Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Au Revoir and A Request

By the time you'll be reading this, I'll be on a plane to Paris on the first leg of my World Domination Tour. And I have a small favor to ask of you.

Before I get to that favor, I want to say thank you to all the folks I had the pleasure to see a last time either in person or, as the weeks got crazier, over the phone, as I ended my time holed up in my house, weeping alternately over having surrendered my dogs for the coming 11 months and all these copyediting suggestions I've had to address. One of the great joys of writing, I like to tell students, is spending anywhere between 3-7 years obsessed with a project only to discover that neither you nor anyone with a taste bud in her head will have the stomach to get through said book later in copyedited form. It makes me wonder why I write at all, considering the emotional result of all this work is ending up in the exact same place where I started. I mean, why not just skip all the stupid writing stuff and get straight to the self-hatred?

By far, the brightest spot this past few weeks has been seeing my friends, in particular Rachel and Kelly, my two college roommates in Seattle. We met at The Copper Gate, a small restaurant in Ballard notable for its bar welded to resemble a giant Viking ship and, purportedly, a huge copper vulva you have to walk through to get to the bathroom. Supposedly the place was recently renovated, which might explain the disheartening absence of the vulva (Hope you like this phrase: it's my new book title) but the walls retained the same vintage pornographic posters that graced its previous incarnation, this time updated by an architect who must have seen a Jeff Wall exhibit, since half the photos had now been turned into creepy little light boxes. Even though Rachel, Kelly and I have spent the bulk of our lives living in Seattle, none of us had ever gone to the Copper Gate, preferring instead the far less self-conscious Rebar or Frontier Room, that cramped and unsanitary little bastion of cyrrhosis which has since been renovated to resemble a Sundance Catalogue outlet store. Damn the tech revolution with its overstuffed couches and self-important microbrews! Fie, Microsoft! Fie, Amazon! A pox on both your houses!

Anyway, what made this meeting particularly fun was seeing two friends in a place that--renovated or not--had capably preserved some of Seattle's pre-tech boom quirks, while learning that my friends themselves had also preserved and even improved upon their most endearing idiosyncrasies. While listening to the gentle strains of The Suffering Fuckheads (The evening's running joke. Me: "Suffering Fuckheads, Batman! The Joker has just rigged your titanium crotch-missile to explode upon impact!" Rachel, in voice of Sylvester the Cat: "Thuffering Fuckheadth, that canary'th a tathty little morthal!" Kelly: "Behind every Suffering Fuckhead is an absent vulva.") we talked about the difficulties of parenting a blind child (Kelly), the re-consideration of a grad program in psychology (Rachel), the exhaustion of ambition (me), the disappointments suffered by Gen X women in their family and career choices and whether that weird recent news article that said 43% of us hadn't had children could possibly be true (all of us), home mortgage rates, future escape plans, and whether or not our waitress actively hated us. Like all old ex-roommates, we waxed nostalgic about all those great times we spent together NOT fighting over whose turn it was to change the toilet paper. Like the time Steve and Kwite Larj made that vat of Death Punch for the wake party we threw during which everyone took a turn being the corpse while Rachel gave the eulogy and Steve played Sin Eater with a seemingly endless supply of green bananas. And the time that we went line-dancing at the gay country-western bar, and I invited the three guys I was dating to the SAME graduation party and ALL OF THEM as my date, and Kelly joined that cult, and how Rachel finally got up the nerve to date the guy she's still--15 years later--seeing, and I finally taught myself to drive a stick shift by ferrying Kelly back and forth to the hospital to cure her of what turned out to be acute gas pain. (Sorry, Kelly.) Talking to these women was like moving backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, and discovering that the same intensity and humor that characterized the conversations we had 20 years ago still characterized our conversation now. Most of the time when you meet old friends, A Horrifying Awkwardness descends, during which you might discover, say, that your previously pro-choice pal who worked at Planned Parenthood has now joined a small Evangelical sect committed to eradicating the condom aisle in the Safeway just outside Stillaguamish. Of the few things in life that truly unnerve me (spiders, vegan chocolate cake, men in airports with automatic weaponry), what discombobulates me most is seeing people I was intimate with for long periods of my life, people that I really loved, utterly, totally, philosophically changed from their previous selves. It doesn't happen often--hey, everyone changes, just look at my ass--but the radical erasure or overwriting of personality I'm talking about is something else again.

What I'm talking about is my friend Janet. Janet has changed, utterly and completely, but this change was not by choice. Janet is sick with Lyme's disease which was diagnosed too late and has now destroyed her neurological system. I met Janet twenty years ago, during the year both of us were studying at Trinity College in Ireland. Janet was one of those people who travels alone to places like Borneo and never hesitates to live in Japan for half a decade. She was smart enough to get scholarships to Harvard, and independent enough to imagine working for the US State Department in countries around the Middle East. She was an intensely private person as well, so although I knew she had boyfriends, she would never share the gory details, preferring to talk about books and travel to anything sexual. (One of the most suprising evenings in my life was a night spent in New Orleans 15 years ago with Janet, during which she not only agreed to go to a strip club, but actually suggested that we go on a tour of ALL the strip clubs in the Quarter, which are legion and, if not entirely X-rated, are certainly visually unhealthy enough to frequent. We finally gave up when a Richard Simmons-look-alike stripped down to his tube socks and a pink banana hammock and began bouncing his crotch up and down half a foot in front of our faces. Considering Janet is also a strict vegetarian, this was probably a truly nauseating experience.)

