Friday, July 29, 2011

why you should never, ever take housekeeping advice from me

this afternoon, i pitched a dead bird over the side of the deck into the ivy, finally dumped a giant bowl full of nasty bird seed & long-dead flowers into the mixed organics cart, got out the leaf blower, and blasted all the seed and squirrel shit scattered on the deck over the edge.

clean and done. i was pretty satisfied with myself, until i realized the steps that led to me having a giant bowl of ant- and shit-filled bird seed, dead flowers, and dead animals (in my defense, i didn't put the damn bird there, but try explaining that to child protective services) on the deck.

it started weeks ago. we've got this great deck, and hanging bird feeders that really attract a lot of birds. one day in the garage i found a bag of cheap bird seed, and so moved it out there to fill up the feeders with.

unfortunately, it had a hole in it. seed started scattering all over the deck. and it turns out that birds are somewhat discerning. they completely rejected the cheap-ass seed, and i dumped out the contents of the feeder over the side of the deck and refilled it with high quality, fancy seed from the boutique bird store (which is what they were accustomed to, in all fairness, before the discovery of the cheap seed).

and poured all the remaining cheap seed into a large metal bowl to create a sort of wonderful tactile center for the young son (which he did love, for approximately 15 minutes).

that, however, was weeks ago. since then, the squirrels have discovered the local cornucopia in the form of a giant metal bowl filled with old crappy seed. they come up and have a heyday scattering seed and leaving little squirrel pellets all over.

it's also become a convenient place for me to deposit dried-up bouquets, because it's so much closer than the organics cart out in the driveway.

today, added to the collection of cheap seed, squirrel crap, and dead flowers, there was a dead bird. i don't know how it got there. slammed into the glass deck door, perhaps, and fell into the bowl. or maybe it was a bird of cheap taste, and it gorged itself to death on unlimited food.

those of you whose children i babysit will be pleased to hear that i didn't bust out the old kettle and camp stove and boil the bird to see the bones, the way we did with a half-decomposed cat we once found in the bushes. not enough time for that today! i'm nothing if not efficient. that's how i found myself chucking dead birds, dead flowers, and shitty seed over the rail and into various bushes below. and thinking that just maybe, i might have hit a new low in my housekeeping endeavors.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

in the beginning...

so for my recent birthday, my partner got me a copy of a book that should have been on my favorites list, only it wasn't because i didn't have a copy of it when i wrote that post, and my memory is that bad - if it's not in front of me as i'm staring at my bookshelves, i'm not going to think to include it.

i opened it up - and had forgotten what a kick-ass first line it has:

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

the book is the heart is a lonely hunter, by carson mccullers. [which she, of course, wrote when she was 23. twenty-freaking-three! but that's neither here nor there.]

mccullers' opening sentence draws you in - i mean, who doesn't want to know more? who are the mutes? why are they together? what will happen to them? why are they important? it's such a mysterious, engaging set up.

the opening sentence is so important, of course, that there's entire competitions devoted to writing just that - or, at least, to writing the most god-awful and trite version you can (

ok, back to great ones. what about this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

brilliant. we already know that this book - pride and prejudice, by jane austen - is going to be both tongue in cheek and scathingly accurate.

tolstoy sets up the premise of anna karenina - love, families, and all their troubles - so easily in this way:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

In all fairness, sometimes it really does take two sentences. The first one of catch-22 isn't anything out of the ordinary:

It was love at first sight.

it's the second sentence here that really puts a new spin on it:

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. 

what's even better is that nowhere in the next several pages does heller mention anything more about the chaplain.

it's fun to peruse books, reading only the first sentence, and thinking about what it does or doesn't do. a great book can have a mediocre first sentence - it's not a necessary or sufficient condition for a great novel. of human bondage, for example, one of my very favorite books, starts out rather unspectacularly with just:

The day broke grey and dull.

ok, it's telling us something - it's setting a stage - but it's not anything spectacular, in and of itself. that is a book that sneaks up on you more than grabs you right from the get go. because when the opening sentence grabs you, it can linger forever.

i love sometimes a great notion. and it's not a great first sentence, but kesey does tell you something very important about the book in it:

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range...come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Agua River...

kesey is telling us, right from the start, that place, that the natural environment, is the defining characteristic of the story. place - the rivers, the hysterical crashing of the rushing water - is the main character here, not any one person or any one situation. [also, there's a clue that it might be somewhat rambling and dream-like in presentation.]

steinbeck does something similar with the grapes of wrath:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

talk about grabbing you: for a teenager, there's no opening sentence that says "i know what you're going through" like that of the catcher in the rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 

yep, we know. we know exactly what you mean.

what are some other great opening lines, ones you've never forgotten?

