Friday, December 16, 2011


Books are clearly awesome. There are many days where I spend more time with books than I do with people, and on most of those days I'm happy about that. I tend to go through genre phases: sometimes I'm all over non-fiction, or science writing, or short stories. Lately though, it's been a large and amorphous category titled "Books that will Mess You Up". It's been a long year and in all honesty I feel a little emotionally numb, and so my thinking goes something like this: what better way to break through that wall, the barrier that seems to be between me and what I want to be feeling, than words? The written word. At any rate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to read a lot of really depressing stuff right before the holidays.

When my friend Anna, who is a real live writer living in San Francisco, asked me to write a short book review based around the theme of "devastation", I knew exactly what I had to write about. Of all the things that have come close to me these last few months, Dorothy Allison's first novel Bastard out of Carolina had clearly hit me the hardest. I stayed up late to finish it, cried myself to sleep, and had bad dreams all night, which makes that a hell of a book in my opinion. Anyway, here's my review. You can also read Anna's take here, with a much funnier introduction and contact information in case you feel like writing a short review yourself.

Um... Happy holidays?

I saw Dorothy Allison read recently, and while talking about the role of violence in her writing in the post-reading discussion she smiled at the audience widely, winningly, and told us this: “Ima fuck you up.” She smiled and we laughed and I wondered why, because is that actually funny? She was sincere, I was certain, but when she smiled at us so sweetly, just like her characters always do when they don’t trust the people they’re talking to, we still laughed. Maybe because it’s true; she does fuck you up, beautifully, terribly, magnificently, in a way that sticks with you long after the book is over. Somehow, it’s part of her appeal.

The plot of Bastard out of Carolina, her first book and yet still the one she chose to read from the day I saw her, is simple—it’s about a young girl growing up poor white trash as part of a large and publicly despised family in South Carolina, suffering through and surviving a childhood heaped with physical and sexual abuse. It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill in this age of disaster memoirs, but what sets Allison apart is her honesty, a truthfulness that transcends what we’re supposed to think about poor people, about abuse survivors, and about the people who love them. The characters are often hard to comprehend, hard to love, but sometimes also hard to hate; they are not always noble, or self-sacrificing, or even kind. They are true to their own natures, and that’s not always a pretty sight—it’s just an honest one. And honesty, for all its supposed beauty and simplicity, can also be as ugly as a bruise

Consider Bone, the titular bastard: I love her so much, for her strength and loyalty to her mother and her sheer stubbornness, but I’m also afraid of her. She’s hard, in the way you have to be to survive sometimes, but she’s only thirteen by the end of the book and she just scares the fuck out of me sometimes. Bone is driven by what we almost can’t see—as readers we witness the physical abuse she suffers from her stepfather, but other than an initial molestation scene there’s little direct description of sexual abuse. It exists in memories and hints, lingering around the edges of the more easily definable physical harm, without words to give it form but tainting everything—her worldview, her interpersonal relationships, her day-to-day actions—just the same.

It comes out in her intense hatred of those who mistreat her: her abusive stepfather, the Woolworth’s manager who belittles her, the doctors who try to help her. But it comes out most clearly in Bone’s masturbation fantasies; they sound like something a dominatrix would whisper in your ear, visions of strength through suffering and pride in pain, and when I suddenly considered that they belonged to an eleven-year-old it shocked me more than almost anything else in the entire book. The only people who offer a solution she can accept are her blood relatives, and because they solve violence with a violence that echoes her own desires their solutions are short-term ones. Bone doesn’t believe anybody can help her, because nobody does; she knows even as a child how people act towards a poor bastard with bruises on her legs, and she wants pity even less than help.

One moment can irrevocably break your life into two pieces, the before and after, and a lot of books are about that. This one is too, but in a deeper way it’s also about the slow relentless grind, of the damage that comes from a life consisting of tiny, mostly terrible moments, one after another with no hope of escape. Bastard out of Carolina is a shattering book because it’s about violence, the violence of abuse and bodily harm but also the ongoing violence of poverty and shame and hunger, of stretched-thin food and frayed clothing and sneering looks and how all of these small pieces add up into something that can eat you alive, if not bodily than spiritually.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

the turning worm

I got a new computer recently, or rather, an old computer that had been wiped clean and essentially restored to the capabilities of a computer from 2004, which means it was unable to do more than stare at the internet blankly and spin that damn rainbow wheel around endlessly. It’s a mac, and I’m very up front about the fact that I bought it purely for its customer service potential. I don’t really give much of a damn if it’s faster or “easier” or “more intuitive”—the first is nice but not much more than a perk unless we’re talking seriously slow as the alternative, and the last two are purely arbitrary. No, all I wanted from my shiny silver mac was to be able to not get treated like a dumbass when I needed something fixed. I am, technically, a dumbass when it comes to computers, but I at least like to be given the benefit of the doubt before someone talks down to me. Oddly, my male friends never seem to have this problem in computer stores, but as a girl-type person I decided to give the reputably touchy-feely techies of the Apple world a shot.

