Beyond being buried in snow for solid parts of the past couple of weeks, we’ve been on the fever-go-round. I’ve spent the last five days in bed myself and am still so congested that it looks like I’ve been thrown down the steps on my face. I am behind on everything, which is the worst part of being self-employed in this time, when being self-employed looks scarier than ever. Luckily, I work well under pressure, when I am well enough to sit up and work.
I produce and ingest hearty portions of all of the major Internet food groups daily: tweets, shared items and updates on Facebook, a wide variety of blogs and news aggregators. From any of those starting points, the web can go on and on and on. Sometimes that leads to the sublime or the merely entertaining, but sometimes it gives me the same feeling I invariably get if I dare to visit the snack counter at the movie theater. When there’s too much junk in what I read, I see it in what I write, and how I feel – sort of intellectually bloated and greasy, with way more butter than I was expecting.
One of the easiest tasks I’ve assigned myself on the quest for imperfection in 2009 is to walk away from the chutes and ladders of the web and over to a chair and ottoman that I’ve cleared off for myself, where I can read actual books with pages and ink beneath the glow of a warmly shaded lamp. And especially books that aren’t carved into multiple essays, which have been the ones I’ve had the most hope of finishing in the last year or two. I can be enormously popular in my house, thereby often unable to complete my own sentences, let alone read anyone else’s.
So I’m trying to find things that are nourishing – not necessarily new or topical or even about things that I’m interested in. What I want to read is good writing that glides and bounces and pivots and moves. If the most lyrical book that I can find is about slime mold, then I will read about slime mold.
I’ve started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which is open and friendly and airy, and has been a nice transition from erratic essay reading, since she’s written it as though it was a string of prayer beads from a Meditation Mala. And it’s about a woman in her 30s on a quest for self-discovery, therefore not really remote to me (like slime mold) at all.
But I have a stack of three books that have been nagging me to read them for years – books that I couldn’t bring myself to look at as a pregnant woman or a new mom. I already felt vulnerable in a way that made me cry at insurance commercials and unable to read too far beyond headlines for a long time after the 2004 election. I didn’t want cynicism or anger or fear in the placenta or the breast milk, so I went cold turkey on my news junkie ways. I turned away from violent movies and shows and stories. Sad ones too.
Besides, I worked as an observer in a couple of the district’s poorest urban high schools during these years. My child was nearly lead poisoned. My very kind and loving dog went through miserable pain with bone cancer before we had to make the awful decision to let him go. My husband lost his business of 20 years to little more than greed. There has been plenty of death and illness in our family, and a few deaths among friends, particularly those who couldn’t beat the demons of substance abuse. So… reading tales of loss and tragedy hasn’t seemed like it would be particularly appealing or cathartic or helpful, no matter how compelling the narrative.
But now my boy is a preschooler and we know how much of nothing and everything that we are in the face of the universe. And we have a new president coming in who wants to steer us away from oblivion instead of into it headlong. And so I can be brave again in the face of literature, particularly the non-fiction variety that I tend to prefer.
I can read By Her Own Hand by Signe Hammer – the memoir of a woman whose mother inexplicably killed herself. I read an excerpt of the book a few years back and the imagery and rhythm of the prose startled me – not in its pain, but its buoyant childhood images. And I can read Newjack by Ted Conover, who worked undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year, and whose New Yorker essay “Trucking through the AIDS belt” has been haunting me for years, because of one person he drew vividly in that story, and the choppy rhythm of those African roads.
And then, most frighteningly, I may read The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, by Genevieve Jurgensen, who had two daughters that were killed instantly in a car accident in 1980. I heard her read an excerpt from the book on public radio (maybe on This American Life?) soon after becoming a mother myself and I nearly threw up, so I think I need to read it.