Monday, July 25, 2011

ghosts, part 3

‘Where is he?’ I asked the guy standing in front of me. He took me through a doorway and before me spread a small, bare amphitheater. In the evening grey, shadowy figures were arranged on the cement benches that spread in a semi-circle before me. They all sat, completely idle, hands in their laps, eyes staring into the dusky darkness in front of them. ‘Kevin?’ I asked, hesitantly, into the mist. He stood up, and looked at me. ‘He can’t leave’, said the guide. Kevin came up, and put his arms around me. He was insubstantial, almost nothing but smoke. But I could feel his arms encircle me. I could feel my cheek on his chest. ‘Why is this?’ I asked the guide, infuriated. ‘He can’t have to stay here. It’s not fair.’ I turned back to Kevin, my heart full of sadness and pain and misery. I’ll get you out of here, I promised him silently. All the other dead, all the other ghosts, arranged on their cement benches, gave hardly a glance in our direction as we separated and Kevin returned to a spot on the bench, hands on his lap, eyes staring forward.

Almost fifteen years before, on an April day near Easter, the church was almost full by the time we got there. I had driven for 12 hours for the funeral, dropping off my one-year-old son at my mother’s house on the Oregon Coast, picking up my best friend Liz, and driving across the top of Oregon, across eastern Washington, traversing Idaho at almost its narrowest point, and finally landing in western Montana, which I had called home less than a year ago. Had it only been one year? Everything felt different. For starters, at the front was Kevin’s picture, instead of Kevin in real life. Overwhelmed, confused, I sat down for the service, and tried to remember the Kevin who had been my friend for two years, but my best friend and best support that last year in Montana when, young and occasionally frightened, I had been pregnant and totally alone.

How did we even meet? I couldn’t remember, except that we both took classes at the very small tribal college, and one knew pretty much everyone else there. Still, something must have been the precipitating factor that led us to start talking and hanging out. It must have been my friend Rayna; cheerful, outgoing, and gregarious, I bet she met him in a class and introduced us. However it happened, we began hanging out more in earnest. With Kevin – although completely different from myself, in almost every way – I could be myself. We joked with each other, talked with each other; he heard much of my relationship woes as I dated one guy or another, then finally ended up with the ultimate gift – a baby.

Even before the pregnancy, Kevin would stop by frequently, with a six-pack or case of beer and a can of chew, and we would sit – me smoking, him chewing and spitting – while we talked about whatever. We talked about Montana, Oregon, gays, politics, gun laws, abortion. I’d rage at him for leaving cans of chew-spit in my house, he’d bitch about my smoking. I was still not 21, and so he’d often – being a few years older – head to the bars or head out with friends to go driving the back roads. He’d tell me about the trail he and his brother – who was as often as not with him in everything – were scratching out up in the mountains behind their house. They wanted their very own spot in the woods, which were tribally owned; some secret place that only they knew about, only they could get to. We’d go out to his family’s cabin on the lake, play cards and drink beer. He’d complain when it was a bad fire year, that kept him from the easy money of fighting fires in the summer. He wore his Forest Service green Nomex firefighting pants year round. “They wear well”, he told me with utmost seriousness once, when I asked him why on earth he was wearing something that felt like cardboard reinforced with aluminum foil.

After the service, we all trucked over to a building further out, out in the fields, out near the woods. I had met his parents only briefly, in passing once at their house – Kevin had still lived with them when he fell into the lake that night just over a week ago and never came back up. I was frightened now, to face them, to see them. What would they think of me?

His mother turned to me, all sweetness and sadness, “I’m so glad he loved before he died.” And she held my face in her hands, and smiled at me, as I cried. “I really mean that,” she said.