So I went to the Apple store, and it was so sleek and things were moving fast and blinking on the televisions set into all of the walls and I suddenly felt like a caveman in the middle of a freeway, or like my poor old computer must have felt when faced with the brave new internet that had sprung up since 2004. My god, I’d only just stopped owning a flip phone! I kept my head down and headed straight for the repair center, aptly titled the Genius Bar, where I had an appointment with, well… a Genius. That’s how they referred to them when I called later that afternoon to check on my dinosaur—they told me they were having a hard time reaching the Geniuses and they’d call me right back. It’s nice to know even Geniuses have problems with their phones sometimes.

But anyway, I went to the Genius Bar and told a person with an iPad (no clipboards here, naturally) that I was there, and then I sat down, and I pulled out my book and read maybe one sentence before I realized I was doing maybe the oddest thing I could be doing in that particular place. I was surrounded by technology that should be making me drool, and instead I was reading a paperback about parasites that I’d bought at a thrift store for a dollar. I felt like putting my book away would somehow count as ceding a point to Technology, so I pretended to read while I pondered. Had anybody ever read a book in this store before? Surely I couldn’t be the only one who eschewed e-readers because they don’t smell like paper and glue and because I like turning pages? Didn’t I want to examine some of the things on the shelves more than I wanted to read about liver flukes?

Well, no, actually. It’s not that I’m a total Luddite; I own a cell phone, and after all, a computer is what had brought me to this bastion of technology. What was perhaps spawning the discomfort I felt as I bent over my book was that I, unlike seemingly most of the other people there (judging by their lit-up faces, anyway), I’m not all that sanguine about technology. I’m wary of it, and I’m not sure I like all of the things it’s brought us, or at least me. I don’t want to spend an entire paycheck on a fancy touchpad; I don’t want to carry the internet around in my pocket. And Apple was the one--were the ones? Is Apple many, or singular? That could be both a linguistic and moral dilemma--who had put it there, at least for those who wanted it.

I’ve had a number of “friendly discussions” about smart phones in the past few months, and while I’m always forced to concede that yes, it would sometimes be handy to be able to look up directions while I’m en route somewhere, and yes, if I had a smart phone I could still check my email when my computer broke, I still have one major and unswerving complaint: as my friend Jim says, those motherfuckers are a killjoy. Imagine: you’re with a group of friends and somebody asks a question that nobody knows the answer to, and instead of debating the possibilities and going off on tangents and meandering around without conclusion, somebody pulls out a phone and bam! Question answered. Clearly, we as a species are still capable of the fine art of conversational meandering, but for how much longer? We have all the answers. They’re in our pockets. Or at least, in some of our pockets.

My Genius was very nice. When I confessed while he was unscrewing a panel on the back of my mac that I don’t know much of anything about computers, he laughed and told me that was why he was working there instead of starving to death as a stand-up comic. He told me they could update my operating systems from “snowshoe hare” to “jaguar” (or something) for free, and that they’d call me in a few hours when it was done. When I came back that night my computer was returned to me with a note taped to the front stating “Attention: this computer is Vintage”. I brought it home, and it’s faster than anything I’ve ever owned before. Not that it matters, because I’ll probably just check my email and make PDFs for work and write essays about technology in Word, but still, I guess it’s nice. At any rate, it does the trick, and it sits on my desk, not in my pocket. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll close this and go drink tea and read about parasitic co-evolution and then go to bed happy and sleep the sleep of the technologically inept. Which is, truthfully, just the way I like it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

what was

I remember hearing from adults when I was a kid that they would never forget what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot. That was ancient history by the time I was born, so it was hard for young me to understand what that moment felt like for those who lived through it--there simply hadn't been any national tragedies of that statue and media coverage and collective standstill within my lifetime. Tragedies are ongoing, regretfully but seemingly inevitably, but it takes a special sort of awful to freeze an entire country in its tracks and cause such a dramatic rupture between now and ten minutes ago, before and after you heard the news.

