Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ha! Short Post

Ever wonder what it would be like to get a professional family photo taken if every one of your family members had the same phobia of being touched by or in front of strangers? It would go a lot like this:

PHOTOGRAPHER: "OK, then, dad is T, mom is C, the newlyweds are Sean and Paisley? Great. We'll start with the ladies behind the men who will be sitting down. Get closer. Ladies, please stand on those blocks so you don't disappear behind your husbands. Get closer. Get closer. Get closer. C, feel free to adjust your block and help T straighten up. OK, a little closer. Maybe, like, you know, TOUCH your husbands' shoulders. With your hands. Good! Smile. Smile. Smile! Get closer. OK, well, let's try something else then. Husbands, can you stand behind the ladies? Get closer. Get closer. Sean, get closer to T and put your hands on Paisley's waist. That's not her waist. Now, T, put your hand on C's shoulders. Get closer. Get... No, well, can you at least angle your bodies towards each other then? And try not to rear your heads so far away from each other? Sean, tilt in towards Paisley. TILT. Get closer. Get closer. Hmm, well, let's try just each couple on their own for a minute. Sean, can you sit behind Paisley on that stool and wrap your legs around her? No, I don't mean THAT, but something... Get closer. Get closer. So can you two face each other, with your arms around each other's waists...? No? How about hold each other's hands? How about TRY to hold each other's hands? What about... Get closer. Get closer. Sean, are you in pain? Let's move on to the parents. Parents, can you do the same thing? No, it seems you can't either. Closer. Closer. Just a TINY BIT... T, your eyes... You have such a, um, PENETRATING look. Like you could see through walls or something. Try and smile. Nice smile, C! T, please smile like your wife. Smile. Smile? Oh, ha, yes, I suppose your father DOES sort of resemble an owl that's been given a suppository, Paisley, though I never would have thought of it quite like that. It's OK to blink, T. Do you need some air? Get closer. Get closer. Get closer. One last photo of you all together. Angle your... Closer. Closer. I hate to repeat myself but, can you all just take two more steps in so your family group is closer? Husbands, please put your hands on your wives' shoulders. Not around the neck, Sean. Closer. Closer. Closer. Now smile. Closer. Closer. OK, this is the last shot. Yes, T, I think that is a bar across the street."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Karmic Redress is a Bitch

I'm writing this at 3:36 a.m., otherwise known as Low Blood Sugar Hour for all right-thinking drinkers, though it isn't wine dissipating from my blood stream that has woken me. I was actually having a very intricate dream inspired, I think, by Game of Thrones, in which I was negotiating the sale of a half-sister I didn't know I had to a noseless dwarf when suddenly I sat bolt upright, sweating and terrified. "I don't know French," I thought. "I don't know Vietnamese. I don't know anyone where I'm going. I AM GOING TO DIE."

It may seem a strange associative leap to move from one's inability to order egg rolls fluently to the sudden awareness of one's encroaching mortality, but ever since I was a teenager I've been haunted by one particular hallucination in which I can vividly imagine what my final hours will be. I'll be alone, and it will be very quiet, and I am tired but slowly being filled with the complete awareness that nothing is before me, that I am in fact being consumed by and at the same time consuming nothing, that the whole of me is now one vast emptiness that will go on forever.

And when that happens, you have to go where all modern human consciousness begins and ends to save yourself: the refrigerator.

So I am back in bed now, trying to self-soothe (as one of my erstwhile Conferee students described it in an essay she turned in) eating hardboiled eggs and blogging. And worrying, for my cardio. I am in Seattle where I was born and raised, but I am not in my parent's house. I am instead in my mom's houseboat, which is about 600 square feet of bobbing Asian knick-knacks and snackables. For those of you in the know, it's like a miniature Uwajimia. There are Japanese chests of drawers and statues of Buddha and racks of shakuhachi music CDs and, on the outside of the houseboat itself, an antique Japanese gate my parents bought from a store downtown, along with some carved wood dragons and clouds screwed above the lintel. I call this place "The Floating World" to friends, which is a joke my mother never gets.

And why am I in The Floating World and not, say, excavating the fridge at my parent's house? Because their house is so crowded with junk there is literally no place for me to sleep.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but let me assure you it isn't. Partly this has to do with the fact that my parents are preparing for my mother's family reunion later this week for which over 30 Chinese Americans from all over the country are going to be descending on Seattle to eat a whole roast pig and play mah jong and sing karaoke and rehash the great War of Po Po's Contested House Sale. Right now my parents' house is filled with maps and gift bags and bottles of wine they're handing out as party favors, along with the usual crap, like Christmas wrapping paper and rubber stamps and thousands of books, and stuffed animals (?!) and the various clothing items my mother has picked up on her trips. The house has five rooms but four of them are literally so stuffed to the gills with clothing and shoes and books and other paraphernalia that you can't turn around. If my mother doesn't get picked up by Hoarders: The Extreme Edition soon, it will be a miracle. And, for the first time, it has occurred to me that maybe leaving my dogs here isn't such a good idea.