That's who Janet was. I say "was" because Janet has now turned into someone who is, well, not herself. The intellectual curiosity that once defined her has been--naturally and necessarily, according to the demands of her experience-- replaced by self-absorption and anxiety. The reticence to talk about private matters is gone, because if she doesn't tell people about what is happening to her body, she will receive no adequate medical treatment. The financial independence she achieved from her years working in Japan has vanished, replaced by a stream of medical bills that Medicaid can't entirely--or even primarily--cover. She has bankrupted not only herself but her partner and now, she fears, her parents. She can't work, because she suffers from seizures, and--ironically--while isolation defines her existence, privacy doesn't, as her seizures also mean she can't ever be left unattended.

Talking to Janet is like talking to someone else who happens to have Janet's face and who can occasionally even channel moments of Janet. I don't know if this is true of anyone whose life has been utterly revised by disease, or if this specific to Lyme's and the particular neurological havoc it wreaks in the infected body. What I do know is that it is shocking to see Janet now, and it is shocking to tell people about Janet and hear the disdain for or suspicion of her condition in some of their voices. Surely, these people insist, what happened to Janet is somehow her fault. Why doesn't she get better help? Why doesn't she go on welfare or, better yet, get a job?

Part of me understands this disdain is fear: fear that what has happened to Janet can happen to anyone, including the listener. Maybe it's a hangover from that long Protestant Work Ethic orgy we had, when we kept telling ourselves that nothing good or bad happens to us that is ever outside our control. If a terrible disease ravages you, it's because you weren't rigorous or vigorous enough to look after yourself. You're a blight, an embarrassment, a cultural stain. You're no better than the disease yourself, scrounging and gnawing your way through a welfare state made possible by other, healthier members of society.

What happened to Janet scares me, too, not because she did this to herself, but because it is the extreme conclusion to a series of problems within our system. It also scares me because Janet's background is, in certain ways, like that of many other young, bright and capable people I've known. Part of Janet's story is like a lot of my generation's story, and it goes something like this:

You are a smart, independent child raised in a small town that's primarily religious. You like it, but you don't particularly want to end up like the other kids in high school, married after two years, with a house half a mile away from your mother's and a kid on the way. So you get a scholarship to a good college in a bigger city, where you soon distinguish yourself in your moral philosophy and religious studies and Indian literature classes, "You know, the arty farty subjects," as your sister sneers each Christmas to your mother, both of them baffled and a little intimidated by your esoteric new interests. You get a scholarship to study abroad for a year where you meet and date a German student, start to travel around Europe, realize that what you love more than anything is boarding a train headed to a place you've never heard of before you bought the ticket.

You graduate, with honors, but are too capable in enough humanities-based subjects that a specific graduate school program right now makes little sense. So you travel. You go to South America and Southeast Asia, parts of Scandinavia, Africa. You work sporadically, as a waitress, a GRE tutor, a secretary, just to scrape enough money up to buy the next plane ticket. Your German boyfriend annoys you once too often by not visiting, so you break up with him over the phone.This is ok, since in a month you'll be leaving for Japan. You've heard there are companies there that hire Americans to be teachers, and you've always wanted to participate in a tea ceremony.

In Japan, you fall in love. Your boyfriend comes over each night with boxes of little sponge cakes and the small eggplants you love, worried that--because you are vegetarian--you are probably starving. You have a kleenex box-sized apartment in a seaside town that's faster and better organized than any other city you've ever lived in before, and your circle of friends there quickly grows. Your Japanese is good: very good, in fact, certainly better than any other American your friends know, and your natural reticence (a trait you must have inherited from your mother, a shy woman quick to doubt herself, as your sister always complains) makes you a good fit in the country. You get a cat. You keep seeing your boyfriend. You are happy.

When your teaching contract runs out, you decide to go to graduate school. You apply to the best program in the country that specializes in your interests, and are overwhelmed when you are accepted with a fellowship. You move to a large city in the American northeast dominated by horrible weather and the richest people you've ever known. Your reticence, once an asset in Japan, turns to shyness before your more privileged colleagues in the classroom, turns to an almost crippling silence when the cold you come down with one winter worsens, turns to a flu, makes it difficult some days to leave your bed.

You are ill. You do not know what is causing it, but you can't get enough sleep, have a hard time with some of your fine motor skills. That cold never seems to have left your system, and though you are a capable thinker, engaged and even talkative when most curious, you aren't one of the most cutthroat competitors in class, and sometimes it seems that your professors are looking at you as if you are literally fading away. Which perhaps you are. You are terrified by your shaking hands and legs. And yet who would you tell? You stop calling people or writing to friends; it's too exhausting to keep up with the school work as it is, and every morning is so cold and gray. If only you could get more sleep and didn't have to exist on coffee--surely the reason for these sudden jitters--everything would return to normal.

