My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

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For those of you who miss the bygone days of the grad school creative writing workshop, My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta is going to be your jam. It fostered in me nostalgia for those rapid cycling days of pushing myself to the psychological and intellectual limits to produce the wildest new thing imaginable only to discover it’d already been done, and better, and then I was back to the drawing board, and I did this on repeat for a couple of years until maybe (maayyybee) I really did create a few new things.

Washuta’s book has the messy feel of a creative writing workshop. In many of the sections, you can almost imagine the writing prompts to which she’s responding. Readers unfamiliar with this kind of (independent?) prose could very well be put off by this book. And to be fair, even as far as independent presses go, this book has some clunky, first effort moments. As a reader, I was okay with these moments because I was just so glad to be reading something new and different and good and incredibly personal and raw. Maybe too raw.

It’s difficult to write about one’s own mental illness without seeming off-puttingly self-indulgent, and Washuta is aware of this problem and bravely soldiers on. Her themes are so smart—a beautifully nuanced commentary on interactions between race, gender, government, and society. It’s weird. Life’s weird.

Interestingly, both Lena Dunham and Washuta published their books last year and both sometimes use a footnote method, where they break down a piece of text (such as their online dating profile or food journal) with footnotes. The footnotes are so great and so real. It feels very intimate. The only downside (and it’s a big one for me) is that you’ll get vertigo from going back and forth between the original text and the footnotes.

Here are some words I loved:

First, the title: My Body is  Book of Rules is genius.
Next, a chapter title that she should’ve saved for the title of her next novel: “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat.”

Her descriptions of bipolar:

“…decreased social judgement” (12).

“…a window left open to let the murderers in” (13).

Commentary on Cosmo’s “sex tips”:

“…definitely don’t forget his sack” (18).

Her literary criticism:

She nails her analysis of Catcher in the Rye (a book with which I was previously enamored) like I’ve never seen before when she writes that it “Talks about what’s wrong when that’s not really what’s wrong” (63).

Her insights on life:

“Hope is the thing that comes before the very fucking scary thing” (135).

“do it because you want to, so badly, because you can’t not” (176).

“I am enough” (177).

“Nowadays, when someone else wants to reach me, they get a perpetual busy signal while I whisper sweet nothings to myself late into the night” (177).

“Perfection is hard to stomach” (183).

a year tells you so very little

I’ve been scrolling through old pages of this blog. Writing is absolutely humiliating, but I have to write. In scrolling through old posts, I came across some of the old stuff from last winter and spring, where I was bravely trying to sort through the fog of having my life turned upside down. I was saying things like, “I feel okay,” and “This doesn’t feel wrong, necessarily,” and in hindsight I can see how hard I was trying to convince myself that I was okay, when I was not okay.

In “cycling,” I wrote “In about a year, I’m sure I’ll have much more clarity over the situation,” which makes me feel such compassion for that girl. “No,” I want to say. “No, you won’t have more clarity in a year, my dear. This year will be one of the most painful and terrible years you will endure. You will not be okay.”

One year later, maybe the only clarity I have is that I was completely undone last year, and I own that now. I’ll never be the same, and I no longer try to say things like, “I like my life now,” or “This makes sense,” because it does not make sense. The only thing I’ve learned a year later is to own that painful truth more than I could a year ago.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

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Outline by Rachel Cusk was something different. I haven’t read popular fiction in quite a long time, and I was worried when, in the beginning, the main character becomes engaged in a conversation with her “neighbor” on a flight to Athens. Through his line of questioning, we learn a little about the protagonist, which felt like a plot point contrived solely for the purpose of giving the reader information about the main character.

However, I liked the book and found the brilliance in that, as the protagonist meets several different characters, there are interesting and universal insights to be gained about human nature. For the most part, the characters themselves are very self-aware and analytical, sharing meaningful insights with the protagonist. Though, like all people, their assessment is not always accurate. Cusk presents these quirks and character flaws in entirely novel ways, but they resonate as true and important glimpses into the human psyche.

Interestingly, as the protagonist meets the various characters, Cusk’s voice or tone remains consistent throughout. So, there is little sense of the individuality of these characters. In many ways, the novel reads like an outline, a sketch, of the characters and ideas that Cusk is presenting.