Because now I can see their house NOT the way an only child terrified of having to pack up all this stuff on her own when her parents finally decide to move to a smaller domicile would see it, but much the way a 65 lb, half-blind animal whose head is only so high as a human's crotch would see it. And what I saw was an endless maze of teetering, bewildering STUFF that all smelled vaguely of moth balls and soy sauce that jutted out at weird, eye-puncturing angles. I saw couches covered with stacks of magazines that meant I couldn't sleep on them, and a line of file cabinets and cardboard boxes that take up almost every square inch of carpeted space in the hallway that mean, instead of turning around when someone calls for me, I will have to walk backwards to exit any room. In short, I began to realize that my dogs would be spending an entire year exhaustively circling and circling the same 15 square feet of usuable space like depressed goldfish, looking for the one small place they can SIT DOWN.And so, having swallowed the last bite of hardboiled egg and gotten over my fear of death, I begin to cry.

It doesn't help that yesterday my mom gave me these two photos, taken over 11 years ago.

And it didn't help that, while in Port Townsend, after little less than a week away from my dogs, I would go on long runs past the houses where I knew they had friendly dogs in the yard, just so I could stop and let them smell my hand and give me little kisses and run back and forth around me, being dogs, being LIKE my dogs.

One of my favorites was a female Bernese I came across while walking from Fort Worden to the town. The Bernese was chained to a little blue stake in an open garden filled with dahlias, peony bushes and lavender. Sean's dog is a Bernese, and so when I saw her, I asked the owner--an older woman in a tie-dye shirt and sun hat--if I could come in for a brief visit. The Bernese got so excited at the prospect that she charged towards me at full tilt, forgetting that she was tied to the stake. At the end of her rope she was literally yanked backwards, her head snapping wildly back as she collapsed onto her back, howling.

"Jesus!" I cried.

"Oh, it doesn't hurt her," the woman replied. "She does this every single day."

The Bernese was now in an ecstasy of joy and stake-rage and so kept running around, alternately snapping at the stake which did this to her every single day and leaping at me, either to lick me or bite my face off. I couldn't tell.

"No, no!" the woman scolded. "Mommy does NOT LIKE you doing that! No woofs, please! Mommy does NOT LIKE woofs at strangers she has invited into our nice yard!"

The Bernese, straining at its leash, began to hack dramatically.

"I have to apologize. Our first two dogs were enlightened beings," the woman told me solemnly. "They were Boddhisattvas, really. This dog seems to be our Karmic redress."

I looked at the dog, which by now was bug-eyed and squirming under her owner's firm grip. A line of drool had begun to work its way down the dog's white chest fur.

"It's ok," I said, trying to back away. "Maybe she doesn't want visitors."

"Oh no, I insist! You must pet her! It's good for her soul."

I put a hand out tentatively and Karmic Redress lunged for it, barking.

"Really," I repeated, "maybe I should go and let her calm down."

But the woman wasn't listening to me by then. She was bent over, pushing her face into the dog's and speaking in a firm, soft voice. "Mommy doesn't LIKE this behavior, you know! Mommy wants you to relax and sit down and let this woman pet you. Mommy needs you to stop woofing and be good. Be GOOD for mommy!" Karmic Redress grinned up at her, ass wagging.

In case you think this woman is maybe a little insane, they are ALL like this in Port Townsend. The place is filled with hippies and co-ops and crystals tucked in amongst shops stuffed with cute Victoriana. Almost every car has a bumper stickers with slogans like "Peace: It's Back in Style" or "Powered by Sun-Energy," or "Wiccan On Board" or (my favorite), "Port Townsend: We're All Here Because We're Not All There." While I was there, the Snohomish were doing their annual "Paddle to Seattle" tribal canoe trip, and as there is nothing that Port Townsend likes more than an American Indian in a drum circle, Fort Worden, where the tribal canoes had landed, was a-thrum with people clapping their hands and cheering on the different visiting tribal members as they sang their invited songs before the host-tribe from Jamestown. "This is the spiritual navel of the universe," I overheard one woman saying to another as I passed on my way to watch the canoes take off from the beach that morning, and her companion grunted with pleasure and shook her hand-carved and painted spirit stick she bought from Native Winds downtown.