When you graduate--a miracle, you think, born of severe determination and perhaps the isolation enforced both by your schoolmates' indifference and your interminable illness--you get a job with the US State Department. They are impressed, they say, by your travel and your facility with languages. They'd like to train you to work for them, they want to send you to the Middle East. They think you would excel there. Your hands shake on the phone when you talk to them, and this time you think it is because you are ecstatic.

And then, four months after you take this job, you can't get out of bed at all.

From there, I think you know or can guess the rest of this story. The extreme poverty, the chest stent, the racks of highly expensive, highly toxic medications. The family half torn apart by stress. The week in County, wildly misdiagnosed as psychotic, put on suicide watch. The incredible isolation. Perhaps you still don't have a lot of sympathy for Janet. Perhaps your life was one that took you in a very different direction. Who among you blog readers out there spent your twenties in gainful employment at companies with great medical plans? Very few, I suspect. Instead, I bet most of you were like Janet, and took your time studying in a variety of different schools, who dabbled and dawdled and indulged your creative interests. Who traveled at times aimlessly, lived abroad, who camped and hiked alone in foreign climes only to emerge at last into successful "adult" life somewhere around age 29. Just in time to get the professional job and the clean house, the good medical and dental plans, the regular salary.

Janet got sick at age 29, the year most of us start to come into our own. The creativity and independence that defined her pre-ill life--the very qualities that got her scholarships to Tulane and Harvard and allowed her to travel around the world--are now the very things which certain people might suggest made her vulnerable. But what made her vulnerable was the system she walked into. The years she spent in Japan and at Harvard means that she contributed almost nothing to Social Security. Private health care was too expensive to purchase throughout her twenties, and besides, she was young; what was the likelihood she would need a more extensive plan? A cold wasn't a good enough reason to go to a specialist her school insurance wouldn't cover. And the doctors at the school clinics were so sure they got their diagnoses right; who was she to argue when her symptoms worsened? She did everything that so many of us do, and the only difference between us is that, somewhere along the way, she'd got bitten by a tick.

A tick.

So I have a favor to ask of you. I know there are eight people reading this blog. And maybe you don't want to or can't or are unsure about sending a little of your money Janet's way (times are crazy right now, and really--you've never met her, why should you?), but maybe you also know someone who might be able to help her out. Someone, maybe, who works at Berkshire-Hathaway. (Aside: how did Warren Buffet get to be the hero of this current capitalist-industrialist fantasy? The man infamous for buying up ailing businesses for parts, who snaps up the best dividend-paying companies only to change the dividend structure so that low-level investors like you and me get effectively screwed out of the real value of the stock, thus our own retirement plans? You know what I'm talking about, Warren. I mean it. I want my dividends back. I WANT MY DIVIDENDS, WARREN.)

What I'm asking is, if you can, please pass on this blog entry about Janet or, more importantly, this address to which any contributions might be sent.

Save Janet Mims Fund
c/o Doris Begnaud (Janet's mother)
10731 Glenfield Ct
Houston, TX 77096

It's a series of small things that did Janet in, and maybe it's a series of small things that can help her out now. Maybe not change her life back to what it was, because, really, can it ever be that again?, but at least change it to something a little better than what it is now.

And that's all I'm asking.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They Feed They I-Pad: A Readerly Assessment

Seven days to go before I leave. Here, dear reader, is the short list--not exhaustive, and certainly not in order of importance--of all the things I have had to change, fix, reallocate or rearrange in order to travel around the world.

My house
My job (had, fortunately, applied for a sabbatical, but that only gave me a semester off so had to write and request time off for second semester)
My salary
My health insurance
My banking (to avoid those ATM and foreign transaction fees)
My credit cards
My retirements allocation (this will be the first year of my working life to NOT put any extra money into my retirement so I can take a few grand extra with me to survive those months in Europe, a period of time my father is now referring to as the The French Hemorrhage.)
My passport (renewed)
My driver's license (renewed)
My car state insurance (needs to be driven by my parents in another state now, so as to shuttle my dogs around)
My car's general health (so my parents don't get stuck by the side of the road, with my dogs)
My dogs' vet
My dogs' pet licenses
My dogs' pet sitter
My dogs' lives (such as they are, considering one is passed out on my parents' sofa and the other one seems to have fallen into a treat-based coma in the laundry room.)
My birth control (see June, "The Humiliation of the Vagina," Post 1.)
My computing equipment
My email account
My cell phone
My mode of communication (Skype)
My closets (cleaned for renter)
My kitchen pantry (installed washer and dryer for renter)
My gardening service (now I have one. For renter.)
My relationship status
My vaccination history
My relationship with the editors of my two forthcoming books ("Tell me how I can send this to you. Now. Now. Now. Seriously, NOW. What do you mean you can't have this sent to this address between this date and that date? What about the American Express office? Well, what about the embassy? Where the hell are you going again? WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?")
My mailing address

And finally, my reading habits.