Rayna pulled me aside. My last year there, we had stopped hanging out as much as we once did. She had a child of her own, a year older than mine, and had become thoroughly absorbed in being a pot-smoking wife and mother.

“Why didn’t you love him?” she started. I had thought we were going to exchange condolences, but she was full of grief and anger. “He would have made a great father for your baby! He loved you! Why didn’t you just love him back?”

I was sobbing anew now, full of grief of my own and pain and guilt. When had it occurred to me, what she said? When had I realized that he loved me? Sometime after I had moved away, sometime after I had returned to Oregon. Certainly not when he told me, which was surely one of the bravest things he’d ever done. My son had just been born, at a hospital an hour and a half north of where we both lived, and Kevin was on his way to Alaska to work for the summer. I had been completely enraged by this – that he would plan to leave, just days before my due date! After being my companion the past long nine months! But the baby came a few days early, and had just been born when he was leaving. On his way to Alaska, while driving the route north, he and his brother stopped by the hospital room.

I was standing in a cabin, a national historic landmark, and it needed a caretaker and it didn’t matter if the caretaker was a ghost or not. And Kevin was standing there, smiling.  He could show people around, keep watch over something…and he was becoming more substantial as I looked at him. He realized that he needed to start a fire in the small wood stove, for even if he wasn’t cold, I was – cold in the Montana winter.

There I was, with Liz and Rayna, my mom and stepfather all around me, dazed from delivering the baby just a few hours earlier. Quiet, early spring snow was falling in April. He came in and we talked a bit, with everyone arrayed around us. But he had to go, get on the road to Alaska. He was sitting on the other bed in the room, when he stood up, and said, while on his way out the door, “Well, I love you.”

Just like that. Just like that, it didn’t register. Didn’t ever occur to me that he’d never said that before. That we didn’t have the kind of friendship where we told each other how we felt. In fact, we talked about everything but that – even though we spent so much time together. I had lots of girl friends who would say that, lots of Oregon sensitive-boy friends who could say that. Why did it not occur to me how incongruent it was to hear that coming from Kevin, tough, solid, gruff, dismissive, Montana boy that he was, through and through? I looked up at him, the baby in my arms, and smiled wearily. I was moving back to Oregon in six weeks. When he came back from Alaska, I’d be gone.

We hadn’t always been so close. We’d mostly just been buddies, hanging out, drinking, talking with a group of friends. It was that last year, when I was pregnant, that we really got close. My two other closest friends had issues of their own. My cowgirl roommate was drinking most of the time, while my other dearest friend was off in detox in another state. Many surficial friends had no interest, suddenly, in hanging out with a pregnant girl who was, most definitely, going to remain single for the foreseeable future.

Enter Kevin. We started spending a lot more time together over that winter. We were both taking classes, and I was still working at McDonalds, encompassing my ever-growing belly in a shapeless manager’s smock that I donned tearfully one day, feeling like a complete cow. I was only 21, and some days it felt like my life was over. My body was ruined, I was working at McDonalds, had no college degree, no boyfriend, no family nearby.

No matter how bad I felt, no matter how much I whined, Kevin didn’t care. He came over and kept me company. We played cribbage, we played – when there were others around – pinochle. There wasn’t a lot to do in the evenings in this remote Montana town of 3,000 people. We started going to the small local movie theater once a week, no matter what was playing. There was only one screen, and mid-week, when we went, only one show time – and as often as not, we were the only two people in the theater. He even badgered me into going to the bars with him a couple of times, though I couldn’t drink. And there are few places more depressing to be sober than a small-town Montana bar in the middle of winter.

“Honey, is he your boyfriend?” one frightening, half-toothless woman who looked to be in her 50s, drunkenly asked me one evening, as we sat at the bar of the Wild Horse.
“Nope,” I said, grinning at Kevin.
“Do you mind if I kiss him?” she slurred eagerly.
“Nope,” I said, laughing into my 7-up. That’s what you get for dragging a poor pregnant lady to the bar! I thought.
Once Kevin was able to semi-politely disengage, he glared at me. “Fuck you”, he said disgustedly, turning back to his beer, while I continued laughing.