I’m also piecing through Mark Bittman’s Food Matters because I read that it was the most practical book about environmentally conscious food buying and preparation out there. And I plan to read a few of the stories in the traditional Blue Fairy Book to remind myself what fairy tales were to me as a girl, because they didn’t always have happy endings or clear-cut heroes and villains. I may reread A Wrinkle in Time because it’s been 25-30 years since the last time and I don’t remember it so well. And chances are good that I’ll use one of my next coupons on one of James Morrow’s book, because I love me some complicated religious science fiction/humor.
And so, if, by any chance, you’ve made it all the way through this long-winded post, tell me: What book(s) have you read, whether it was last week or twenty years ago, that had a profound influence on your sense of language? If you had to pick a couple of the books that most made you want to write (or to read more), what would they be? Have you ever met a book with a subject that you thought would bore you, but instead, it ended up making you turn off your phone so that you could read it in peace?
As I was cleaning on New Year’s Day, an old cookie fortune flittered out of a pile of papers onto the floor. “You’re a perfectionist,” it said, in deceptively friendly typeface. “Don’t spoil it.” I think I saved it because it is obviously the most annoying fortune ever.
If you looked at my house, my car, my fingernails, my life – “perfectionist” is probably one of the last things that would come to mind. Unless, maybe, you know something about perfectionism.
In action, perfectionism doesn’t really look like “a place for everything and everything in its place,” although I suppose that it might for some people. It has more to do with deluding yourself that it’s possible for everything in life to be perfect — you, your environment, your career, your relationships — and punishing yourself or paralyzing yourself when it isn’t.
In my life, this has manifested in simple ways, like letting my desk or the kitchen sink or a room go to mayhem before I put them back in order, because I won’t do anything until I think I have set aside enough time to do everything. (Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness, motherhood and the Flylady* have helped bring me miles past where I used to be on this.) Or sadder ways – I don’t want to go out as often, because I’m not the skinny minnie I once was or because I think people won’t accept me because I talk and think too much about being a mommy. Or I don’t invite people over unless I know their perception of “disaster area” is similar to my own. Or worse.
Writing has always been a space where I’ve felt willing and able to do battle with perfectionism. And I think that it is one place where I’ve managed to whip it more often than it’s whipped me. About a year ago, a friend joked and called me “the great, glorious she-hack” while we were talking, then immediately worried that he might have offended me. Maybe it was because we were in the basement of a Buddhist temple at the time (where ego is often more in check), but I felt, and assured him, that I wasn’t. “I think I might put that on my business card,” I joked.
I think I’ve learned to rein it into something useful in writing and research – a sort of meticulousness or attention to detail that I usually give to the story first and the writing second. Mistakes happen, you cop to them and you write again. But that has been a long, weird and sometimes painful process. I’ve had editors change things for seemingly no other reason than to have done something. I’ve had copy editors edit mistakes into my work and survived the embarrassment.** And I’ve lived with the demands of writing for the space allotted, not necessarily to the story, for much of my career.
If I let perfectionism control my writing, I would never have been able to make a dime doing it without tearing all of my hair out. I would have had to go into academic writing, where there is more editorial control, or become a weekend novelist who made her money in landscaping or as a circus clown. Instead, I have become the “great glorious she-hack.” It’s not on my business card, but it is one of the titles I give myself on my rotating email signatures. If I could make my expectations of life more like my expectations of writing, I think I’d be a healthier person.
My spider senses are up about this because I’m beginning to see signs of perfectionism in my son. Many skills come to him easily, and some of the ones that don’t can give him emotional vertigo. Before the holiday, one of his teachers told me that perfectionism is common in oldest (check!) or only children, who often compare themselves more to adults than to other children. And the two things she told me I could do to help him were to praise the process when he worked hard on learning something and to model failure for him.
As grating as that cookie fortune was, it was fortuitous that it fell down n front of me on the one day when I’m usually consumed by contemplating resolutions and consuming good luck food. And this year, I was feeling like a failure because I was in a terrible, fatigued mental space that did not lend itself well to reflection.
