Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Girls with Guitars are Smug

2011 has proved to be--in the world of Brooke--the year of the pregnant women. Four co-workers, two close friends, and three of my sisters have had children or are in the process of getting really fat as they grow their little lima beans.

I am not bitter because I am not fat. And I can drink lots of champagne cocktails, a result of which I have a massive hangover still at 2 p.m.

A sweet male friend sent me this link the other day in commiseration for all the pregnant women I'm surrounded by. He thought I'd appreciate the humor:

I am saddened to report I did not appreciate the humor. The only issue I have with the pregnant women I know is that they can no longer drink with me. They all hate getting fat and don't like their floppy tits even when their husbands and boyfriends do and they think I'm funny when I ask them questions about the future of their vaginas, what long-term vagina plans they have.

The problem with this song, I think, is that it does not distinguish pregnant people from assholes. Some women are assholes and pregnancy may exacerbate that, sure. I am happy to report I don't know many of these women. If I do, I hide them from my Facebook feeds.

Any world problem can be solved with a little bit of humor. But Garfunkel & Oates don't seem to be having fun with pregnant women, therefore they are not funny.

If I sound earnest about all this it's because I'm hungover.

No really: it's because I'm not pregnant. WAH!

I'm going to buy a guitar and make myself feel whole again.

Then write a song about the shallowness and self-importance of others.

Later I will post it on youtube under the title Woody & Balls, because I like Woody Allen and balls.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Hi, I'm back. It's been two years since I've posted--did you miss me? Since then there have been two deaths, about eleven pregnancies, six half marathons, a handful of stops and starts on book projects, one kidnapping, a few tornadoes, and Nola ran away and came home three times. Most of us are still alive and we are mostly happy.

Through it all I'm still buggy.

I think so. I'll have to work on redefining what that means.

I saw the movie Beginnings today and I wondered what it would be like to be terribly beautiful and filled with ennui. So I posed that way on the couch for an hour before Brock said, Okay, playtime's over, it's time to clean up. I came upstairs with a rag and furniture polish and started writing this blog entry instead.

My first full marathon is in March and I'm behind in my training so I'd rather not write or think about it. Maybe I will write later but for now will eat a slice of pumpkin bread.

I can promise you only this: I will continue to generate ideas that will go mostly unfulfilled, which will serve to remind you of all your own untapped potential. That's what I'm here for.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Blog Month, A Retrospective

In the past thirty days I've blogged at least once every twenty-four hours, and boy are my mind, heart, and fingertips tired. Now it's time to reflect on why I've done this, what--if anything--I've learned, and where as a writer I go from here.

Brock and I have frequently discussed why I'm blogging and not working on the book. I feel as if the blogging is working on the book, though I'm not sure if it's the one I've already written or an entirely new one altogether. Lala was a topic of some, maybe a fifth, of my entries. Many entries dealt with the frustrations of growing up and not being ready for it, not feeling adequate enough to accomplish the difficult (even the easy!) things life requires of grownups. In all of them I wade through guilt, misery, bugginess. In all of them I try to figure out who I am while also trying to find meanings in what is outside of me. In all of them I'm trying, sometimes futilely, to love.

A manuscript entitled Lying in Translation sits in the bottom draw of my big wooden desk, just feet away from where my feet are propped up on my chair at this very moment. I've held the book, the first draft of my life with Lala that took a much-too cursory glance at something so complicated, several times since I finished typing it four and a half years ago. I've had to hold it--we've moved a few times since then. Always it felt radioactive and too close, and my mind would flash the "Too Soon!" sign earnest people get if you make a celebrity-death joke too quickly after the passing. If ever I open the drawer while searching for paper clips or highlighters, again with the Too Soon! At this point I can't imagine touching it, flipping the pages. But I'm aware that reading my own work is essential to moving forward on this project that means so much that, if I didn't have it on my radar, I'd have nothing.

One of the reasons the book scares me so is very clear: I don't know how it ends, but I have the stinging sense it should be with a death. This is awful because my two greatest fears in life are Lala dying and King dying. (I love so many people so intensely, foremost my husband and mother, but for some reason Lala and King top the death-fear list.) Two fears, two inevitabilities. Daily I'm weeping for reality.

Back when Lala lived with us for a couple of months after Katrina, Brock cheered for my literary blessing: this is how you end your book! We were lucky enough to have all Lala, all the time: Lala sneaking food to King, Lala reminding me how much I loved to have my chepita kissed when I was a girl and asking me if I got addicted to it as a grown woman (wink wink), Lala popping Valiums if the nightly news was too intense, Lala batting her eyes at Brock, her Meester Cleenton.