These changes have also cost me a TREMENDOUS amount of money up front (what with buying all those air and train tickets, new passports, visas, rental fees, e-books, and a year's worth of dog meds, human meds, sunblocks, and various and sundry ---AAAAAAAAAH! Just dropped the cupcake on my keyboard and all the cream cheese frosting got in between the tiny keys! Dammit, you fucking cupcake, now I'm going to EAT YOUR ASS!--drugstore products.).

I'm taking a short break now to lick down my keyboard.

Done. Anyhoo, it is amazing to me that I have rearranged, oh, every molecule of my life and that my life has so many molecules now to rearrange. When I was young (I like to think of this period of my life as late February, but let's be honest here) I used to travel at the drop of a hat, once backpacking alone for five weeks through China with, I kid you not, two black t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a sweater, one bottle of contact lens solution and a pair of sandals. Oh, and a copy of Moby Dick.

Now, I can't get out of the house without an IPad, my laptop, a coat, two books, my cell, my dog's meds and a receipt-stuffed wallet swollen to the size of Rhode Island. I'm the kind of woman who now keeps live typhoid vaccine in a plastic beer cooler and screams at fallen baked goods.

And I'm now also the kind of woman who has to read Moby Dick on an e-reader. Since this year is being supported by a writing fellowship (oh, add to that list of changeable molecules the line item "my writing schedule," since with all the work it's taken me to prepare to leave the country, writing has pretty much gone by the wayside), I need to take books, and I need to take a lot of them. From information I've gleaned from the internet, downloading books overseas is difficult at best, impossible at worst, so the last two weeks have been an ORGY of e-commerce. For those of you planning a trip like mine, or for those of you interested in this "e-reading thing" that alternately means the death or survival of the literary arts as we know them depending on which social crank on The Huffington Post you read, the next bits of information I'm going to give you may be critical. If not, please skip to the end for the useful advice.

If, like me, you read primarily read poetry (or any kind of contemporary scholarship), you are fucked. The number of poetry or other esoteric (read: not lucrative) books available to download is so slim as to be negligible. If, however, you absolutely crave a reader for your journey, then the I-Pad is the ONLY option, as it is the only reader that links up to IBooks, Kindle/Amazon, Google Books and Kobo. And from there, my friends, you have to go hunting.

Here's something interesting that anyone else but me probably already knew: not all books are available from all sites. For poetry, Kindle carries titles from Pitt, BOA, Wesleyan, and many but not all of the big NYC houses. Google Books carries all the university presses for poetry EXCEPT Pitt and Triquarterly/Northwestern (which doesn't seem to exist), and carries some--but not all--the Penguin poetry titles. IBooks carries one or two of the very biggest name poets (Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman being two, and only a very small handful of their books) but nothing else. Kobo, from what I can tell, carries almost nothing at all.

Best American Poetry can be gotten on all these stores, but individual titles follow where the presses have sold their rights. And here, my friends, is the rub.

Not all presses have partnered up.

This means you cannot buy a Copper Canyon, Alice James, Four Way Books, Asahta, Tupelo or Graywolf title. (Except for one: Eula Biss's last book of nonfiction, which won the NBCC award, is available. But nothing else from Graywolf.) You cannot buy a Black Sparrow Book, a Coffee House Press book, a Milkweed edition or anything by New Directions or Dalkey Archives. You cannot get anything from Tarpaulin Sky or Saturnalia or Sarabande. You cannot get anything small house or indie, and a backlist--even with the partnered or bigger poetry houses--isn't optional or, if optional, spotty. Which means that, while you can get many John Ashbery titles, you can't get a single Frank O'Hara. You can get Marianne Moore, but no Elizabeth Bishop. You can get Toi Derricote's latest, but nothing by Larry Levis. No Inger Christensen. Very limited Anne Carson. And while you can download as many Best Americans as you can stand until your eyes bleed, you can't get a SINGLE Susan Howe title or ANYTHING by C.D. Wright.

In short, you can't get 90% of the poetry you want to read.

(Aside: there's an interesting reason for this, and it has to do--quelle surprise--with money. Friends of mine who work with SPD and at small presses have informed me that it costs $800 to format a single book for Kindle. Research indicates that there is a certain average number of readers for a single book of poetry: the accessibility of this book over the web doesn't actually increase the average number of readers for that book overall, it means the average of those people already able to read on the Kindle will be increased. Basically, your readership numbers won't go up, and if they do, it won't be dramatic enough to cover the cost. In the long run for a press, it is still far cheaper to produce a physical book than to format one for the Kindle. Interesting.)

But not only does the e-reader change what you can read, it changes how you read and--maybe more frighteningly--how you feel about the poems themselves. I like to read books in bed, on my side, while eating a bowl of dry Cheerios. This has changed, because the I-Pad has this spinny screen that keeps trying to adjust its book face to where it thinks I'm looking, which means when I turn onto my side, the screen flips up and around, and when I readjust to read the screen THAT way, it flips again to another view, which means I readjust again just as it spins another time. All this means that I can't read without getting seasick or extreme muscle stiffness from refusing to move my body.

