Tuesday, August 7, 2012

a complicated man

this is my grandfather, william vernon crandall the second:
he was a complicated man.

my grandfather was a strong, hard, stubborn, uncompromising, controlling, unhappy, driven man.

he was a man for whom nothing was ever quite right. not growing up, when his mother - a cold woman - clearly preferred his brother and showered him with treats and rewards while grandpa had to work for everything.

he married my grandmother, audrey, and controlled her completely. he dictated what she should wear, and how much she should eat. she bore him two children, my father, william vernon crandall the third, and my aunt, linda. they were some 10 years apart.

my grandmother was a beautiful woman - sweet and desperate for someone to take care of her. eventually she became a terrible drinker, and when drunk, would rant and rave about the house, brandishing knives.

she went to rehab. when she came home, grandpa still expected her to deliver a scotch on the rocks to him when he got home from work. he just didn't get it, the whole sobriety thing. it was her failure that she couldn't stay sober.

nothing, and no one, was ever quite right. i suspect this included himself. he worked like a dog every day, rarely taking vacations. he made it quite clear to my father that nothing he did was right, either. sometime in high school - maybe at 14, maybe he was so generous as to wait until my dad turned 16 - it was expected that my father would get a job, and start paying room and board to live in the family house.

there were so many rules with grandpa - rules you didn't even know could exist. in the summer, you couldn't sit on the couch in shorts - you had to put a towel underneath your legs, so that the oils didn't get on the fabric. you couldn't lean your head back. and you certainly couldn't place your feet on anything. and don't even get me started on how you were supposed to eat chips (i'm not joking).

grandpa was a driven man, but his children were not. they just wanted to be loved, and they were never enough. he sued my father for not repaying a loan on time. rules were rules for grandpa. there were no exceptions for family.

except he was fanatical about family pride. it was so important to him that i named my first son a crandall. he asked me to never change his name - not even if i got married. being a crandall meant the world to him. but it was an unhappy world.

my father became a drinker, just like his dad, and even drank scotch, just like his dad. he tried to work hard and make money but failure was always present. every time a plan failed he retreated more and more to drink, to anything that could cover up this terrible pain inside him.

my aunt became a heroin addict, and remained somehow perpetually an adolescent, even when in her thirties. grandpa divorced my grandmother and she retreated into smoking and drinking, her daughter living with her, stealing things from the house to pawn for drug money, telling my grandmother that they had been robbed - again!

my grandfather was a hard man, and a strong one. i was never particularly close to him. i was also a disappointment, for many years, as i bounced around the country, had a baby out of wedlock (for christssake), and didn't really keep a steady job. what he thought of me in recent years i'll never know.

my grandfather was also a pitiable man, in recent years. he outlived the deaths of both of his children and his first wife - all of them sad deaths. my father: suicide; my aunt: infection from a dirty needle; my grandmother: a slow alcohol and cigarette fueled decline. his second wife tells me that at night he would cry out. she knew he felt the pain of his disapproval having contributed to their pain and suffering, their inability to just simply live.

he was the last. there is no one left. no one who can explain this family's pain to me. because he never could have articulated all that was inside him - i see that now.

i see that he tried, in his limited way. i know that recently when he said to me, 'i love you', it meant something serious. it meant that he saw - in some small, perhaps subconscious way - how never telling people that you value them - perhaps never realizing, in the moment, that you do value them - will haunt you forever.

william vernon crandall died this afternoon, at the age of 92. his last years were unhappy. he was in pain, from arthritis and knee surgeries and ankle surgeries. he was in pain, from the loss of his children and his estrangement from his entire family. i know he valued me - i know he did.

i just can't figure out how to grieve.

when my dad died, the minister at the memorial service said it best, in a very tactful way: 'he was a man of terrible strengths and terrible weaknesses'. i'd say something like that, now, about grandpa, except he had no weaknesses. he was defined by his strength - a terrible, unrelenting, never ending strength.