Just two weeks before my due date, when the snow had melted in the late-March sun but the air still felt like winter, Kevin and his best buddy and Kevin’s cousin all showed up at my door. “We’re going camping down by the river,” Kevin said. “You’ve got to come along.”
“Are you fucking nuts?” I exclaimed. “Look at me. I’m like a fucking cow. I could go into labor at any moment.”
Kevin shrugged. “So what?” he said. “If you go into labor, I’ll take you to the hospital. It’s no big deal.”
“Kevin,” I said, incredulous, “you can’t be serious. I’m 38 weeks pregnant. How can I go camping? I’m serious, I could go into labor any minute, like AT ANY MINUTE – do you understand?”
Kevin looked at me, completely nonplussed by my argument. “Real Montana women go camping when they’re pregnant”, he said, and turned slightly away, as if he had no use for me if that wasn’t the case, or if I wasn’t a real Montana woman.

And yes, calling chicken on me worked like a charm. Furious at the insinuation that a girl from Oregon would be one modicum less hardy or woodsy than some Montanan, I threw my camp shit in a bag and climbed into his cousin’s car, extracting many promises on the way that someone would be sober enough to get my huge ass back to the hospital, should I happen to go into labor.

In his cousin's old, rusty, holey Subaru, we bounced across fallow fields, Kevin and his friend leading the way in Kevin’s truck. I kept one hand on my belly as we vaulted up so hard that my entire body rose up and I cracked my head on the roof of the car. His cousin cranked the wheel left and right, trying to navigate the clearest path through the riverside ruts yet still keep up with Kevin, who was stomping along speedily in his high-clearance truck.

That night down among the pines near the river, sitting up under the stars while his cousin played guitar and sang, while we cooked hamburgers over the fire, was the last really good night Kevin and I had together. And I didn’t even go into labor. I woke up warm, rested, and refreshed from the crisp cold fresh air. Kevin had been right all along. Real women do go camping at 38 weeks along.

A few months earlier, he had given me a mixed tape. We had completely different tastes in music, but we had realized, at some point, that we both liked Simon & Garfunkel, and this must have given him the inspiration to put together the mix, which must have taken him forever. He knew how much I loved music, how important it was to me, even if he found my selections repugnant compared to the classic rock and country he liked; with the mix tape he was, I think, trying to speak my language. Smack dab in the middle he had stuck in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ by Madonna. Listening to it the first time through in my quiet little house in our little downtown, I laughed out loud at the tape player. That shithead! Madonna pranced around me and my swollen belly, gaily singing: “Papa don’t preach/ I’m in trouble deep/ Papa, don’t preach/ I’ve been losing sleep/ but I made up my mind, I’m/ keeping my baby”. I knew, without a doubt, that he did that to rile me up, and it made me happy, in that way that only a good friend really trying to get your goat does. Buried in the tape was a song of no particular significance at the time – James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

At the memorial service, his parents didn’t know the half of it, as I cried in his mother’s arms. How the last letter I had received from him – after he came to Oregon to visit me as soon as he was done in Alaska – said he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. How my response to him still languished, unsent, in an envelope in my house. How all my chances to repair what had happened – how they were all gone. What was left, after all this? A few letters, the gifts he had sent me for my baby while he was in Alaska, the memory of his weekly phone calls to check up on me when I was in an apartment in a new town in Oregon, alone and with a crying baby. Dreams. Only dreams left.

He sat on the wooden bench in the cabin, and I sat on his lap, resting my head on his shirt – it was flannel – and I could feel happiness in my heart, and tears in my eyes. I circled my arms around his neck, and I could feel his smoky arms becoming more solid, the longer I sat there, the longer his father stood there. We had saved him, I had saved him, I had found a place in this world for him, he would never again fade away, he would never be forgotten, and I could visit him whenever I wanted to, I could talk to him all day and all night and for the rest of my life, if I wanted to…

Saturday, July 23, 2011

ghosts, part 2

maybe if i lived alone, ghosts would overrun me.

maybe it's only the bustle and activity of others that keeps them at bay.

they lurk just behind me, everywhere. in cupboards, in smells, in sounds, in half-remembered conversations that drift into my brain, in dreams.

memories and ghosts.