If Port Townsend is indeed the spiritual navel of the universe, I thought, it would explain why the houses here are so expensive.

But that day after meeting Karmic Redress, I was depressed and have stayed depressed ever since. Of all the things I hate to leave for a year--Sean, my friends, my house--it is my dogs that get me the most upset. Unlike Sean and my friends, my dogs won't understand why I'm gone. I've never been away from them longer than a month, and after that month I was frantic to see them. Perhaps I was also affected by the way Karmic Redress' owner kept referring to herself as "mommy." During the writer's conference, I'd been genially accosted by two other women faculty--newish mothers--who were both trying to convince me that I should have a child, and not later, but now, preferably RIGHT THIS MINUTE. They insisted that there was, in fact, nothing better they'd done in their respective lives than have children, and that my decision to go away for a year was a mistake as now I couldn't even TRY to have a child for all that time. With women like this, I try to be as polite as possible, since I'm happy they've had kids and I'm genuinely glad that the world has some people in it who actually seem to like parenting, parents who aren't busy, say, driving their kids in a locked Volvo off a bridge so they can go live with their new, young, hot boyfriends unencumbered. No, it's good that people love their offspring and want to care for them.

But that doesn't mean that I will be one of them.

I also have long rejected the notion that I am "mommy" to my dogs and try to avoid this term as much as possible. I'm pretty sure I know what a kid of mine would look like, and though it may be just as stupid and anus-obsessed as a dog, I'm also pretty certain it will have less hair. I don't want to call myself "mommy" or even THINK of myself as "mommy" with my dogs, because I think it perpetuates the unfortunate assumption that childless women with pets are merely compensating for what they REALLY want, which is to be covered with vomit while trying to dispose of a full diaper.

I don't know what I am to my dogs nor, the longer I live with them, what they are to me. One of the things I love the most about being with dogs is that the bond you have with them truly is like no other. You can explain loving a child, especially your own, as an instinctual, necessary feeling. But there's no reason to love a dog. And there's no reason--outside of centuries of breeding that has itself been turned into a kind of instinct--for a dog to love, or at least trust, you back. It's amazing to me the line that dogs walk in our world--human-appearing enough to continue to be coddled and fed and yet, always at the end, totally OTHER to the human. Don't worry: I'm not one of those people who wants to yammer on about how special and amazing her dogs are and how her life is filled with all those fantastic lessons she couldn't learn any other way. My dogs are spectacularly, almost aggressively stupid. But they are also very cute.

While I hate comparing dogs to children, something struck me when I was speaking with Sean the other day about those annoying thought-nuggets certain parents love to pelt the childless with, which is that parenthood utterly changed their lives, and that they would have regretted not having a child now that they understood what it meant to them. "You know," I told Sean, "the same actually COULD be said of having a dog. It totally changes your life, and I have to say that now I see our relationship to animals in a way that I would regret not knowing."

"You could say the same thing about breaking your arm, too," Sean yawned. "You feel something you've never felt before, and it certainly changes you."

"Yeah, but you would regret breaking your arm, I think," I said. "No parent ever says they regret having a child."

"That's because they are under contractual obligation not to."

"But do you regret having a dog?" I said. "Even though it's totally made our life a pain in the ass?"

"Of course not. It's the THREE dogs that I regret."

"I regret the number, too. But not the essential decision. So why should parents regret the difficulty of a child?"

"They probably don't," admitted Sean. "But they're probably also suffering from an advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome."

The more I thought about it, it seemed that the questions about regret that the childless ask of the parent, and the assertions the parent makes in turn about parenting to the childless are beside the point. Anyone who has ever taken on the significant responsibility of caring for something not yourself knows that regret doesn't factor in as significantly as you imagine it might. It can't, unless you fetishize the past to the exclusion of all else. The responsibilities may involve different levels of cultural or personal significance, but regret isn't the standard by which these responsibilities can be judged. Or, more importantly, felt.

In that small sense, then, having a dog IS like having a child.

And what kind of non-parent to my dogs am I? How can I leave two sweet (though unenlightened) creatures, utterly dependent on me, for nearly a year? To leave them at a point when it is conceivable that one, maybe even both, might die from old age? And leave them to negotiate this terrifying ark of Asiatic flotsam run by distant, though loving, strangers? I look back on the photos of my dogs and my chest constricts so that I can hardly breathe. I don't know what these animals are in relation to me, how they understand my relationship to them, but there's no question that I love them, far more deeply even than I've loved a lot of the people in my life. They aren't Buddha's tour guides, that's for sure. And they aren't my children. But they aren't NOT my children, either.