if i had some scotch, maybe i'd pour myself a glass. i'd remember the time he and his second wife (a lovely woman - i could fill a page with how lovely she is) came to visit us in germany, how the constant imminent failure of hosting him in germany, a country and our lifestyle there which was guaranteed to disappoint him constantly weighed on me, how we went to a restaurant and he ordered scotch and loudly asked (in english, always in english) for ABOUT FIVE MORE ICE CUBES for it - how when i had safely delivered them to their motel i curled up on the hallway floor in a fetal position, saying i just can't take it anymore.

i have lots of good grandpa stories. most of them are ridiculous. and i am sad. it's a part of who i am - all of it. the family pain, the burden of expectations and disappointment, the mythology of their lives in montana, with all the trying and failing and trying again, the downward spiraling economy, the men working day in and day out and never being happy, the slow decline of the women, trying to be perfect, the imminent failure.

so long grandpa. i already miss you, no matter how complicated you were. this doesn't even begin to do you justice.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

comfort reads (too much bitter and not enough sweet)

today was a momentous day, although i'm probably the only person who would ever view it that way. what did i do that was so special? not much, just took the brothers karamazov and don quixote from next to my bed, and sometimes a great notion from the dining room table, and quietly re-shelved them. yes, that's right! i put them away, and grabbed one of the many unread books teetering on the top of other books to begin reading.

if someone really knew me, they could gauge my mental state by the books on my bedside table. books are both my main source of new thoughts and ideas, and also the socially-acceptable stuffed animals i use to comfort and console myself with. when i'm engaged with living life, when i'm eager to learn and experience things, to encounter new feelings, i devour new books and will often have two or three piled up next to me, keeping me up for hours at night through excitement and wondering what will happen next. conversely, when i'm feeling down or overwhelmed by life, i reach instead for my comfort books - the ones i know inside and out, the ones that won't shock me or surprise me or trick me into feeling emotions i'm not ready to feel - no sneaky books here, no risky books here. just the kind where the words are so familiar they wash through your brain like soft music, the kind where the feelings are known, the aura is comfortable and the reassurance palatable.

it started a while ago when i set aside the murakami book borrowed from a friend (i had no idea what was going to happen next!) and instead reached for don quixote one night before bed. don quixote is supremely funny; it's a great book to read when one wants to relax, and yet be entertained and led down joyful paths, ridiculous paths.

"'Did I not tell you so?' said Don Quixote. 'Wait but a moment, Sancho; I will do it as quickly as you can say the credo.'
"Then, stripping off hastily his breeches, he remained in nothing but skin and shirt. Then, without more ado he cut a couple of capers and did two somersaults with his head down and his legs in the air, displaying such parts of his anatomy as drove Sancho to turn Rozinante's bridle to avoid seeing such a display. So, he rode away fully satisfied to swear that his master was mad."

but a short while later and it wasn't enough. it was too light. when times call for some deep introspection, guided meditations on life and what it all means, yet the reassuring kind that won't lead you into unforeseen territory where you might - accidentally! - think something new, there's nothing better than the brothers karamazov, the ultimate meditation on religion, love, life, passion, pride, and self-deceit. nothing works better to pull you out of your own life and submerse you into another world - another world both culturally and temporally.

"Some snotty-nosed, consumptive moralists, poets especially, often call this thirst for life base. True, it's a feature of the Karamazovs, to some extent, this thirst for life despite all; it must be sitting in you, too; but why is it base? There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one's heart, out of old habit."

and what then? the damn rains continued all through june and sometimes a great notion reappeared in front of me for my morning reads. it's usually my go-to book in november, when i'm ready to fall back into the wonderful coziness of the oregon winter; when i'm ready to fall back in love with the grey skies and the inevitability of several months of never-ending drizzle. when i'm ready to revel in the place i come from - when i'm ready to sink into the moss of kesey's words, like laying in the damp forest as a child, when i'm ready to wallow in troubles that seem to advance as surely and steadily as the steely clouds rolling in from the west.

