Monthly Archives: April 2015

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.

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Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

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 to 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.

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

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.