The more I wrestle with these feelings as I get ready to leave, the more it strikes me that I ask myself these questions as if to suggest, or gauge, for myself what the RIGHT amount of emotion would be based on the object of my affection. But why continually parse out the difference, why insist on any difference between human and animal in these ways? I do it to make myself feel better about leaving, when I know--or feel--deep down that the significance between human and animal may really just be semantic. (Of course, I just ate steak for dinner, so this all makes me a hypocrite as well.) But why assume one bonded relationship is normal or excessive, laudable or regrettable? And why always feel--probably like a lot of young mothers do at 3 a.m.--that I am somehow constantly getting it wrong?

"They're only dogs," my parents tell me, and they're right. I'm just trying to understand what the adverb means.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Oh, The Writers' Conference

As of my last post, I've received two messages about what I should try--and write about--while in Santa Cruz. The first, submitted by a reader named Rona (who I may or may not know but can't tell because I have a memory like a sieve and the facial recognition powers of a goldfish), was to go downhill mountain biking. Will do, Rona! I am hoping that what Rona means by this is regular mountain biking with a downhill portion added to it, rather than actual downhill mountain biking, which would--as I've learned from evenings smoking weed and watching the X Games (makes more narrative sense that way)--require that I let almost all the air out of the tires so as to keep me from bouncing out of control off branches, logs, stones, small children, and the occasional rattlesnake over which I'll be riding. As it is, this activity will require me to purchase a pair of padded biking shorts, which will take some doing. The only thing more demoralizing than buying a pair of shorts stuffed with Depends is trying on string bikinis in Forever 21, the clothing chain I pray will someday be put out of business by a store called Passably 35.

But trust me, Rona, I WILL get to this. Clara, on Facebook, told me to go drinking at a bar called Nepenthe, in a town called--wait for it--Nepenthe. This I will be doing sometime between August 3-8 (or, depending on how good the bar is, THROUGH August 3-8), when my friend and fellow poet, Susan, will be flying out to join me. We'll be doing Napa and Nepenthe together. This is the plan, at least. All Susan has to do is buy the ticket. NO PRESSURE, SUSAN.

In the meantime, I'm holed up in my house, frantically writing an essay for the Port Townsend Writers' Conference where I'll be teaching in the next week. (This is meant to be read as fact, not shameless self-promotion, by the way, and is also to help me reacquaint myself with the IPad Blogsy feature of posting photos from the web, something that took me three hours to master on the recalcitrant Ling Ling the other week and which, if I forget how to do it now, will FUCKING KILL ME. So here's a photo of Port Townsend, WA.)

The essay is of that mysterious genre called "The Craft Talk" which every writing conference seems to require its faculty to master. It's a strange category of writing about writing that is meant a) to elucidate some of the finer points about literature while b) not being too academic, abstruse, or--from what I can tell from a lot of craft talks I've attended over the past 15 years--in the least bit useful. The craft talks I've loved have been close readings of particular authors, but the time constraints of the conference suggests that what people might actually get more use out of is something hovering between Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and the Idiot's Guide to Writing The Da Vinci Code. (Which, to me, is redundant. An idiot DID write The Da Vinci Code.) I, myself, am constantly dogged by my Idiot urge, understanding that the presentation of the primarily evaluative (examining the evolution of post-confessional lyrics, say) versus the primarily practical (show don't tell, try ditching the adverbs, etc., etc.) will leave most people more frustrated when they leave my talk than before they arrived. I'm only teaching for a week, and these people are paying good money, dammit, and moreover taking time away from actual paying work and hopefully a fulfilling home life to get a little help. I'd like to help. I completely believe that writing can be taught. However, I also think that most techniques can only be demonstrated through close reading, and if there's one thing I've learned from teaching at writing conferences, it's that a certain number of writing conferees (and writers too, let's be honest) hate to read.

Which is a problem.

I don't want to get into any kind of discussion about whether writing can or can't, should or shouldn't be taught at conferences. For me, it's a moot point: whether we think it can or should, the profitability factor means that it IS being taught and will continue to be until literature itself collapses. This seems unlikely. The real question, if anyone cares to keep going down this path (I really don't) is whether anyone these days has the time or attention span left to LEARN to write. Regardless, I find it amusing to see the various species of writers converging at these conferences for a single week, and even more amusing to see how we each teach writing (or, implicitly, what we teach ABOUT the teaching of writing) via our own taxonomical rankings.