Friday, July 22, 2011

ghosts, part 1

this is my grandfather on my mom's side:

he was from arkansas, originally, one of several in a large, poor, southern family. he left school after the 8th grade.

he came out west with the civilian conservation corps, the CCC. he went to california in a government-issue suit that was too small for his skinny, lanky arms: 

and he met my grandmother in california. although he'd left a girl back in arkansas, he decided he preferred martha, whom he took bowling and dancing several times.

then he brought this los angeles woman - my grandmother - who had always been a city dweller - to colton, oregon, population some hundreds, to live in an old ramshackle farmhouse and start a chicken farm. 

i never met him. he died before i was born. i've heard lots of stories, about how kind and gentle and loving he was, how good with children, how hard working (the chicken farm didn't last long, and he turned to driving a school bus instead), how religious and non-drinking, how he crumbled his cornbread into a glass of milk and ate it with a spoon. 

but still, he's not real to me. i wish he was! but he's a one-dimensional ghost. a collection of stories, stories handed down, edited, biased, and colored by the feelings of the teller. stories that never can communicate the real confusing depth of a person. the cadence of their voice, the patterns of their speech, the sound of their laugh, the words they would use.

this is my father:

he was raised in butte and billings, montana - that picture is of him on the rim rocks on the edge of billings. he finished high school - barely. not much of a traditional learner, he nevertheless read voraciously and faster than anyone else i've met. 

he also raced jeeps, custom built and otherwise, in mud and in drag races in sand dunes. and sold crab on the side of the road and drove a semi and had an appliance store. you might have called him a jack-of-all-trades, but unreliable would have worked, too.

he died before either of my children were born. he'll never be a real person to them. all his complicated, difficult, funny, occasionally charming, sometimes mean, ways - will never be real to them.

sometimes my younger son asks me, bemused: "who's your dad?" 

"his name was bill", i say. "but he's dead now."

i don't even try to share the stories. somehow, it all seems too difficult to me. and i know what the end result will be anyway: someone who, no matter how hard i try, they will never understand. a one-dimensional character. insubstantial. not the living breathing person who so influenced me. just a ghost.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

big bad wolves just really, really love you

i heard this song again recently, out of the blue, that i've not heard in decades:

the sum total of my youthful musical exposure was my dad's compilation albums (think K-TEL) of 50's and 60's classics, disney and sesame street purchases targeted towards me, and my mom's collection of musical soundtracks. 

i LOVED this song when i was a kid. this song was one of several - songs like be my baby, leader of the pack, 16 tons, and california dreamin' - that i'd play over and over on our turntable. in fact, i listened to it so much that even now there's a place in the song when i expect it to skip - where my brain automatically jumps over the words i never heard from that scratched-up LP spinning in our basement all those years ago. 

as a kid, i learned this song by heart. but i never really focused on the words till now. 

maybe this song is responsible - in tandem with others - for the f-ed up instincts i have about men, women, and relationships. 

or maybe, in the words of Nick Hornby in High Fidelity:

"Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than i ever realized."

so maybe it was more the effect of all those hours, sitting in the basement, listening to pop music and learning the words and singing along, over and over, that did me in. 

the current me? yeah, i still love the damn song. and i still sing along. maybe i should stop blaming pop culture, and just admit that there are certain things i can't resist.

Friday, July 15, 2011

book worship, part 1: because you never asked

Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading; he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.

--From 'Of Human Bondage', by W. Somerset Maugham

there's something incredibly comforting to me about bookshelves full of books. it must be why libraries and bookstores are two places that i can walk into and feel suddenly both calm and excited, both soothed and inspired.

you can tell a lot about someone by thier bookshelves - one reason why the first thing i'll do when entering someone's house is to stand in front of their shelves and see what's there.

in fact, if i can't sleep, if my brain is whirring and won't shut off, if i'm feeling sad or alone, i'll go out and stand in front of my bookshelves. and the presence and the weight of all those words, of all those pages, of all those thoughts that have at one point in time completely engulfed me, made me think or feel or change, eases my heart. and i'll pull down a book, a printed bowl of macaroni & cheese, a paper warm glass of milk, to help my head and heart quiet down.

just because no one has ever asked, but i've always wanted someone to, here's my absolute earth-shatteringly favorite books of all time, in no particular order. the books that changed me and the people that i worship in a distant, foreign way - in reverence to something unknowable, unachievable, incomprehensible in beauty & perfection. or, what you'd see if you stood in front of my bookcases with me in the middle of the night.