What's also strange is that the books I can download don't always come with enough of a preview for me to see whether the book is worth reading or not. This means I have to buy indiscriminately, or buy books I already own in physical form. At $10-$15 a pop, duplication is not a possibility, so I buy books of poetry that fall into an extraordinarily narrow category: books I want to read, but that I likely won't need to keep referring to after a year.

Most recently, I bought Olena Kalytiak Davis' book Shattered Love Songs, a book I'd read before and enjoyed but hadn't purchased in "solid form." I thought this would be a good e-addition, so I bought it only to discover that all the poems' stanzas (from what I remembered) had disappeared, and the poems themselves collapsed into a single long stream of what looked now like badly typeset rantings, "separated" by what one could only assume was the title merely because the line in question was in boldface. The poems which, in book form, I had found playful, now came across as insane. The more I read the poems (gagging them down, because now they had become literally painful to get through) I began to read and respond to the words the way the formatter had: as data. And now this data was no longer charming or witty but just, well, random. Like someone had just bitch-slapped the dictionary. And this really enraged me, because now I had not only just spent $15 on an unreadable e-book, I had also paid to have a previous pleasant experience of reading this book essentially, permanently altered. Because now I couldn't remember the first experience without this new experience sliding over it, writing through and over it, like an evil palimpsest.

But then something in the back of my mind started nagging at me. Perhaps, it gurgled, my first assessment of the book was wrong. Perhaps this book was ALWAYS bad; I'd just been suckered in by better formatting.

No, I argued back. It's the e-formatter's fault. Who can read this kind of layout?

But formatting has nothing to do with the quality of the language. The poems are still the poems. And they are basically the same, with some weird subtractions. You're being too picky.

I'm not being picky: these poems are cramped and horrible-looking. The whole book is ruined because the language means nothing to me now.

So, wait, formatting makes the language mean something? In ways the words themselves can't?

It's an enhancer. It's both. Why does it have to be so definite?

Because you're whining so much about it.

OK, take the sonnet then. Sonnets are a form that get read visually as well as sonically. To disrupt that visual form--to try and take away some of its essential "sonnet-hood" is a violation. A useful violation at times, at others, just a violation.

Well, that's just stupid. If it's metrical or rhythmic, you can still see the bulk of these line breaks, and where it gets weird, you can just break the damn lines in your own head.

But why should I? The author already did that. And isn't that part of the point of this whole book: the violation of expectation? And how can that be achieved at times EXCEPT visually? And why don't we admit that we think about what's NOT on the page as much as what is? That white space--we READ that. We HEAR it.

Oh, fuck off, precious. Poets love to talk like this. But frankly, everyone just glides their eyes over it and hears nothing.

That's what I thought before I bought this book. Now all I hear is noise.

And is that the fault of the formatter, the reader, or the writer?

The formatter! The formatter!

And on and on. Before you think I'm dumping on Davis' book, I had similar problems with the free volumes of W.B. Yeats and Hart Crane and Robert Frost that I downloaded. There, the poems were all in a depressing, cramped "typewriter" font that made all the e-books look like ancient grad students' dissertations. Luckily I discovered you could change the font (!), with one slight problem.

There were only four fonts available for selection.

So which font, I wondered, exudes most "Yeats"-ness? Which font is appropriate for Hopkins, for Frost, for all those poets anthologized by Conrad Aiken? Palatino for Hopkins? Times New Roman for Shakespeare? Arial for Millay?

When people complain about digital books, they talk about the pleasing heft and weight of a book, the fact that reading online hurts the eyes, the depressing selection of materials. But what they need to start complaining about is typeface and formatting. Because without careful attention paid to those things, I don't care how many poetry books are available, how long the backlist goes, how cheap and easily storable the books are.

They won't be readable.

Or, at least, they will only be readable to me in the ways that newspapers and gossip sites are readable, which is to say they will be read as data. This is good news for the work of conceptual poets like Kenny Goldsmith who argue that the internet has already changed our concepts about poetry from being a "creative" act of self-expression to one of random sampling, but bad news for the work of poets like Louise Gluck who are still spending their lives emoting all over everything.

Perhaps this is why, when I read poems on my I-Pad that are meant to be "emotional" or self-expressive, they start to read like slabs of data-meat. But when I read postmodern collage texts of randomly spliced together research fodder, they feel fresh. The medium, I'm learning the expensive way, really DOES make the message.

So perhaps the real problem I have with the e-version of Shattered Love Songs is NOT the terrible formatting of the book, but the first experience I had when reading it. If I could erase that first version from memory, would I now love this e-book? What if these formatting mistakes are generative? What if these mistakes actually change the book into a conceptual, rather than an expressive project?

What if, in other words, the formatter is--accidentally--another, possibly even better, author?

All this, and I still haven't even left the country.