Let's run down the taxonomy, shall we?

First, there's Big Name From Big Program Guy (usually Guy, but can be Gal), here to represent Iowa or Columbia or Michigan and whose stellar personal achievements and famous friends, students and colleagues make everyone around him/her giddy with speculation, but more often vaguely nauseous with intimidation. Big Name is the kind of person who proclaims, rather than speaks, hits on almost all the junior female (sometimes male) fellows/scholars/faculty in the vicinity but gives great craft talk. Big Name is the only writer at the conference who will not only know the name for the big fancy ship in the photo above but, when on board, be the only one who feels at home. Big Name will use the term "matey" not at all ironically. Big Name oozes gossip. Big Name may also ooze gin. "Oleaginous" may be the first word that pops into your head upon meeting Big Name. Big Name can't drive well but loves cars for some reason, has a second house by a large body of water, and may or may not have dated Carly Simon. Big Name is the one you most want to sit close to (but not near enough for his hand to reach your thigh) to catch all the gossip after the third cocktail.

Next, there's Hot Thing With Big Book, who might also be called The Prodigy, if this writer is under age 26, lives in Brooklyn but hails originally from somewhere near the Baltic region, and possesses no graduate degree. This writer is spectacularly talented, but also seems to be a magnet for Job-like happenings. Prodigy is the one who loses her rental car at a shopping mall, say, or sets fire to all her student manuscripts while doing a sage-smudging of her room. Prodigy is the one who leaves his girlfriend for another writer in the middle of the conference and then, because he believes in emotional transparency at all costs, SENDS HIS GIRLFRIEND THE OTHER WRITER'S MANUSCRIPT to get her opinion of it. Or Prodigy is the one who, in less than two hours in a hotel room, racks up over $400 worth of incidental charges that get left to the conference or program to pay. Like the erstwhile band, Prodigy can't dance and has a lot of Terrible Moods. Prodigy is a writer you enjoy drinking with, but never alone, and never in a darkened room. At all costs, if Prodigy is a poet, never let Prodigy drive.

Then there's Freelancers, a group of highly gregarious, highly talented individuals in their mid-thirties who have been academically trained but have chosen (because they aren't stupid) not to enter the teaching profession. Freelancers also live in Brooklyn, occasionally Los Angeles. Freelancers supplement their book deals with newspaper articles and the occasional teaching gig, but mostly live by their writing alone. Freelancers, if in fiction or nonfiction, are almost always happy, eager to pull out their newest stolen wine bottle or pack of American Spirit cigarettes from their purses to share with you. They are always rifling the local Yellow Pages for a strip club address or heckling the bartender to stay open an hour longer, but they are NOT the ones getting into hissy fits with the waiters (that's Big Name). They have no cars, but the best drugs. Freelancers are the life of the conference, unless they are Freelance Poets, in which case they can be found drinking with Prodigy, whining nastily about their last botched Paxil prescription as Prodigy dims the lights.

Finally, there's my species: Working Stiffs, those teacher-writer combos from decent schools with decent publications who are known to be decent folks with decent drinking habits who most of all have the decency NOT to be criminally insane. Working Stiffs dutifully follow all the conference guidelines, including meeting individually with ALL their students, AND for the full 30 minutes, even while Freelancers keep forgetting their appointment times and, if they do remember, talk about OK! magazine the entire time, while Big Name dispenses each brief meeting with a cursory, "You'll have to read my last book to understand what I'm going to say to you," and Prodigy just sets fire to his scheduler. Working Stiffs give dutiful craft talks about the metrical subversion of Robert Frost which do nothing to advance Frost scholarship but work as fantastic soporifics, as evidenced by the 50 poets now drooling helplessly onto their notebooks ("I have no idea what happened!" whines Freelance Poet, waking up and wiping his mouth. "I think Prodigy SLIPPED me something last night!"). Working Stiffs aren't flushing their lives down the drain, but they aren't going to be Big Names anytime soon, either, which is the species closest to them on the taxonomic ladder. This is why Big Name excites and repels them beyond measure, and why the recent announcement of Big Name's newest book prize at the final night of the conference induces a choking fit in at least one Working Stiff, the result of his frantically stuffing a fist into his mouth to mask the squeals of rage. Working Stiffs are the backbone of the conference, but they are never, ever the draw. They're what make the conferees feel like they MIGHT have learned something. This, at least, is the same timid compliment conferees dully offer up to Working Stiffs on closing night--something about the semicolon perhaps, or Robert Frost's use of dactyls: they'll hold on to that forever!--all the while casting longing backwards glances at Big Name and Prodigy, and glaring at the feckless Freelancers.