"Because nothing can be done about the rain except blaming. And if nothing can be done about it, why get yourself in a sweat about it? Matter of fact, it can be convenient to have around. Got worries and frets about the way the old bus is falling to pieces right under you? It's the ruttin' rain. Got a deep, hollow ache bleeding cold down inside the secret heart of you from too many deals fallen through? too many nights in bed with the little woman without being able to get it up? too much bitter and not enough sweet? Yeah? That there, brother, is just as well blamed on the rain; falls on the just and unjust alike, falls all day long all winter long every winter every year, and you might just as well give up and admit that's the way it's gonna be, and go take a little snooze. Or you'll be mouthin' the barrel of your twelve-gauge the way Evert Peterson at Mapleton did last year, or samplin' snail-killer the way both the Meirwold boys did over to Sweet Home. Roll with the blow, that's the easy way out, blame it on the rain and bend with the wind, and lean back and catch yourself forty winks - you can sleep real sound when the rain is lullabying you real nice and sound..."

but somehow, this week, things feel better. enough to put away the snuggly stuffed kitty cats and face the evening free to think new things, feel new things, see new things. read new things!


p.s. are you familiar with the feminist ryan gosling memes, and other such interwebs hilarity? well, in searching for images for this post i came across this site: Literary Ryan Gosling.

i think i'm in love.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

make me a mix tape

my good friend chris writes excellent short stories and vignettes, as well as music reviews, at his blog this wreckage. sometimes we will informally challenge each other to an idea for a story, just to see where the other one takes it, or try to inspire each other when ideas are running low. we share a love for making mix tapes, and chris' mixes are second-to-none. one night a sentence came into my head: "she was making him a mix tape, even though they'd never met." i shared this with chris as a story prompt and, with his encouragement, even wrote my own version of it. his fabulous version is posted here. read it!

one other thing that chris does really well - that i'm trying to learn from - is to post his fiction as well as his non-fiction on his blog. this is my first ever fully fictional post. i'm nervous as hell about posting it, but trying to be brave. 


Jesse sat down at her desk, her heart fluttering slightly. She was going to make him a mix CD, even though they had never met. Quickly, she opened up the music player on her computer and began scrolling through songs, searching for what she wanted to say.

Thiers was a very twenty-first century flirtation. They met on a website, but not a dating website; that would have been so last century. No, it was in an online game. Her avatar and his avatar and several other friends – some of his, some of hers – had interacted for weeks casually. Sometimes, events conspired to leave them in the online room together. They’d chat in the small message window of the program; he made her laugh. It wasn’t long before she was logging in and looking for him alone, before even checking for her other, older friends.

I am the son
and the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular

Some of the songs that caught her eye at first were laughable - the lyrics were simply too much. And yet, what if someday she could put these songs on a mix tape for him? What if someday he directed some of that humor, some of that sensitivity that she had glimpsed in the few chats they’d had, in her direction? What if this mix was just the beginning, the door opening to a larger relationship with him in the real world? What if this one bold move was all it would take to engage him deeper? What if it was just the first in a string of increasingly love-focused mixes they’d make for each other? She’d been alone so long she almost couldn’t remember how that would work, but like a language learned long ago, the overall arc of relationships lived in some deep part of her brain, tormenting her with half-memories of better times when she’d felt able to communicate with others.

Anytime she was alone with a guy in person these days, she’d suddenly lose her ability to speak coherently. After the first verbal stumble, the horrible bright red blush would begin creeping up – creating rosy patches on her cheeks that looked in no way cute and in every way conspicuous, noticeable, laughable. Her armpits would then immediately start sweating about the blushing and, getting flustered, she’d almost always make some excuse to leave the conversation, leave the party, leave the lunch date, whatever, to simply get out of the situation as soon as possible.

Hashing over each of these uncomfortable, swift retreats with her friends, they always said the same things to try and encourage her. “You just need to relax, Jesse, and be yourself! We all love you and love being around you. Why do you immediately assume that these people won’t enjoy you, too? Why do you run away from them before they even have a chance?”