Now, of course, we seem to have found my generation's equivalent in the events of September 11, 2001, ten years ago this Sunday. I know where I was, of course: in Tucson, taking a symphony audition and hearing increasingly outlandish and hard-to-believe (but, as it turned out, mostly true) rumors between audition rounds. I didn't find out what had actually happened until that afternoon, when I went to my job at a bagel shop in the student union and finally heard the radio. I remember a nearly hysterical vocal major who I barely knew telling me that the president of my university was probably going to cancel classes (he didn't). "Why?", I asked, wondering why a tragedy thousands of miles away would allow me to not go to orchestra--the extent of what had happened hadn't penetrated yet. We were so far away. I didn't have the vocabulary or the scope of imagination for an honest-to-god national emergency.

In the past ten years I've been with many groups of people who almost obsessively detailed where they had been when they heard, but because of where I come from--not New York--most of the experiences have been like mine, memories of news reports and missing school and general confusion. We watched our televisions and listened to our radios. (I don't remember any of us using the internet, but I remember radios being on in public places for days.) I bought a newspaper, vaguely thinking that this was one of those times when you should buy something printed and save it in mint condition so that your descendants could live the good life because you had a newspaper from September 13th, 2001--such an anachronistic thought, I know. My paper sat on the bottom of my orchestra locker for months, reminding me that New York City had had to ask for 3,000 body bags, until I couldn't stand the rage and sorrow and voyeurism I felt every time I pulled my viola out and I threw it away.

I was at a party recently in an empty apartment--the couple who lived there had moved recently, and threw a chair-less shindig to say goodbye. There were only a few people there, and we sat in a circle on the living room floor drinking celebratory sparkling wine out of plastic cups and talking as the sun went down and the corners filled with shadows. It was nearly dark inside when we started talking about September 11th, although nobody stood to pull the cord to turn on the overhead lamp--I could see silhouettes around me, but the faces were blank. It turned out that several people there had been in New York City when it happened, which (somewhat astonishingly, perhaps) had never been the case when I'd taken part in such circles before. Most of the us had the same types of stories I was used to hearing--classes cancelled, huddling with families and friends around televisions crying, the immediate aftermath--but one woman was nine months pregnant and working in finance in downtown Manhattan. She was whisked up by an ambulance, thank god, and her daughter wasn't born until several weeks after she was supposed to make an appearance, probably because of the drugs they gave her to stopped the shocked labor she entered into in transit.

I had never before considered being nine months pregnant and close to Ground Zero. Even though nobody shared anything too horrific, even though nobody had been injured or lost a loved one, just reconsidering the events from a personal standpoint made my awareness of what had happened become more human. It was not an entirely pleasant experience. I remember ten years ago, even as removed as I was, feeling like something had entered my heart forcefully; I remember crying every time I thought too hard about people jumping from falling buildings, what that implied about faith and hope and fear. I had to distance myself, stop watching television and think about the politics instead of the lost humanity, because otherwise I wasn't sure what to do with what I was feeling. Hearing my friend's experience--delivered with a certain degree of nonchalance because jesus, what else could you do with a story like that?--brought me back to that place, the feeling of being entered against my will by emotions that I wasn't sure I was prepared to have.

The nearness and farness of events shifts whenever I move my head, it seems. Ten years ago today, September 10th, the world was a different place. Tomorrow, back then, it changed. (Although not all of it, it seems.) Ten years ago I was young and scared and not certain of anything, although I tried very hard to act like I was certain of everything; standing here, with my adult life as evidence, I don't try to pretend I know anything anymore. It's taken a decade, but September 11th has become a human event for me again, even if I don't understand what that means exactly. I'm more willing to cry for what happened and is still happening, and it's clear to me that this past decade has turned me into an adult and that September 11th is a part of that. I am both farther away from what happened and closer. Understanding still eludes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Well, this week has been truly too challenging to allow me to write like a motherfucker. Alas. Instead, I've been writing emails and long, long journal entries, and listening to early music. Alex Ross, the music critic for the New York Times, got me started with this absolutely gorgeous piece by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. It has done me good to listen to such beauty, this piece of mourning and remembrance for another composer. It is worth five minutes of your life.

(Also, check out this shoutout for a concert poster masterminded by my friends, the Spektral Quartet, on the same blog. I know neat people.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

it was already late enough, and a wild night

Well, hello.