The last character to enter the novel speaks about a troubling condition she’s gained, which she calls “summing up.” It prohibits her writing because just as she really gets in to writing a play, she finds the meaning creeping into her brain, words like “tension,” “mother-in-law,” or “meaninglessness.” Once she finds the significance of her work, she loses interest. In the summing up concept, the reader sees the ways in which Cusk has both avoided and indulged a summing up of the various characters and meanings in her own novel.

This section was also meaning to me because I’ve been stricken by the same sense of summing up since my early 20s. I was probably 21 when I realized, with a start, that every story is the same with few uninteresting variations. This is why I have a hard time with popular fiction. I have a longstanding joke, which is likely only amusing to me, that is called “I saw it the first time when it was called…,” wherein I liken every new book or movie to a book or movie that came before and grumpily deduce that it will offer nothing new.

Furthermore, I see the same patterns play out not just in movies, but in real people in real lives. I rarely think anyone is ever having a unique experience, and the result of that is, I suppose, a somewhat jaded view of the world. I’ve never known anyone else to sum things up quite like I do, and so to see it portrayed in a novel was strangely validating.

Here are a few ideas from the novel that I think render further discussion:

  • “The bump in the road hadn’t only upset his marriage; it caused him to veer off on to a different road altogether, a road that was but a long, directionless detour, a road he had no real business being on and that sometimes he still felt himself to be travelling even to this day” (15).
  • “The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it” (18).
  • “We are all addicted to it, he said…the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality” (99).
  • “I had friends in Athens I could have called. But I didn’t call them: the feeling of invisibility was too powerful” (248).

What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus

I heard rave reviews about What Happened, Miss Simone? at Sundance this year, but I didn’t get to see it at the time. As luck would have it, KRCL and the SLC Library brought it back for a free screening in Salt Lake. The producer, Amy Hobby, took questions from KRCL’s Eugenie Hero Jaffe. So, that was fun!

But, the film. The film. Nina Simone wasn’t on my radar until maybe five or six years ago, when someone posted a video of her performance of “I’ve Got Life” on Facebook. I watched it many times and got a few of her cds and now it’s a part of my life. I sing her songs with some frequency.

The film creates an arc and fall for her life, which was certainly messier and less clear in the living. She was dedicated to the piano at a young age. This dedication ran parallel to extreme oppression, where any wrong move could lead to abuse or even death by lynching. No wonder a small child would cling to something, anything—perfection. She was poised to be the first black concert pianist. She ended up paying the bills by performing in night clubs. One thing lead to another, and she became the preeminent jazz and blues singer of her era and beyond.

As the civil rights movement picked up, so too did her purpose. Her songs became more political. Her artistic passion and creativity flourished like never before, but her music was banned by many stations and venues that did not want to be political. The film outlines her tumultuous relationship with her husband, her relationship with her daughter. The film also reveals her struggle with bipolar disorder, which she dealt with at a time when very little was known about it (even less so than now).

I’m sure she was successful because most people feel the same way, but I really relate to Nina Simone. It’s not just that I’m practicing piano these days. There’s something about watching the slow steady rage building in her throughout this film that seems so very human, and so very understandable. When you have the luxury of not feeling rage, it can seem silly outsiders. Once it begins to build within you, expressing it in any sort of effective way is nearly impossible.

The rage happens when you begin to feel less free. Like when suddenly, in very real ways, you are losing legal control over what happens to your body, and others lose control over what happens to their bodies, when you feel limited in your ability to move around in the world. Of course we limit our freedoms in various ways, which takes a lifetime to work through, but when others do the harm, that is hard to bear.

The rage happens when you are cracked open by love and that makes you capable of much deeper intensity than ever before. It’s all very thrilling and terrifying, and some people call it bipolar, and some people call it art, and they are not the same, but there is a shared relationship to control, creating, being, and doing things…differently.

Simone works, and works hard, to translate her rage into something useful, into art, into commentary relevant to the time period. She does this beautifully. Like good theory, the music and lyrics sometimes seem deceivingly simple, but build and grow in their complexity until you are moved to something completely new.

Leaving the film, I felt renewed. What might I do with my own moods, my own passions? How might I better express myself creatively? How might I create? I have some ideas. I do.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

After reading books like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was excited to read this latest one by a comedian. I’m a die hard fan of Saturday Night Live. I tend to love the work that comes from their alums–probably because they know all the good writers. Of her SNL bits, I mostly loved the ensemble skits she was in. Leslie Knope, the character she’s gone on to play in Parks and Recreation, is just great. When it comes to Amy Poehler, I like her, but I think she’s best in collaborative efforts.