The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
Slaughterhouse-five, Breakfast of Champions, and many others, Kurt Vonnegut
On The Road, Jack Kerouac
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, and others, Jane Austen
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
Independent People, Haldor Laxness
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Factotum, Charles Bukowski
High Fidelity, Nick Hornsby
Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O'Toole
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
Native Son, Richard Wright
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemmingway
The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes
A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer
The Battle for Butte, Michael Malone
Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner
Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum
A History of the Indians of the United States, Angie Debo
Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean
Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose

hm. what do i notice about my own list? a definite dearth of non-english-writing authors, and a slightly scary under-representation of women.

who's got some recommendations for me?!

Friday, July 8, 2011

book worship, part 2: support your local author!

next time i'll write about the great greats: the books that have changed me, or maybe even changed the world a little bit. authors that are dead or foreign (in many ways) and whose genius is so entire that it - sometimes - makes one want to stop writing, because these books are almost too perfect, too complete, and there's no point continuing to try to add to a world that already has such gems in it.

it'd be like making beads from fimo to compete against rubies.

but then, there's also the books that are great and that make one want to keep writing, the ones that are good, well-written, and inspire you - because the people who produced them are real people that you can see and talk to and understand. and people you'd want to know and hang out with, unlike some of the great greats authors (cough cough dostoevsky).

for example, my friend claudia has written a book! how cool is that?

it's called biting back: a no-nonsense, no-garlic guide to facing the personal vampires in your life. it looks like this:

and if you're wondering, yeah, she's talking from experience about dealing with vampires like addiction, crappy partners, and maybe cancer thrown in there for fun.

yeah, she's like buffy, only she kicks even more ass.

i first met claudia in a women's bathroom at salish kootenai college in pablo, montana. i was green and fresh off the wagon train from oregon and taking classes there, she was an exile from the midwest. i ran into her at the sinks one day and she said something incredibly dry and humorous and we talked for at most 5 minutes before realizing that we both loved kurt vonnegut and i knew we'd be friends, right then and there.

i'm going to bask in some sheer second-hand coolness for a moment, 'cause she's my friend. wow.

some corvallis folks have been publishing lately, too. i haven't read it yet, but here's a book that just came out by a corvallis guy, called the shape of the eye:

i've seen the author around town for years. i feel like i know him, even though i've never even had a conversation with him - ever. not even two words. corvallis is funny like that. one of his children must be about the same age as my older son, because we've been crossing paths in the corvallis kid pick-up and drop-off world for a long time. he's memorable because - let's face it - when it's always a dad doing transport duty, it's noticeable, as well as the fact that one of his daughters has down syndrome.

saw him again just the other day, in fact. i wanted to shout out: "hey! congratulations on the book!" but i didn't. it did make me contemplate, however, what thier family goes through. our older kids are all independent now, but we're still crossing paths - at kid pick-up and drop-offs designed for younger kids, his daughter's development more in line now with my younger son's.

i hope to read this book soon. and, by reading a two-paragraph summary of the book, i've already learned more about the author than i did in 10+ years of seeing him around town, so that's good.

and last but not least in my current pantheon of local, actually-people-i-may-one-day-even-interact-with book worship is this book by jess walter, called the financial lives of the poets:

it's so good, so very funny and relevant and real, i've been heavy-handedly recommending to everyone i come across. and the author lives in spokane. spokane! the can! a real northwest place!

in a fit of sophmoric devotion, i actually wrote my very first ever piece of fan mail. the 'email me' quick link on his webpage, which i visited while crafting an email to someone recommending the book only i couldn't remember his exact last name, was just too tempting.

and you know what? he wrote back. like, right away. dostoevsky wouldn't have.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

a reader again

today my older son sat in the sun on the deck and read half a book, from the middle to the end, sat there for several hours straight, to finish it.

he pronounced it excellent. and i was thrilled.