So let this be a lesson to you, grasshopper: choose your medium carefully. Because if you're going to get seasick over your Cheerios, this should at least be accompanied by a startling aesthetic experience. Along with that, get the Conde Nast apps for your I-device. Buy the typhoid shot, forgo the pills. Map out the hospitals covered by your PPO in each city where you'll be living. Save receipts. Sephora doesn't let you buy cheaper in bulk so just get the drugstore brands. Find the converters before you go. Butter up your editors. Make sure everything you pack can match three other things. Ask about foreign transaction fees. sabbaticalHomes.com isn't a great site for finding cheap apartments in Asia but is good for Europe. Use Partners in Medicine to rent your home. Consider a vasectomy. Make copies of the medical records. Book early. And finally, don't eat cupcakes over a new Logitech keyboard. And if you do, don't ever let the other coffee house patrons catch you tonguing the keyboard.

Trust me on that last one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Delightful Things About Summer

So I'm reading Sei Shonagon again. I read The Pillow Book many years ago in college but am revisiting it now for a student's oral exams. I forgot how charming the book can be (when Shonagon isn't either fawning over the emperor or being weirdly heartless toward the lower classes), so I'm writing this post in the spirit of Shonagon, as a way of anthologizing my summer before I head out. Sept. 1st! Just two more weeks to go.

Things About Summer Which are Delightful:

Discovering your hat perfectly matches the field of sweet peas past which you are now walking.

Blueberries are delightful, as are the first raspberries of the season. The taste of raspberries reminds you of your great-grandmother's farm in Bothell. How she would take you out into the rows she planted of snap peas and raspberry bushes, and watch you as you ate a bowl on the white-washed back porch.

It is said that your great-grandmother could lift two bales of hay: one under each arm. It is delightful to know that she was the first woman shipwright in Seattle.

Strawberries so sweet they taste as if they've been dipped in sugar are delightful, as is the pelican right now outside the cafe window, tucking itself into a perfect arrow before it dives, full speed, into the water.

It is very charming to sleep in a houseboat, especially in summer, when the windows can be left open to let in the occasional breeze off the lake. It is not pleasant, however, to wake the next morning to the Seattle Duck Tour boat as it motors past, the tour operator loudly broadcasting the rental price of your neighbor's houseboat as all the tourists take photos of you in your nightshirt and your husband tries to look adorable for the cameras.

Mah jong is delightful, especially the feel of cool tiles under your fingertips as you shuffle. Being the first among your cousins to shout, "Mah jong!" at the top of your lungs is also delightful, as is rubbing their noses in your general awesomeness. What is annoying, however, is when your mother arrives to insist that everyone plays for points now, rather than simply matching groups of tiles. Watching everyone's face fall as your mother takes all the flower tiles is frustrating, as is realizing that only she knows all the rules to the game. Such a disappointment.

Your family all together in one room is delightful.

Running on the beach is delightful, as is walking on it, sitting on it, and staring at it from under the lip of a wide-brimmed hat. But the most delightful thing about a day on the beach is coming back home and, still sandy-legged, napping in the sun after eating all the blackberry pie left in the refrigerator.

Murder mysteries written by Englishwomen are delightful. Not as delightful are long novels about bad marriages written by American men.

Coming upon a garden on a dock is delightful. Glass bottles balanced on iron stems to resemble flowers are particularly charming, as are pots of actual hyacinths, delphiniums, long grasses and gladiola. Neighborhood P-Patches are charming. Stone trolls under a city bridge are charming. So, too, is the neighborhood statue of a girl surrounded by actual paper cranes.

A lone cypress pruned by sea spray and wind is delightful. As is the knowledge that, half a mile away, stands another cypress: long dead, the branches shaped like stone.

Being able to manipulate photographs on a computer would be delightful. IPad applications that promise to do this but are too "intuitive" to understand, however, are terribly annoying.

Alcohol can be one of summer's most necessary delights, especially the first sip of prosecco after a long day driving through traffic in San Francisco. Handblown black glass sake cups are delightful, as are tiny white porcelain salt bowls with miniature silver spoons. Such things are almost as delightful as the bartender who pours you little tastes of expensive wine you cannot possibly afford just for you to taste, and just because you are the only ones sitting at the bar for a hamburger dinner.

It is delightful to walk into a grocery store to discover that wine is sold there, all day, every day. It is satisfying to remember that you are no longer in Utah.

Yelling at the fascist reporter on the radio news show in late afternoon traffic is delightful. As is sneering with your friend at the idling minivan decorated with cartoon figures of the minivan owner's family and pets. Winding highways are delightful. A new car on which to drive these highways is delightful. The occasional obscene gesture made at a bad driver is delightful. Truck nuts, however, are not delightful at all.

Discovering that there are people all around the world actively hunting down gifts and small notes other people have hidden for them and other strangers to find is delightful. These people have small GPS devices to help them, and are eager to instruct you on how to find clues and directions to a hidden object. To keep the game going, they will tell you that you must leave behind a note yourself when the object is found, sometimes placing a gift in place of what you've taken. Sometimes, you might just leave your name on a long roll of other names. It is delightful to know that people are this obsessively curious about something that has so little reward. In that respect, they are like poets, perhaps, but with a better sense of direction. It is delightful to imagine finding such objects in Vietnam. It is more delightful to know that, should you ever meet people like this again, they will always want you to join them.