It helped me resolve to not have resolutions this year, because the very nature of resolutions predisposes me to failing – or not accomplishing as much as I would like to – in an ungraceful or unforgiving way. Aspirations, on the other hand, are less quantifiable and forgiving. I can advance a psychic millimeter or a light year – all that matters is that I advance. Or move on if I do not or cannot, because that would be an advancement too.
And so I am figuring out a few aspirations for myself, some of which I will share here in the next few days, or weeks, or seasons. Feel free to join me if you’re so inclined. I’d love for us to help each other to not be so hard on ourselves.
* The Flylady’s prose is a more than a touch precious, but her ideas about managing domestic life in the face of perfectionism are sound. My Christmas tree hasn’t come down yet, but my sink is very shiny. I currently like being in 75 percent of my house, and that’s not so bad.
** Note to editors I work with who read this blog: These things have not happened with anyone I’m currently writing for. Seriously.
I was three months pregnant with Declan on election day in 2004, and I spent the next two days in bed, not believing what had happened, not believing that no one in the media seemed to consider the obscenely long lines the equivalent of a poll tax. In the strange hormonal haze of pregnancy, I gave up my news junkie ways for a while.
I’m usually an obsessively informed citizen, but I had to insulate myself from a cultural climate that seemed to consider someone with my views unAmerican. A lot of headlines simply made me cry, so I looked at them through my fingers, often ignoring them altogether, and reverting into the safety of obsessing about becoming a mom.
Today, the news has made me weepy again, but that’s only made me more greedy for every headline or perspective I can get my hands on. I’ve cried at images of the world’s reaction to our new president. I’ve gone weepy every time I watch someone get choked up over the historical significance of yesterday. I cry when I consider last night’s speech, when I consider Barack Obama’s tremendous handle on history, and his clear understanding of and love for U.S. Constitution. I even get choked up when I watch how many Republican figures seem to want to share in the national pride of the moment.
I cry when I think about how disillusioned by the voting process I felt four years ago, and how relieved that everyone’s right to vote now seems to matter to Ohio’s newer government officials.
Jennifer Brunner has gotten a lot of threats. We should be sending her flowers and thank you cards.
My mother, brother and I moved to Columbus in the summer just before I started fourth grade. Ohio was home to us long before then – a place with the most magnificent banister you could ever hope to slide down, cousins to play with and cavernous rooms to hide out in while anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus.
One of the first, most noticeable differences in my education on the East coast versus my education in Ohio was simply this: No one ever required me to learn a song about New Jersey, and I think it’s unlikely that anyone would have had I stayed. But literally within my first few weeks as a student in the Buckeye state, I was taught the Ohio State fight song, Carmen Ohio, a musical rendition of the riddle “What’s round on the ends and hi(gh) in the middle?” and the state rock song “Hang On, Sloopy.”
Somewhere around sixth grade, I was exposed to new Ohio rituals and traditions. There was one where one boy goes home for lunch the day before the OSU-Michigan football game and returns to school dressed in maize and blue (one of the colors in Big 10 sport teams has to have a Tweeds catalog-like name, so that no one mistakes it for a more ordinary shade). All of the scarlet and gray-wearing boys then dogpile on him, mock-beat him and strip him of his colors before math class. Then there are the bonfires with the marching bands, during which everyone sings all of the Ohio songs they had to learn in school. It a rivalry so fraught with insanity, HBO made a documentary about it.
As a non-sports fan with a son, I’m apprehensive about the day that Declan asks me for, say, maize and blue clothes so he can offer himself up to his classmates for mock sacrifice. Or worse – a day where the outcome of any particular game visibly dampens his mood (his dad – a big sports fan – is actually pretty good at shaking off this kind of disappointment). When I lived near the OSU campus, where I had to pay attention to the football schedule as a practical measure to keep my car from getting towed, you could sense the manic glee after a victory and the angry frustration after a defeat. (There didn’t have to be a riot happening to sense it.)