Her book was not a favorite. If you’re a die hard fan and will read anything related to SNL, then read it. Otherwise, it’s okay to skip this one. There are funny moments, there are insightful moments, there’s biographical information, and there’s behind the scenes stuff from her work in comedy. But, there’s also a difficult self consciousness that doesn’t always work. Throughout, she complains about how hard and terrible it is to write a book, and those feelings begin to wear off on the reader. The book is repetitive in some ways that don’t seem intentional. The book’s organization is baffling. More importantly, the pages are thick and weird and glossy. What is probably supposed to be “good quality” comes off as too slick, and it makes the book too heavy. It will hurt your wrists while you are reading it in bed.

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Here are a few lines for further discussion:

  • “Make sure he’s grateful to be with you” (202). This wisdom is via Poehler’s mother. It’s simple, but it resonated with me. I’ve had a few relationships for which I am (and was) very grateful. Like, look around at the sun shining and birds chirping and thank my lucky stars kind of grateful every day. With other people, not so much. Your level of gratitude for the other person says a lot.
  • “Hairspray was king, and the eighties silhouette…was big hair, giant shoulder pads, chunky earrings, thick belts, and form-fitting stretch pants. My silhouette was an upside-down triangle. Add in my round potato face and hearty eyebrows and you’ve got yourself a grade-A boner killer” (207-08). See, there were plenty of lolz! (Also, I want to reintroduce “grade-A boner killer” into more of my conversations.)
  • “And I count myself very lucky. That is what “very lucky” feels like. Oof” (235). These sentences ended a long paragraph on the various violences Poehler has endured–muggings, physical and sexual harassment, sexual violence–but never rape. She makes a powerful point here.
  • “‘Smile’ doesn’t really work either. Telling me to relax or smile when I’m angry is like bringing a birthday cake into an ape sanctuary. You’re just asking to get your nose and genitals bit off” (236). I like this for two reasons. One, being told to “smile” is a weird thing that men say to women. To be on the receiving end of this kind of command feels icky. Two, I love making jokes about ape violence despite the fact that it rarely draws laughs. I’m glad to see Poehler going for it here.
  • “[I]f you do start crying in an argument and someone asks why, you can always say, “I’m just crying because of how wrong you are” (237). This one made me laugh, and I hope I have the wherewithall to use it sometime.

**Edit: There’s also this place where she tells a story of having a casting director ask her to share her most embarrassing story. Poehler refused and didn’t get the job. Then, she told the reader that you don’t have to tell people your most embarrassing story when they ask. I liked that.

an update on the hosta

For the past month, each morning, I have opened the backdoor, walked down the steps with a cup of coffee and carefully the examined the blank space of dirt where the hosta should be. The ground is somewhat covered in leaves. I thought I remembered that strange spear coming up out of the ground earlier in the year last year. It was a mild winter, but I always worry about my outdoor plants regardless.

Hostas are such weird things. Mine is a “sum and substance,” which is the biggest of the hosta varieties. This one is fragrant too. Most hosta blooms are not. Hostas are spooky. I literally jump when I see the spear for the first time each spring.

Last year, it looked like a horned monster rising up from the earth. This year, I was sure it was dead, that is until this weekend when I spotted some horrific looking spikes coming up out of the earth. It looked like a stegosaurus. There were three spikes this time, which means that not only did the hosta survive the winter, it propagated. I can’t wait to watch it grow. Here’s a picture of it looking as terrifying as ever.

hosta spears April 2015

hosta spears April 2015

a little bit on gender and sexuality

Gender and sexuality. Am I right? In the last week or so, this has been a topic of conversation between me and a few friends.

First, you are just you. Then, you wonder who you are. You are a girl. Then, you start to perform gender and sexuality and this is some weird mash up of cultural expectations and your family’s quirks and maybe a little bit of your own genuine propensities. Then you read a little theory in college and rethink some of your “performance.”

Then you have some love and lust and heartbreak, and you look back on the experiences to see what can be gleaned, and you realize that your authentic gender and sexuality, and your performative gender and sexuality, and social expectations and stereotyping are so strong that who knows what’s up or what’s down (or what’s top or what’s bottom, for that matter).