The sight of your chow's perfectly triangular ears peeking over the surfboard used as a makeshift gate is delightful. Plotting small acts of domestic terrorism with the friend whose shitheel ex-husband is about to take unfair possession of her house is, in its odd way, delightful. Clotted cream is delightful. Not having to attend the day-long faculty meeting is delightful. Dinners at a friend's house are delightful, especially when the friend is a much better cook than you. A large orange moon is delightful. Fish tacos are delightful. The doctor who tells you that your tests are clear is very delightful.

Fog in the mornings, sea mist in the afternoon.

Cherries. Radio.

Your husband waking you at dawn to tell you you are loved.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dear Blog, It's Me, Paisley.

I know what you're thinking: AGAIN?

Anyway, this past week I've been in Seattle for a big family reunion, and then traveling madly around San Francisco, Carmel and Sonoma with my poet friend, Susan, who--having booked us to stay for a night at the Sonoma Mission Inn--has introduced me to the one thing I secretly never thought I'd like:

The spa experience.

This experience involves no touching by strangers, thank God, but instead various steaming cauldrons of bubbling mineral water in which you soak, eating freshly cut slices of orange in tiny napkins. It involves invigorating cold showers in marvelously tiled stalls mosaiced with little dolphins. It involves refreshing plunges into outdoor pools. It involves dry saunas and even a eucalyptus-scented steam room from which you emerge loose-limbed and woozy-headed as a stoned koala. Native American pan pipes are involved, as are certain whale calls. At the end, a high-interest credit card will need to be presented.

But, by God, that interest is WORTH IT. So thank you, Susan, for wrecking my upcoming year of sleeping in youth hostels. I know now that a better world of overnight accommodation exists, and that I will be--thanks to the crashing global markets and hari-kari-committing dollar--totally incapable of paying for it. I'll have you to blame for the Martin-Sheen-sized breakdown caused by spa flashbacks I'll be experiencing on the Mekong.

The other thing I've been doing is trying to wrap my head around this blog itself. It seems my baby-dog post was timely not just for one set of friends, but TWO. Within days of that post, I received emails from two different friends about their expanding families. Congratulatory shout-outs go to E and M on their forthcoming child (I think there's a better phrase for this, but I'm so steeped in publishing lingo right now, it's the only one I can come up with. Oh, wait, I got it: PREGNANCY) and to my ex-husband and his new wife for their just-published child. Yay, fecund you! I'm so happy that smart and fun people who like cocktails are reproducing. Hopefully, one of these children will come to own a bar.

All this good news made me also wonder whether I should start writing about money, in the hopes that one of my friends would now win the lottery or get promoted, if this is in fact how e-mysticism works. But mostly I've been wondering about the strangely mediated ways we're all communicating our lives. Between the blog and email and Facebook (and now Google+, which I refuse to join: even I have to set limits) I had hoped I would be able to keep in touch with friends. As, in fact, I am. And yet all these different networking sites continually--and naturally--fall short. I hate not hearing these things in person. And as for this blog, I feel like I'm giving both too much and too little actual communication. And yet, I'm addicted to the forms of intimacy each new social networking site promises. I like the performative aspects of Facebook posts, and I like the essayistic mode of the blog, which sometimes tricks me into writing things I most likely shouldn't considering anyone could read this and "recommend" it on, while I maintain just enough writerly self-awareness about the media form for me not to get honestly personal enough. Which, in that sense, defeats the purpose of a personal blog.

Even email continually surprises me, as more and more people communicate--for necessity and convenience--some pretty private things over it. And while I am very happy for my ex-husband (who is, most likely, going to be reading this, as he called this afternoon to congratulate me on my marriage to Sean, a fact which he could only have learned through this blog) I have to admit it's still startling to receive an email communication about the birth of his child. I don't know what the right word is for the emotion that so tightly binds together joy, surprise, pride, technological befuddlement and, yes, let's be honest here, a splash of consternation and even envy at such an announcement. The Germans, naturally, would have a word for it (farfuggednewbirthen, perhaps) but I've just learned to call it "adulthood," as in "Spending the morning taking care of my adorable stepson while my husband catches up with his ex-wife is making me feel very adulthood right now," or "I am so adulthood about this new job promotion that better allows me to pay for my ballooning second mortgage!"

Perhaps I wouldn't be feeling so very adulthood about all this if I had not also just written an email to the ex I'd thought would be permanently out of my life. This ex is Norwegian and works in downtown Oslo; he has children about the age of those teenagers on the island who got gunned down. The chances of him or any member of his family actually being in that particular line of fire was, of course, improbable, but considering the strangeness and magnitude of the event, the hideousness of the crimes and their incongruousness in Norwegian history, not sending a quick note would be a bit like not contacting someone you knew in New York after 9/11.