Because what conferees are really starting to learn at these conferences is not just how to write, but how to be a writer. And while Freelancers and Working Stiffs are how the bulk of writers live, they aren't glamorous. Their shirts are too small, their hair too unkempt, they have holes in their sweaters. They aren't, overall, the kind of people that make you feel like the future of literature is in safe hands. You can smell the nervous effort on them, even as they appear--from a distance--not to struggle very much. The ones who make it truly look effortless are Big Name and Prodigy who, in their various guises, keep alive our most cherished stereotypes about writers: their genius is natural, untamed and untaught or, if taught, taught somewhere in the literary ivy league alone. Actually, not taught at all, but transmitted, via osmosis, through a largely male, largely white literary landscape my undergraduates like to call "universal writing, you know, like Shakespeare" or "The Canon." This is a landscape we imagine has been shaped by superior and highly individualistic talents, writers marked by impeccable taste and an abhorrence of social convention as demonstrated by the impoverished situation of the academy today, a sort of John Geilgud meets Ernest Hemingway meets Lord Byron perhaps.

All of which leads me to the final rung on the taxonomic ladder: The Conferee. The Conferee is someone who must be perceived as Other to all these things that are The Canon, even as they are, frankly, The Canon-makers--or at least social shapers--themselves. Conferees are the bulk of the readership America has left. And yet, I'm always amazed at the kind of hostility certain conferences--mostly the really big-name ones--generate or hold towards Conferees, especially the older ones who haven't come from MFA programs and have only written sporadically, if at all. These Conferees are extremely bright, curious, and utterly strapped for time because of families and jobs. And yes, it's true, a lot of them won't become writers. But a lot of them will keep writing throughout their lives.

(Aside: what is the standard of success for the teaching of writing? Is it student publication? Continued curiosity and the ability to use these skills for one's personal advancement and pleasure? Those of you post-MFAers: how many of your classmates--whose names you haven't been seeing on book covers or journals--are still writing for themselves today?)

My sense of why such hostility can arise towards these Conferees comes from the fact that a) they aren't PERCEIVED to be writers (due to some of the facts above) in the ways we imagine writers to be and look and speak and dress and b) this perception itself arises because so many of them are older women.

This is a demographic fact which has tinged one or two of the writing conferences I've attended with the sour whiff of sexism. It seems more like a problem for conferences in which a certain hierarchy is already established (conferences, for instance, that distinguish between Conferees on scholarship or fellowship or working waiter-ship positions and outright paying Conferees). It also seems to be a particular problem for certain younger male writers down lower on the taxonomical rungs, I've noticed, who can experience at writers' conferences (like Bread Loaf) what I call The Franzen Effect: the sudden, irrational desire not to be associated with The Female Readership. Or, Just To Be Clear About The Status I Get To Hold In The Literary World, Any Females At All.

And that just really blows.

I should say that this doesn't happen all the time and I don't actually expect it will happen in Port Townsend. I've been to a lot of wonderful conferences that did the exact opposite of everything I've outlined here. (If interested, check out Kundiman or The Imagination Conference in Cleveland. Those were really great ones.) But there are conferences which do seem to thrive on this kind of hierarchical craziness, itself an extension of our crazy notions about what makes a writer, WHO makes a writer, all the while worrying about whether being stuck together with 300 strangers in a small town eating bad cafeteria food for a week will ever help anyone produce a decent poem. The odds are, it won't. But the odds before this weren't very good either.

(Aside: if you are thinking of starting a writers' conference, make sure everyone has equal access to the drinking facilities. This went a long way toward making Sewanee a more pleasurable experience than Bread Loaf, even though Sewanee has the same pay-to-play versus get-paid-to-play levels of distinction. Basically, if everyone can get trashed in the same small hut, people will like each other more afterward.)

Regardless, I've wasted enough time on this subject. I have to finish writing up my craft talk. Guess what? It's on the metrical subversions of Robert Frost! And then I've got to start stitching up all those holes in my sweater.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nostalgia No More: A Post-Post Musing

The problem with dropping such a big bomb in my last post is that no other post can possibly live up to it. Those of you tuning in to see if I'm now pregnant with Brangelina's two-headed love child or am actually a 6'2" black man cleverly disguised as a dyspeptic, kind-of-white female poet living in Utah or that I'm actually the blogospheric beard for a young lesbian trapped in Damascus will just have to be satisfied by posts on bad Santa Cruz food and more travel preparations. Anyone actually following this blog may be wondering when, in fact, this travel will actually start. "Get ON with it," those readers are probably muttering, and I have to admit, I'm starting to feel the same way myself.