But their advice was hollow and meaningless. What the fuck did they know? They were all married, most of them for at least a decade. What did they know about the slow loss of confidence that comes with year after year spent mostly alone? They remembered the fun times of their young adulthood, where they’d all get together, dress up and head to a bar or club, to dance with strangers and talk to guys, unweighted by self-doubt and shyness. They didn’t realize that that confidence was not real but was just a by-product of being young and thoughtless. They had all gotten married soon thereafter, before it started to fade, and Jesse pictured them getting daily compliments and positive messages from their husbands, living lives full of the reassuring little intimacies so glaringly absent from her own. They didn’t realize that bodies and souls were just small animals that grew hateful and ugly without regular petting and attention and care and love.

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

Online, though, without the worry of trying to read someone’s face, without the worry that her shirt made her look fat or her hair was sticking up or that there was lettuce in her teeth, she could relax. During their chats, she was never at a loss for words. They made jokes with each other, they shared funny confessions. Online, she felt confident, almost witty even, maybe – just a little bit – happy. She loved it that he hadn’t even known her full real name for a long time but only her virtual pseudonym. How nice to be unencumbered by even this name, that to her represented all that she disliked about herself! And even though she had figured out his real name, she still preferred to think of him only by his screen name.

One day she sent him an unsolicited email message, heart pounding. It was short and sweet – one sentence only – referencing a band that they’d already discovered they both loved. Innocuous, on the surface, but what if he’d resented the invasion of his privacy? What if he was shocked, dismayed, by her sudden movement out of their previously highly proscribed world of interactions? The friend request she got in response sent her heart into a surprising orbit. That’s when she realized that her desire for him was so strong she couldn’t look directly at it. There was nothing else for it. She had to make him a mix CD, to use other people’s words to try and convey what she wanted to say.

There's a club, if you'd like to go
You could meet someone who really loves you
So you go, and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home
And you cry
And you want to die

Some songs were easy to choose. Songs that they’d talked about in their online chats. Songs by bands she knew he liked. But most of the songs that leapt out to her had a more indirect appeal: they were simply the songs that made her body ache with remembered desire and longing. The final song was easy, and she had selected it even before starting: “How Soon Is Now”, by the Smiths, a favorite band of each of them, and a song whose dark, sultry, desperate tone matched perfectly the sad shell around her shy heart.

Doggedly, even as her uncertainty began growing, even after that first excited flush at the idea of the project began waning, she continued to refine the playlist, moving songs up or down in order, listening to the last snippet of each to check the feel of the transition to the next one. Almost unconsciously, she lined up a sufficient number of songs in the middle that created a nice, intimate mood. Listening to the mix all the way through, she closed her eyes at that point while in front of the computer and tried, tried to sink into a daydream where they met for a drink and sat, ever closer, leaning in towards each other, going back to her small apartment and…

It was no use. As the last song began playing and the sound of Morrissey’s voice filled her room, doubt overcame her. Even if she met him someday, how on earth would she pass this off? Here, I just made you a mix CD for no reason at all, and it’s full of songs that are either good to fuck to or are all about love, even though we’ve never met until now, and even though now that we have, at this very moment, you’ll no doubt want to never interact online again, and by giving you this, I’ve simply forced myself back into my completely lonely world again, without even my online fun to look forward to.

It could never be. It would never be. She couldn’t imagine running her hand along the side of his face or walking with his arm over her shoulders. She couldn’t visualize making dinner together, listening to the music she gave him, stopping to kiss suddenly over the half-chopped onion, the acrid smell filling her nose. It was no good.

Jesse ejected the freshly burned CD from the computer and contemplated it for a moment. She even picked up a permanent marker and wrote on the CD "A mix for you, from me", using their online names, before abruptly snapping it in half and throwing the pieces in the trashcan under her desk. She turned off her computer screen and clicked off the overhead light before heading to bed, alone.

When you say it's gonna happen now,
When exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long
And all my hope is gone