But it didn't seem right to me. I still hadn't dealt with how scared of and drawn to her I was. Four years later I haven't quite done that yet. Maybe I never will.

Still, I have written 50,000 more words. And hopefully that counts for something.

One thing I know is from here my writing goes private. I must return to the blue and white of Word and work on what I have, discard what's not worth working on. From here I go back to the solitary writing world, one I've been rather unproductive in since I got the writing degree proclaiming me a master in it, and hope that as a result of this experiment I can stick to the schedule I've developed with my promise of my one blog per day.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons I chose the blog format to begin with. It was a promise I was making not only to myself, but those readers I loved. I couldn't screw that up because it would mean public failure. This format, though, was also dangerous. I became horribly sad and insecure when I went unread for days, when my boxes went unchecked, and would think to myself, "If the people who love me most in the world don't want to read me, then no one else will! Why am I writing! Or living!"

Etc., etc. Sad, sad.

This is the kind of gratitude I showed to my readers who, by the grace of Whomever, have decided they love and respect me and my writing. Any comment at all, any glimmer of encouragement, means so much, is so helpful. And I should bestow on each reader gallons of gratitude for seeing my writing, for understanding, for letting me be myself. Because when they write to me, I feel great. At least for a little while.

Thing is, I'm Lala's granddaughter. I always want the more-more-more. The chocolate milk with the cereal. Another plastic toy from TG&Y (which, incidentally, she taught me to steal if I really wanted). The indulgence of being swept away at night into the French Quarter and being kissed and assured repeatedly how perfect I am.

Readers, I love you, but I need to be adored, like, constantly. More than human capacity dictates. I'm holding all of you to the impossible Lala standard.

I'm still finding ways to both blame and thank her for everything. I could've gone to therapy, but while I don't know where I'm going, I like where the book (or thoughts about the book) is taking me.

These thoughts recall one of maybe five statements I remember Rodger Kamenetz telling me as I finished up my MFA degree: "The world doesn't care if you're a writer. If you never write again, the world won't blink." Some may see these as unnecessarily harsh or obvious, but no one can doubt it's veracity. Much as I'd like to hope my favorite online journal Brevity has just lost my email address, which is why its editor isn't requesting my submissions, the truth is I have to sell myself and my work to Brevity. To an editor and agent and hopefully to many, many others. And the prospect is exhausting. Imagine what the actual work will be like.

So where I go from here is I open up a book I began, in some form or another, six years ago, at 23 years of age, when I wrote an entry for a nonfiction workshop about my grandmother telling me it's good in life, sometimes, to literally take it up the ass. It was the anecdote to end all anecdotes. Classmates chuckled at the Wit. Rodger said I had a real Character. This anecdote would begin the thesis I submitted for cursory approval in April 2005.

Now I don't even know if Lala actually ever said that, or if I just had this idea in my mind of how sexually perverse she could be (sprinkled with the times she behaves as if she's never done the deed in her life: four immaculate conceptions, she had).

My other fear: that half my book's stories are largely bullshit, me as a writer just mounting the bardic steed across the page, saying something because it sounds good, but not really meaning it.

It took growing older to learn how to mean it. In many ways I sorta believe I was a better writer in grad school, under the force of so many watchful eyes, than I am now. But if I didn't mean half of what I said, the book isn't worth a damn. In the last few years, through the struggles of near-poverty and love of a good man, and because of the hard work I accomplished to take care of him and myself, I've learned to mean what I do and write, even when I feel craptastic, even when I'm wrong. Shit, I might be pissing in the wind like a damned fool, but I mean every minute of it.

At least, I think so.

Brock, who also takes care of me, told me recently how we should come to terms with our writing despite the small amount of success we've had so far: "Do your best to make the work as good as it can possibly be, and hope the world needs your work when you're ready to show it."

More than twenty years after I wrote in a diary entry that I wanted to become "A Teacher, or An Artist, or A Writer," I think I'm ready, finally, to take on the third of these. Though I need to do it alone, I know I'm never alone, because for all my maudlin insecurities about readers not wanting to read me, I know the truth: you love me, you really do. I'll continue working, among other reasons, for you.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


The first time, in my house on Foliage, I kept my t-shirt on and when I didn't the second time you said my breasts were smaller in person. Both times and dozens more after that I was pretty sure my grandfather was watching all this from heaven, stoic and staid, and I couldn't tell from his expression if he disapproved. He gazed at me from heaven in the same blank way he did when he was alive. I wondered whether or not Lala slapped him so many times not just because of the infidelities, but to check his pulse. You might not know it, but so many of our times together you were hardly there.