Right now, I am all the things and wonder if this is true for most other people. I am feminine looking and acting. I’ve been told that I am very sweet, too quick to smile, too timid, too accommodating. I am also masculine looking and acting. I am thin, but proportionally broad shouldered and have an adam’s apple. I’ve been told that I am too blunt, too rude, and too aggressive. I’ve felt androgynous. For me, these elements shift, somewhat, with hormones and ideas and whomever I’m in love with at the moment, which is, if I’m honest, usually myself.

What I end up wanting (and getting) in a partner seems so impossibly specific that finding my unicorn sometimes seems impossible—a beautiful blend of masculine and feminine (more masculine, but feminine where it counts).  And inspiring! And creative! And hot for me!

What I really, really like in a partner seems, as I said, so impossibly specific, and yet I’ve found a few of them, and they loved me back, and they were all the things, and that was nice.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I ordered Tiny Beautiful Things and my mom was visiting when I got it. So, she read it first and kept saying out loud, “You need to read this.” She even marked a few passages for me. I watched the movie adaptation of Wild about a month earlier, but could never get into the book. Tiny Beautiful Things was not hard to get into. It takes right off.

I started reading it after my mom went home. I’m not sure if there was one catalyst, or just all the things, but I was an emotional wreck during the few weeks it took me to read the book. I sent frantic texts to my long-suffering bff, and I droned on and on to my dear, long-suffering mother, and I even sobbed a little on the phone with Z, who either suffers most or least of all.

I read and quietly sobbed the duration of a long, cross-country flight. People on either side of my armrests humanely ignored me. The flight attendant retrieved a fistful of tissues for me. Clearly, I’m going through some stuff, and I think it was the potent cocktail of heartache, family, fear, love, effort, HUMANITY!, and Tiny Beautiful Things that created a big emotional purge.

Here are two quotes that meant something to me:

  • On partnering: “This is called intimacy. This is called fuck yes. When people do this with us, it’s an honor” (197).
  • On doing crazy things for love: “Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. Its’ worthy of all the hulabaloo” (219).

Is the book any good? I think it is good. It might be good like wine and ice cream are good: indulgent. I think there’s some useful stuff there. Cheryl Strayed turns herself inside out, revealing her most intimate and painful stories, and in doing so, we readers see the universality of our most painful and humiliating experiences, but also the universality of love, passion, of falling in love. In this book of advice, Strayed convinced me again that the heady passion between two people is rare and real and beautiful and possible and sacred, and I so, so need to believe that right now.

Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler

File this under sherewin sees another mainstream movie and interprets it as horror, but I finally saw Hysteria the other night, and it was just so bad. It’s a film about the invention of the vibrator, which was used to treat hysteria about a century and a half ago in England. At the time, the clitoris had not yet been “discovered” and medically it was “known” that women didn’t orgasm and could only experience pleasure from penis penetration. This is a film that had so, so much potential, but it completely failed.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal is in equal parts irresistibly charming, light, airy, and funny, laughing easily—too easy—at every little thing, but also understandably angry at the rampant sexism all around her. The audience is supposed to wonder if she has hysteria, but the modern audience knows that she does not, and so the back and forth between moods just seems forced and works as a barrier to getting to understand any nuance in her character. (The accent’s pretty tough too.)

It should go without saying that this is supposed to be an erotic film. It doesn’t have to be a porno, but it should be at least a little bit erotic. There are political and historical aspects to the film that allow it to remain solidly in the mainstream, but it is also about vibrators, and orgasms, and female sexuality, and, while I’m sure they were trying not to go beyond an R rating (it really should’ve been PG-13), there was absolutely nothing erotic about this film.

Of the women who go in for the treatment of hysteria, two are spotlighted in the film closely. One is an older woman and her orgasms are portrayed with a physical kind of humor. Her sexuality is portrayed as absurd, ridiculous. The underlying message is that she’s just an old woman trying having a good time. Her sexuality, her hysteria, the conditions that brought her to the doctor’s office is not taken seriously. Though what’s at stake for this woman is institutionalization or worse if her hysteria cannot be effectively treated. People’s lives are at stake. The other woman is fat, so she too is portrayed humorously, singing opera as she orgasms. These two women are portrayed as safe, silly, unsexy women (though of course old and fat women can be dangerous! serious! sexy!). In that way, the filmmakers totally let us down.