It's been a few months, yes? I could say I've been busy. It wouldn't be a lie. I've been dealing with heartbreak, talking to people, reading, making too much food, traveling, moving furniture around endlessly, adjusting to living alone again. I could use those things as an excuse but it would ring false--I did those things before. I've always done those things. So why?

I'm not sure. Five months ago, when my relationships ended, I was so tired and heartsick and worn to the bone by despair that writing was completely out of the question--I couldn't stand to bare my heart anymore than I already had, as it were. To do so felt perilous. Dangerous. Because if I let go of those last bits, what would I have left? An empty studio apartment and an air mattress, or so I felt. I've always written more and better things when I was happy, and there seemed to be so little to say. For months I've wandered around, thinking about writing, waiting to start seeing the world with the eyes of somebody who intends to tell other people about it, but I just couldn't. The days, even the good ones, were passing me by, unmarked.

The one place I've been writing is my journal. Pages upon pages upon pages: something like three hundred to three hundred fifty in the past four months alone, a mind-boggling number for somebody claiming writers block. I can only talk, it seems, to myself. Almost every single night I sit down, drink about four cups of tea, making faces at my inspirational tea bag sayings (they aren't even as fun as fortune cookies: "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." In bed! "Empty yourself and let the universe fill you." In bed! Eep.) and write letters to myself about what happens next for an hour before I fall asleep. It's deeply therapeutic, but still, it misses the mark.

I've also been reading Dear Sugar, advice columns by an anonymous writer that nearly always make me cry and absolutely always make me seethe with my desire to write. One of her mottoes is "Write like a motherfucker" (In bed! Well, maybe), and tonight I read the column that inspired it. And you know what? I haven't been doing the work. I've been waiting for some switch inside my head to flip back to "on" so that I can magically start feeling words gush out of me again and feel incredible and elated and so fucking high on joy I can't sleep, but I haven't been doing anything to make it happen. Waiting is a passive act; writing is an active one. As Sugar says, "Do you think [coal] miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig."

I never needed to be a writer, as we say when we discuss things we do for a living; I have many other things that I already am that are heart-filling and life-affirming. But do I need to write? That is a different question. Maybe yes, maybe no. All I know is that I miss feeling like I'm telling the honest-to-god truth about my own singular life when I write something down, be that writing personal or not, an epiphany or the grown-up version of a book report. And yet, I have been lazy. When I realized this finally, I got out of bed and now here we are, too late in more ways than just the time on my watch. It's time to write like a motherfucker.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

you taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger

Spring in Chicago is always an uncertain affair, but this year warmth seems especially reluctant to show up, much less stick around. When I moved here almost seven long years ago—and how did it get to be that many years? Most of my adult life?—I was sort of fascinated by how apparent the seasons were. There is such a distinct difference between not only fall and winter but early fall, late fall, midwinter, early spring… It’s part temperature, part quality of light, part the way the air feels against your skin. And while a day in February feels incredibly different than a day in late December, once spring rolls around I begin to chart things in terms of what’s blooming around me.

And so I can tell you: crocuses are so last month, daffodils are toast, tulips are on the way out. The acacias are blooming, and I saw my first tiny open bud of lilac last week. (They’re going crazy now, scenting the air and so full that the tips of the branches are solid petal.) The dandelions have been blooming merrily for some time. Crabapple and redbud trees are so densely packed with blooms that you can’t even see the branches and forsythia was blazing yellow but now its flowers are littering the sidewalks. spent. Magnolias are hanging on, but the hyacinth were long ago broken under their own weight. And I never realized before that we grow forget-me-not here, but there are clouds of them blooming in people’s yards, blue and tiny and evocative of both simplicity and loss.

For once, my lack of blogging has been less about an inability to write than about a complete lack of the time or energy required to complete a thought. Seriously, April and May have been full-on, balls-to-the-wall insane. I went from working barely part-time to working full time and sometimes a little more; I performed in two concerts, did publicity for five, and attended at least that many; I moved. Again. It’s been a whirlwind, and I feel like I haven’t drawn a full breath in at least four weeks. What this month has pounded into my head is this: I’m very serious about the things I do for a living. This sounds sort of silly, given that I’ve been a florist for more than three years now and I’ve been playing music since I was about eleven, but in retrospect I’ve been treating these things more as happy accidents than as intentional and evolving parts of my life, serious endeavors that deserve my fullest attention.