True sportsmanship, after all, is about common respect, no matter how hard the game is fought. Everybody shakes hands and moves on after the game. Or so I thought. But this billboard, which has been all over town for several months, doesn’t strike me as very sportsman-like:
Where do you draw the line between healthy competition/rivalry and insanity?
I had absolutely no idea how much attention this post would receive. Throughout last weekend, I watched the statistics pile up as people from all over the world shuffled through, eager to look for and offer clues.
Here are a few of the insights and suggestions that people had:
• To try and date the Hello Kitty shirt that the one child is wearing in order to figure out when the pictures were taken. I’ve done some preliminary searching for vintage/nostalgia Hello Kitty tees, but haven’t had much luck. Does anyone have more suggestions about how or where I could track this?
• There was the suggestion that the “Welcome Friends” sign could mean that the family members are Quaker. Being in Central Ohio, with a lot of family connections and regular travel east of of here (mostly to Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut), this seems like a reasonable suggestion, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.
• I found the suggestion that the two children are twins really interesting. They look so different, but could clearly be the same age. The gender of the Hello Kitty child seems to have confounded a lot of people. You can see the traces of a ponytail on his/her shoulder, but if these were taken in the 1980s (the dawn of Hello Kitty in the U.S., it was pointed out to me), that would also be the age of the mullet, so who knows?
• It was suggested that experts at police stations could render projections of these faces in older years to aid the search, but I can’t really afford to go and have that done. Anyone know a person with such a skill, or have access to software that we could use to do that?
I did send links to this post to a number of family members and close friends who have been to my mother’s house in recent years, but there has been no movement on that front. Since I’m from a family with scads of steps, halves and in-laws in my tree, I plan to send out some more over the holidays to see if I can shake out any more information.
If there are any new developments, I will keep you posted!
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A couple of years ago, my mother found an old roll of film in her house and developed it. She didn’t recognize any of the faces in the pictures.
Most of the guests that she and my stepfather have hosted in their home over the last 18 years have been family members. So she passed the pictures around at Christmas after she found them. Still, no one recognized the people, the flowers, the welcoming goose or the bell.
I found the pictures again today. I’ve been trying to clear a few of the stray boxes of random stuff I have around the house. My husband asked why I kept them, since no one knows who these people are.
The images are so methodical and symmetrical. They were taken with such clear intent, meant to be put in a multi-paned frame or photo album and passed through generations. It seemed callous to cast them, negatives and all, into the garbage.
I’m also fond of the weird and rosy glow that the aged film gave their earnest expressions. I like the hint of a ponytail that sits on the androgynous Hello Kitty child’s shoulder like three shoelaces.
By the time that the fourth or fifth family member looked at these and shrugged in utter confusion, I laughed for an unreasonable amount of time. I imagined all kinds of scenarios that could land a stray roll of film at our house, by way of somebody’s purse, luggage or briefcase. I imagined family members with unknown second lives and science fiction conspiracies in which these important faces were zapped out of our memory through some unknown technology.
There’s only one image that’s incongruous with the others:
For the sake of de-cluttering my cluttered home, I thought I’d put out this last clarion call to more distant relatives and the winds of the Internet to see if I can find out their identities and deliver the photos to the appropriate hands.
Any clues? Theories? Face identification experts?
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I’m thankful for family, for goofy dancing and for locally-made Dutch apple pie.
I’m thankful to anyone who reads this blog.
And I’m think I’m thankful that my brother showed me this extremely silly video, but I’m afraid that Declan will now wake up one morning in 2021 with a hot hot hot desire to go to Appalachian State University.
(Caveat: there’ a risk that watching this will make you feel more hostile than thankful towards me. It’s just bad on so many levels.)
So when I poked around in the toy section of a second-hand store last week, I was thrilled to find two sealed bags of space stuff, replete with astronauts, an alien, a satellite dish and a rover, all for about $3. It struck me as a little odd, however, that the construction worker from the Village People was also included.
Life soundtrack: The Village People, The Casablanca Records Story, “Macho Man”