Of course, if they had portrayed a more conventional looking bombshell having a more erotic looking orgasm, they might’ve lost their R rating, despite the fact that the women are heavily clothed (as was the style at the time), they are covered by a cloth covered box, which they stick their legs into, and no skin is shown whatsoever. The relationships portrayed in the film are not at all sexual either. They’re confused and dysfunctional. That this film got an R rating is a testament to the resistance toward what would happen if a woman was empowered enough to unapologetically express her sexuality.

I wanted this film to do so much. I wanted it to speak to the historical, the political, and the sexual. These themes are still so very relevant today as women are denied legal control over their bodies in various way. The film should have been a drama. Instead, it is a contrived romantic comedy, minus the romance and minus the comedy. In making it a romantic comedy, it seems they took the easy way out. Any stars this film might get come directly from the title and the concept, which are provocative and important. Sadly, the film itself in no way lived up to that potential.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I have a [smart] friend who thinks Lena Dunham’s work is bad, irresponsible. We go rounds on this because I love her and think that he’s too caught up on having morally good, heroic main characters. He says I’m missing the point. Dunham’s work is shrouded in controversy, but if you’re a fan of her show Girls, you’ll definitely like Not That Kind of Girl. In fact, if you just sort of like her show, you’ll still like her book. Lena Dunham’s work is so incredibly personal and vulnerable and embarrassing and painful, and human. I identify with her so much.

First, I am fascinated with the way she deals with first/early sexual experience. It is the most honest depiction of the kinds of sexual experiences people have in their late teens and early twenties. It can be weird, awkward, and embarrassing. People are unsure about what to do where and for how long. There are strange acts that exist solely because porn tells us that’s what people do for pleasure, even if very few people are doing that thing for pleasure. I actually think this is unavoidable for the most part because there are very few activities that are comparable to coupled sex. In the process, mistakes are made and confusion abounds. Young women are in a constant negotiation with owning and expressing their sexuality, while simultaneously figuring out where the media pressures and social expectations end and where their own pleasure and desire begins. [By the way, I think this is true for men, too, but I don’t read much about it.] So, that’s important.

She’s also balancing art and social commentary, which can be weird and bad, but she does it well. One could easily assume that her work is this off the cuff confessional style, and it is, but there is also real artistry in her work. She has a deep familiarity with language and a knack for creative expression through  her writing. My expectation is that she will continue to write books, and they will be revolutionary, yes, and will only improve from a literary perspective.

Now, let me address the whole scuttlebutt over childhood sexual abuse when the book first came out. I assumed that it would be honest and artfully done, and even be good in that it would help us to think more critically about childhood sexuality. I wanted to read it first before forming my opinion, and after reading it, I thought it was good and important, and did the thing of making us think openly about childhood sexuality. The story is weird, and a bit uncomfortable, but true and not abuse, in my opinion. You can bet that Dunham thinks about consent and abuse because they are major themes in her work.

While I am highly invested in the topic of female sexuality, obviously, Dunham covers other ideas that resonate with me so strongly. Like, there are people who love people, and people who can’t stand to be alone, and people who are curious about other people [I might fall into that last category], but usually I have, as Dunham states, “the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me” (xiii). I have met some of my true friends, and when we meet, and recognize each other, there is much rejoicing! I love these people. They are my forever friends and lovers. But, they number so few I can count them on my hands, and I often feel lonely or out of place, wishing that I could be with one of my people when I’m tired of being alone. Lena Dunham—she gets me.

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Here are some quotes I highlighted:

  • “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman” (xvi).
  • “He was nervous, and, in a nod toward gender equality, neither of us came” (7).
  • “This was the time in life before I learned it wasn’t considered appropriate by society at large to like yourself” (34).
  • She quotes Joan Didion: “There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation” (38).
  • A list from a relationship…”One very unnecessary pregnancy test” (54).
  • “Wherever you go, there you are” (69). An old favorite.
  • “After several interactions in which he questioned my authority and pretended not to hear me speaking, it was clear he was my type” (71).
  • “I had broken up with him on my seventh try, and one try didn’t even count because all I could muster was “I love you” (76).
  • On meeting her love: “Look, there is my friend” (76).
  • “…desire is the enemy of contentment” (143).
  • “You will find,” she says, “that there’s a certain grace to having your heart broken” (144).
  • “…you’ll see that later and be very, very proud” (262).

And so many others.