own ass; it found the right market, and it's finding an audience (a small but excellent one) because I wrote it exactly the way I wanted to and withstood the consequent rejections. 

If you're a creator, I'm not going to urge you to do the same, because it's not any fun to write and [attempt to] publish this way. But "Bright White American Smile"* is writing only I can do, and I feel wonderfully content with that. 

*This is the title I chose for the essay, but Wig-Wag's format means it didn't appear that way. 

Its publication means I need to update my website, like really bad, and assemble a newsletter to go out when the end-of-month publication happens, if it happens. I've been putting these tasks off for MONTHS. Partly, you know, retail feet; I've been really goddamn tired. But also ugh. I have to figure out what book reviews have appeared since I last updated (March?) and link them all, and then try to fix some of the buggy pages since the last Wordpress update, and then redo my Favorites page and also the home page since it's all **Ceremonials Is Just Now Out in the World!** which is no longer true, and blaaaaah. Website work is usually satisfying to me, but I've put it off so long that it's turned into a regular old chore. 

Other stuff going on: I watched Lost across the last few weeks. I really liked the character work and the wide-open imagination, but I was annoyed as fuck at the dropped threads and hand-waving. I'm left thinking about how men act when they're hit by the thunderbolt, how they move the earth for the women they love, in the same way I've given long thought to male regret. Both ideas underlie a lot of art by men (...all of it???), but they aren't often on the surface. 

I hit the six-month wall, and so did Matt, but it's breaking. I've been cross-stitching in a frenzy, and I made this (pen for scale): 


I'll be participating in a virtual reading through Vroman's on October 26. It's a reschedule of the triple-play ghost-girl-books reading that Gayle, Jennifer, and I originally put together for April. I hope you can come, but if you don't even want to, truly, I understand. I think I've been to one virtual reading in six months.