When I first heard about the shootings, I was in Port Townsend, eating breakfast. After reading about the attacks on Yahoo news and the NYTimes online (oh, the technology, the internet of it all!) over the coming days, I found myself asking one of the other faculty members if she thought it would be a good idea to contact the Norwegian, just to check in. "Not," I insisted, "to get back into Crazy's life, you understand. Just to be polite and, in some tiny but extremely distant way, supportive."

"Of course," she said.

"OK," I said. "So how do you go about composing an email to a man you never want to see or speak to again but whose children you hope haven't been gunned down by a Christian fundamentalist?"

The writer, who is a memoirist, didn't miss a beat. "I'd start with something vague," she said. "Something like, 'Hope you're having a nice day!'"

Which is, as it turns out, a pretty good opening.

Interestingly, one of the reasons this ex was cut out of my life to begin with was also due to email. Because we lived in two different countries, the main way we would communicate was through the computer, which meant that we each had to overlook each other's terrible writing tics on a daily basis. The Norwegian, for instance, had to suffer through my phrasebook Norwegian ("Jeg elsker deg, bestamor,' was one such ill-conceived message) and I, in turn, had to gag down lines like, 'I want to shear my mind with you,' or 'I'm over the moon with rainbows and kids for you.' It also meant that, regardless of the frequency of these messages, we never really learned that much about each other. The Norwegian--not entirely unbeknownst to me-- had other women in his life; I just had no idea how many, and how few medications they were collectively on. One of these women hacked his email account and began sending me cheerful messages about how much she wished that I would die. "Hello!" she'd write. "I hope you are having a Beautiful Day! Please know that You are Too Good for this man that We love and now he must let you Go! Forever! I plan this! Do you know where he is? He will not call Me! Please tell Him to call Me!"

Every day I would turn on my computer to find these chipper and badly capitalized little missives that somehow reminded me of an over-caffeinated Katy Couric. They would pop up over the day, becoming stranger and sadder, so that by late evening I was torn between wanting to pat this woman on the back and fantasizing about smacking her head off.

"Hello!" my computer would bleep. "I am very lonely here! I think, perhaps, you are like me!"

When the Norwegian called to tell me he'd finally gotten it all under control, I told him not to bother. "Tell her we're broken up," I said. "It won't be a lie. Because guess what? WE ARE BREAKING UP."

"She is very insane," the Norwegian soothed. "She is very not in control of herself."

"I think I know how she got that way," I replied.

"Yes," he said. "She is still upset about my wife."

"Your WIFE?" I shouted. "Oh my god. How many... Forget it. Look, you Norwegians have WAY too much fucking free time over there."

"Yes," he said miserably. "I think maybe you are right."

And that was pretty much our last conversation. For the record, if any Scandinavian ever says something to you like, "You Americans always feel so guilty. We took slaves, too. We went to all these countries and took women and trees and livestock, we took money and castles and anything else we wanted and we are PROUD of all of it, and we are STILL proud of it!" run for your fucking life.

Still, if Christian fundamentalists with automatic weaponry get into the picture, good internet manners require at least a nod toward civility. We are all too connected now NOT to make this gesture. And yes, the Norwegian's family is fine. And no, after he asked--also cursorily--about my life, he did not try and contact me again either.

So. This is our tiny, hyper-mediated life.

The one thing I miss about the Norwegian, oddly, is how much his emails made clear that he wanted me to be Norwegian. After a lifetime of being asked, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to define and defend what makes me half Chinese, to be labeled--enthusiastically, even!--Norwegian was refreshing. The Norwegian loved to point to my interest in cross-country skiing and cravings for pickled herring as evidence of my Nordic blood. He would rhapsodize over the Norwegian sweaters I knitted and the Norwegian poets I mentioned that I kept--sadly unread--on my shelves. My height was Norwegian, my last name was Norwegian, the facts that I loved Scotch and had a dark sense of humor were Norwegian. "Norwegians don't understand this need to make life all about being happy," he would say. "You are like that too. You are just like me," a line which made me cringe later, seeing it written again in sadder form in the email from his stalker girlfriend. Now there was a woman who was deeply unhappy, I knew, and yet toward the end of my email relationship with the Norwegian--toward the end of my email relationship with them both--I began to see myself as becoming like her, a woman disconsolately pacing the rooms of her house, almost empty but for the new computer, waiting for someone to read her messages, waiting for someone to answer.

In the end, the Norwegian's attempts to make me like himself weren't much different from other people's attempts to make me Chinese, I knew. It was the same cycle of mutual exoticization that couldn't mask our underlying cravings to establish a kind of authenticity between us. The Norwegian wanted me to be like him so that he could say that he knew me, and that by knowing me, he could believe he loved me. And I wanted, for the moment at least, to stop thinking about what it meant to be half Chinese. In that, I too wanted to be just like him.

I still think about his stalker girlfriend, what she's doing now, whether she's hacking the Norwegian's account, searching for another way to get closer to him. Perhaps she has a blog now. Perhaps she, too, is writing essays about him.

And perhaps she is still thinking of me as well, drafting messages she doesn't send about what she didn't get to say to me. "Hello!" she might be writing now. "For you, I am feeling very adulthood!"

In the meantime, here's my too much and too little. I hope you are all having a very good day.