So, to make me feel as if I was at least one step closer to my Year of Self-Indulgence, I went to see this summer's Film of Self-Indulgence, a.k.a., Midnight in Paris.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sean: I Owe You 500$

Hello, again. This, for the summer, is where I live:


This was not, as you might expect from the quality of the photo, taken with my own camera, so perhaps you won't believe me, but it is in fact true: my boyfriend, Sean, and I are summering in Santa Cruz, CA for the summer, and now I'm the type of bitch who gets to SAY "My boyfriend and I are summering in Santa Cruz for the summer." Long summers off are one of the perks of being an academic, to make up for the ass issue and perpetual funding crises perhaps, and taking those long summers to go live in California is one of the things I've done in order to maintain my relationship with Sean, whose one dream in life is to live near the beach in Santa Cruz while my one dream in life is to remain employed. For those of you outside academia, you understand that you have to go to where the jobs are. For those of you on earth, you know there are no jobs--academic or otherwise--in California.

So before I go on my year-long Junket of Self-Indulgence, I'm starting out here, in the heart of the collapsing American real estate market, where everything is amazing except for the restaurants, and all the surfers are beautiful but really mean. At least they were the last time I went out, which was about a year ago, when I got yelled at so loudly by a guy with mini-dreads I spent the rest of my surf time sulking on my board, peeing vengefully in my wetsuit. (Don't knock it. If you've never peed in a wetsuit in really cold water, you will never understand its particular--if momentary and, yes, totally unhygienic--pleasures.) That was the last time I went surfing. Now I run on the beach. If I want to be emotionally abused for totally gratuitous reasons, I'll just go talk to my department chair, thank you very much.

I'm starting my year in Santa Cruz because this is the place I'm dropping off Sean. If I get the year of my dreams (minus, sadly, one of its major parts, which is having Sean accompany me), then he should have the year of HIS dreams. At least, I had thought this would be his dream. But just before we came out here, Sean thought he would stay in SLC.

"It's too much," he said, miserably. "Too expensive there. Renting a house that will have a yard for my dog is too much on top of the airline tickets and everything else."

We were sitting in his apartment's living room amid piles of my boxes from my upstairs apartment, where my new renter had just taken residence. There were cups and plates and piles of garment bags on every surface, boxes of shoes, three freaked-out dogs circling us like manic fish in the world's most cluttered aquarium.

"It'll be fine!" I said, desperately trying to cheer him up. "You'll fine a place! I'll help pay for your airline tickets! We'll make it work!"

No," Sean said glumly. "It's just all too much."

At this point, I started to panic. We had been having, off and on, the world's worst Discussion About Us since I got this award. What would we do while we were apart? How would we see each other? Sean's sudden decision NOT to move to Santa Cruz seemed like a horrible capitulation to all the many fiscal and emotional difficulties this year has already presented us. But I was desperate to get him to move to Santa Cruz. I felt, and still feel, terribly guilty about the idea of leaving him, the dogs, our life together, for a year. I hate the fact it would put an extra burden on him financially as well, since he'll now be paying for three separate RT air tickets to join me on different legs of the journey. Like most human beings, Sean doesn't have a job that will let him disappear for a year and come back still employed. And unlike cold, heartless, this-is-the-reason-most-people-think-I'd-be-a-bad-mother me, he's not willing to leave his dog with friends (or, in my case, parents) for that long.

It doesn't help that Sean has also developed the very fetching, very heart-rending habit of staring deeply into my eyes and mooing, "I REALLY don't think I can stand to see you go," at certain moments, like when I'm cooking dinner. But beyond these half-joking displays of despair is serious worry. Not so much about the ending of our relationship, since in our Discussion About Us we vehemently agreed that we are NOT doing that, but because we are nervous about the long-term ways in which this kind of separation can worm its way into a relationship's dynamics, unsettling each other's sense of trust, re-awakening past grievances with the arrival of new ones, essentially grinding away at a couple's foundations. I know this can happen because I was married to a man with whom I spent not one, but altogether TWO full years living apart, and it got us into certain habits that I think helped along--but never entirely caused--the death of us.