It’s not that I took these things non-seriously before, I guess. Especially with music, it would have been impossible for me to do what I do without some pretty major effort happening. But there’s been some sort of shift lately—I think it’s that these things have gone from being part-time jobs, hobbies, to being constants. I chart the seasons, not just spring but all of them, in terms of what flowers I’m seeing in my shop and in the streets and gardens; I thought to myself today that I need to spend some time practicing scales this summer, something I haven’t done since finishing grad school five years ago. (Ouch, say both my fingers and my ears.) This is some serious business, in other words. And as such, it behooves me to know my shit, to know what I’m talking about, to execute things well. Which is super awesome, but is also part of why I feel so tired this month. Doing things well is hard. Worth it, but hard.

But it’s good, and I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on, as they say. Practice my scales, and read books about roses. Water my plants. Watch the season’s progression, and dream about next year’s music. And good god, sleep, once May ends.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

back to the start

I have a friend who is truly, deeply devoted to young adult fiction. It’s a genre I don’t spend much time with anymore, but I do have a section on one of my favorite bookshelves that contains some of the literature that I read as a child, books that I now turn to for comfort when life shakes me up and tosses me down. Very little is more soothing to me than revisiting these old friends, these chapters from a distant past before I knew heartbreak and other adult pains, these books that I have read so many times that I literally know every word, every turn of phrase and cadence of sentence. They don’t ask me to analyze them or apply them to my own life, because they’re about a part of me that was dissolved into my present self nearly two decades ago, but sometimes I end up applying them anyway. Sometimes I learn a lot more than I expect from them.

Right now, my life is in transition. My relationship has ended, sadly and painfully, and in the wake of its passing I’m being forced to confront myself again as a person alone. While I know that this re-centering is part of the natural course of recovery, it is also undeniably painful and difficult. As I huddle around myself, quiet and contemplative and careful and mostly patient, I’m revisiting some of these old and beloved volumes to see what they have to offer to the me of now. Some of these books have been a part of me for so long that reading them feels like a warm blanket drawn around me, a cocoon where I can rest, a place where no surprises are in the offing. It is deeply comforting. I bought The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, a young adult novel by Patricia MacLachlan (also the author of the vastly more famous Sarah Plain and Tall) when I was probably twelve or thirteen, just slightly older than Minna herself, and my copy is now so old that the pages are a brownish yellow. In content it’s a simple book: Minna, an eleven-year-old cellist playing in a local music school’s chamber group, struggles with the first pangs of love while also navigating the difficulties of playing a Mozart string quartet. I myself began playing chamber music when I was about sixteen, probably in part because of Minna, and my first clear quartet memory is of the piece that she learns with her group, Mozart’s K. 157. The slow movement that is Minna’s nemesis is one of my favorites, a slow melancholy moment set in the middle of two effusively joyous movements.

Chamber music, in contrast to the bombast that surrounds an orchestral musician, is a quiet discussion in the corner of a room, a dedicated expression of individual but congruent thought. Part of why I love this book is because the writing is like that, a quiet conversation where simple gestures are imbued with great meaning and value—much like Mozart’s music, in fact. When I read it I’m carried back to my own adolescence when so much of what was happening to me was happening for the first time, shiny and alien, simple but oh so complicated. At the time it was confusing and sometimes terrifying, but now I wish that I could have better savored the freshness of those moments, the newness of what I was feeling. The first time somebody took my hand, the first time I felt my heart tighten at the appearance of another, the first time I fell under the thrall of art or beauty or love: these things are so simple and yet even now, when I’ve experienced them often enough that I sometimes think I should feel more jaded, they astonish.

Minna’s beloved is Lucas, the violist in her quartet. (Of course…) The slow journey they take from first meeting to final page is familiar, but their perspectives from within what is so brand new casts me back into my younger self. When Lucas rests his hand on the back of Minna’s neck three-quarters of the way through the book, nearly the only physical contact they share—no description of a first kiss or even handholding, really—my breath catches. (The contact is barely acknowledged in the text, which somehow makes it seem even more perfect.) Is anything like that, the first touch of a beloved’s hand? Not just the first time with a specific beloved, but the first time with any beloved? Is there anything that will ever feel again like my first brush with Mozart, when I understood so little of what was going on beyond the joy of crescendoing through a series of rising notes in perfect unison with the cellist sitting beside me? Can I see these things again without looking out from beneath the collective weight of all their predecessors?

But now feels like the time for seeing old things as new again. In very tangible ways I’m starting over, and what I want is to see things in connection to their past incarnations but also as singular moments, as containing individuality as well as referential meaning. I need my present self to have an identity beyond my past self, even if they are working together to make me who I am. I want a new day, and I’m waiting patiently until it appears.