there was a time when this wouldn't be news. this is the kid, after all, who used to set his alarm clock in second grade to get up at 5:30 am - because he insisted he needed two hours to read before getting ready for school. every day.

this is the kid who, in the third grade, brought 'the hunt for red october' home from the school library. he had requested it through the inter-library loan - from the high school.

in fact, the only struggle we had was trying to make sure that what he was reading was appropriate, because his reading level was so much above his age.

oddly enough, he didn't read early, or even right away. my theory at the time - and i still think there's some truth to it - was that the books he had to read to learn to read were so mind-numbingly boring to him as a 5 and 6 year old, that he really wasn't interested in reading to himself, until he could read what he wanted to read.

like, the hunt for red october. or red storm rising - whichever it was. i never could keep all the tom clancy novels straight.

something happened in the past few years, though, something all about being a teenager and electronics and a computer and facebook and video games, and he just wasn't such a voracious reader any more.

what book was it that captivated him today?

slaughterhouse-five, by kurt vonnegut.

what did i do?

ran right out and bought him breakfast of champions.

maybe, once again, he just needed the right material, something clever, fresh, unique, critical, beautiful. something satirical, not about the status quo.

i still remember reading kurt vonnegut for the first time. i'd never read anything like THAT before. he was so honest, so true. he wrote about life as it really is - which all teenagers instinctively know - messy and frequently unhappy and without real resolutions, closures, or even sense. without good guys and bad guys. complicated - but beautiful. a vision that definitely helped me survive. i hope he gets something even half as powerful and inspiring out of these books.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

teenage riot

as soon as someone finds out i have a 16-year-old, especially if they are also a parent, they almost invariably ask, with fear and trepidation in thier voice, "how is it?"

truth is, it's fantastic, fun, and exciting.

i love having a teenager. in fact, i love teenagers in general.

sure, teenage years can be miserable - we all know that. they can be full of confusion, pain, misery, and difficult social interactions, times when you feel more alone and uncertain than ever before. i guess eventually, one gets used to those feelings, and that's what enables adults to just sort of put thier heads down and continue on in life, knowing that the world won't actually end - that it really will be ok. the first few years of feeling that, though, it's scary.

yet, it's also a time of fantastic discovery. it's the beginning of when we start to look critically at what we've been told about the world and ourselves our entire lives and decide what we like, what we'll actively cultivate, and what we reject.

parents never really let go of their images of us as children, it's true. it can still be frustrating, decades later, to be around family, and have them continually project to you an image that you have turned away from. old habits die hard and people resist change. i'm generally forgiving of family on this one, even though it still aggrivates the holy hell out of me when my family does it to me. and yes, i wonder if i'll just do the same damn thing to my kids. i hope not. but i understand it'll take a lot of intentionality for me  to not keep seeing him as i defined him in my head from the moment he was born, but instead as he sees himself - and surely there'll be times when i will fail.

but still, this is the magic time when someone starts to define themselves for themselves. when a kid gets to look around at all that life offers and start to pick and choose what they want to be.

is there anything better than trying to decide who we want to be?

it's also great being the parent of this, as it turns out. not just because they are more independent and self-sufficient; they no longer require constant meal preparation and wake up calls and rides to places they want to go. the time of direct shaping is over.

but also because they are becoming adults. and you're going to be dealing with them as an adult for the vast majority, hopefully, of your lives together. kid time is short, relative to a lifetime. most of our relationship with our children, time-wise, will be as adult to adult.

and how freeing it is to be able to be an adult yourself! not that i'm not still being a parent in very direct and concrete ways, setting rules and boundaries and all that. but i'm able to be a little bit more of myself all the time, of the real adult me. the one i've chosen and am still choosing and perfecting. the one with more complicated feelings, that has deeper discussions, a richer sense of humor.

it's not that i don't worry. i worry all the time. i don't think i'm a naive person - i feel like i've got a pretty good grasp on what the dangers are, and lord, there are so many! but i do still believe that people live up to or down to what we tell them about themselves. why project a negative, fearful, worried idea of teenagers? why not choose to project the idea that this is the beginning of a wonderful transition time to a different part of life? painful sometimes - sure. disappointing sometimes - absolutely. but all your own.