And it doesn't help that we are both occasionally surprised by acquaintances who think my trip is the announcement of our break up. "So, does this mean Sean is leaving you? So he can finally move to California?" is in fact the first thing an older department colleague asked me, which made me suspect there was a pool going at work to see how long we would stay together. This same colleague, I'd like to add, is the one who likes to trap me by the roast beef table at every department holiday party to ask if I'm planning to have a child, and would it be from adoption or by giving birth now, which is pretty much the last thing I want to think about when I'm near a table full of hot, steaming, bloody meat.

ANYWAY, Sean and I are not breaking up. But over the past months we have begun to ask each other all those throat-constricting questions about What This Year Means For Us, Really, wondering whether it is in fact too easy for me to WANT to leave for a year, whether Sean will use this opportunity to leave me for perpetual surf and ping pong lessons by all the ex-ping pong Olympians who now reside in Northern California (oh, this is such a long story, don't even ask), why DO we live in a duplex, what's WRONG with us that we don't just live together in one house, maybe that DOES send a signal, do I really WANT to hog-tie the delectable Dimitri up in a railway car (picture me, midnight in the kitchen, shouting: "There is no Dimitri!") and why are we both so quick to mention we live a duplex when in fact we try to spend every single waking moment together, and why does Sean KEEP ABANDONING ME AT THAT ROAST BEEF TABLE, etc., etc., etc?

Basically, why are both of us pretending that we are not as committed to each other as we actually are?

(You see? THIS is why you should never apply for an award. That money will just go straight to couple's counseling.)

Such are the things that come up once one person in a couple decides that traveling around the world for a year is a Such. A. Great. Idea. And on top of that are these other, long-simmering, soul-numbing tensions academia itself brings to any relationship: how fair is it for one person to determine where a couple will live--perhaps forever--based on one person's very particular job requirements?

And when this issue comes up, you just need to grab a martini and gird your loins. Because now it is officially time to Whine and Fight.

Sean and I joke that, in coupledom, the person with the most esoteric job description always wins the housing argument, and that's certainly been the case with us. Which was why I felt so keenly the need for Sean to be in Santa Cruz this year, and begged him repeatedly in his overcrowded apartment to reconsider it. You need, I argued, at least to get some shred of the life you really want, since you've already sacrificed year after year for me. At that, Sean grimaced. "In reality," he said, "neither of us is really getting the life we want, since I want you to live in CA with me, and you want me to travel the world with you."

After about a week of this, we came to a conclusion: we are happiest when we are with each other, but our relationship--in its working details--just isn't fair.

Perhaps "fairness" isn't the right word, the right concept, to consider in a relationship. "Fairness" implies score-keeping and chore charts and computerized re-allocation of financial resources. In a country and era in which equal pay is STILL treated as a utopian notion, "fairness" may be the one word designed to hit all our hot buttons. But it is the sad fact that someone will have more job opportunities, someone will have less, someone will make more money, someone will have a better job. A lot of that has been determined in the world outside of our relationship, and certain "facts" have certainly been less determined by gender than by individual skill sets. Still, the aspiration to fairness haunts us, as does the ancient chestnut that "compromise is the key to any good relationship:" an idea which is, though noble, the very thing that's making our situation right now so difficult, because it insists there is a path that is good for BOTH of us, when facts suggest, perhaps even demand, that one person's path is going to have to take precedence for awhile.

"Fairness" may also be the reason we have both fetishized not being married. It implies that we both are SO EQUAL we never have to worry about things like sharing money or living with each other's ugly art collection or hissing at each other over department potlucks in tones that could at all be classified as maritally inclined because we have our own bank accounts and apartments and intensely imagined private lives that we never have to examine. All of which is, as you might have guessed by now, totally untrue.

Basically, unfairness is built into our relationship, and perhaps it is the negotiation of this unfairness--certainly, not its solution--that is the best I can hope for. We aren't going to compromise. I'm going to leave for a year, and Sean will be angry and disappointed by that. I could stay, but I'd resent him, and though this year will be bad for us, it will be worse in the long run if I don't go. Sean, who has by now cleaned up his apartment and calmed down his dog and moved out to California so that he can, like me, live in paradise out of two suitcases and a garbage sack, is delighted to be in Santa Cruz. He can't believe he ever thought he'd stay in SLC while I was gone! He can't believe he'll get a year to do this! He loves it here! It's so sunny! There's so much water! The food is so terrible!

It is of course possible that he won't come back to SLC when I return. Perhaps he will make his own unfair demands on me and ask that I give up my job and move to California. The second option is likely; the first, not so much. Because the one thing we agreed upon after the Whining and Fighting, is that we finally admit we are in fact dating each other. So we did the most reasonable thing two people can do when they realize that they have, for many years now, been living together.

Reader, I married him.