and that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.


note: ok, i always like to include images with posts, just to make reading things on a screen more interesting. for this post, a quick goole images search turned up a bunch of crap all about the stereotypes: cheerful happy beautiful kids in large groups, singing and laughing or some shit like that, or totally grey-scale pictures of depression. i was going to dispense with the image idea altogether when i finally found teenagers from outer space. ha! saved by pulp science fiction - again!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

a note from underground

i've been thinking a lot about parenting lately. what it is, what it isn't, and what it all means.

although we often define parts of ourselves relative to our relationships or our roles with other people (such as i'm so-and-so's partner, or more abstractly, i'm the nag of the family), it's with parenting that it truly becomes almost your complete identity.

if i had to pick just a few characteristics that best represented myself, if i had to set up my character in a short sentence in a book, for example, i'd throw mother in there almost right off the bat. it seems to cover so much about my life. and yet, if i really think about it, it tells someone else nothing at all about me, my personality, what i think is important, or even how i interact with my children. and yet, still, it's somehow the largest parameter in my life - and thus seems to define me most, even if it really says nothing about me.

anyone who knows me knows that i've never been a live-for-my-kids kind of person. quite frankly, i never really gave parenting much thought until i got pregnant. ever since my kids were born, i've made a point of generally still living the life i choose - moving around, taking vacations, going back to school, that sort of thing.

so it's been odd that this year i've been suddenly filled with all this thinking about parenting, and a sudden sense of nostalgia for being a mother. i have friends who've felt this sense of passage and nostalgia for all the stages as soon as they happen; people who are so in tune to the effects of time that they see quite clearly where they are, where they are going, and how things will never be the same.

this has never been my strength. every moment with my children has seemed somehow separate from the stream of time. although i remember clearly what they were like two or three or five years ago, they are never anything to me but exactly what they are at this moment. i can't see the finiteness of our current relationship. i can't see sadness at the person they left behind - the sweet smelling cuddly baby, the frustrating toddler, the reactionary tween.

but this has changed this year. i think it's because my oldest is 16. suddenly, i can see clearly how little time we have left in the same house - 2 years, to be exact. because i know everything will be different once he moves out. no more morning annoyances, no more afternoon check-ins via text:
--where are you? 
--with a friend at the park. 
--when will you be home? 
--by 8.
i know, so meaningful. but still - it's part of the constant knowing that his presence is in the house or expected. it has been so for sixteen years. for sixteen years, that thought has never been out of my mind: where's j? what's he doing? is he happy? is he ok? 

suddenly, it seems like we have so little time left. 2 years! that will go in a heartbeat. and, this finiteness coincides with his utmost independence. he has no interest - usually - in sitting beside me, telling me about his day, just being together. or - i should say - he has an occasional interest in it, but only because it's not desired. if i voiced why i wanted such things, he'd run the other way. rightfully so.

this view of the future - one where he's clearly off doing his own thing - has really struck me lately. yes, i'll still have one kid at home. but still, this huge part of who i am - and what has structured my life for the last 16 years - will change. whether one plans to have children and then sets out to do it or not, there's something very comforting about having the major part of one's life constrained.

you don't need to worry about who you are, you're a mother. you don't need to worry about what to do in life, you parent. sure, there's little details to be worked out - but for the most part, you know what needs to be done, and the majority of your time is focused on these tasks: getting them fed, getting them to school, getting them to bed, and just getting them through life. trying to give enough tips to take care of the big issues (share, play nice, be strong) while still remembering to nag them continually about the small ones (brush your teeth, change your underwear, wash your hands).

the end of the parenting era of my life is beginning, once the first one flies the nest. and then what? who will i be? what will i do? what will occupy my day-to-day life? i'm feeling a little adrift here.

anyway, that's a long-winded introduction to the point of all this. i guess it's just that there's a lot of my brain space occupied by thinking of the fleeting nature of being a parent. and that leads to thinking about parenting, and relationships, in general.

so this is an occasional soliloquy on such matters. and remembrances from the days in the trenches (i.e., the days with young children). nothing more, nothing less. oh, and occasional stories that don't fit anywhere else.