* * * * *

Abuelo did change his expression once. My cousins Jessica and Christine and I were dancing around the living room and one of them climbed up his torso recumbent on the Lazyboy, doing her best to flirt. Suddenly his legs were up in the air, the back of the chair down on the floor, a giant fallen L. The little girls scuttled out of the room, and Lala and I laughed so hard we couldn't breathe. Minutes passed before we lifted the chair to right him. When we did, his face was redder than I'd ever seen, and there was more white to his eyes than I could've imagined, and all he said to us was, "How kind of you."

* * * * *

Abuelo, again on the Lazyboy, legs fire-poker straight with wooly slippers on his feet. I asked for the zillionth time, "Can I?" And he predictably acquieses, even though Lala thinks it's an unhealthy obsession (as any obsession not relating to her must be), and I take off the slippers to begin the peeling. His foot bottoms are white as cake icing, all scab and crusty deadness. If a section of old skin won't peel off, I know to move onto the next one; Lala slaps if I make him bleed. I build a pile of his foot bottom skin and promise to pick up every single piece or otherwise eat them--again, Lala's deal. The scraps of peel look like larger white eraser shavings, and I wonder if I'm working to make Abuelo disappear.

* * * * *

My recurring childhood dream from about the age of eight: I'm Jennifer-Gray thin and wearing her exact pink dress in the final act of Dirty Dancing. My body is still that of an eight-year-old's but I'm not eight intellectually, which is good because of what happens next. I buy a ticket to a train and don't even know where I'm going--just away. On the train is every boy I've ever loved, from Carrie Almond to Patrick What's-His-Fuck to Willie Milligan. No one speaks a word but we all know what to do. I step into my private coach room, and one by one they come in and we make out insanely. No pair of lips can satiate me. As soon as the current-he and I finish with our few wild minutes--before we're even done--I'm on to the next one. When each of them leave I ask them kindly to close the door.

* * * * *

We're making the obligatory Halloween rounds on Phosphor Ave. I'm getting too old for this shit, or so I think, until I approach a porch and the big stuffed mummy sitting askew in a rocking chair leaps up and I scream to shake the rafters. My mom and stepsister are laughing, and I forget to even get some candy I'm so rattled, I forget even that I'm supposed to mutter "asshole" under my breath. As we're walking away from the house some smaller kids approach, and loudly warn them, "Be careful! The mummy's real!" They look up at me gratefully and I feel like a goddamned hero. Then mom grabs my arm and says, "Shhhh! Why do you have to ruin things for people?" We walk the rest of the way in silence. I'm convinced that no one will love or understand me, ever.

* * * * *

A drawing I make for mom years earlier on 30th St.: an elephant with the word Brooke underneath it, and a beautiful princess next to it named Dezi. She hasn't yet discovered the persistent I-hate-my-mother diary entries. I keep leaving the thing out hoping she'll read it, but if she has, she's made no mention. So I show her the damned drawing. She asks what the meaning of this is, why I'm trying to hurt her feelings. And it's the first of a zillion times I'll ask myself why art doesn't always work, why I even bother trying so hard to be me.

* * * * *

Dad and I are leaving Waldenbooks and I've got three new Babysitter's Club books. I swing my bag not so blithely as I'd like because it's come to my attention I'm running out of book room in the drawers Woody built to slide under my bed, but I don't tell Dad that, because I already know Woody's a fucking shithead scuzbucket, and I'm not in the mood to be reminded. Dad and I slow down at the approach of a tall woman with red hair. Her words sound like bird chirps, polite and annoying. Probably they'd prefer having this conversation without me here. But what are they even saying anyway? I get the sense that each of them are talking to an invisible person alongside the other. Her name is Donna, I learn near the end, and we smell her ripe fruit scent in the parking lot, in the carride home. I never see her again.

* * * * *

I am holding an inchoate life in brown pants. You are beautiful, Christian, and I can't talk to you. This makes me sad, because there are already so many things I want to tell you. For instance, you don't have to be your father or even love him, and if you decide not to, since I'm good at knowing guilt I'll show you how to avoid it. Really, you should only love the deserving, though if you're like your mother, you'll roll your eyes at that because you know I'll love you even when you decide to love stupid fuckers. Know that you've been so wondrous in this life that I've been happy to drink your pee (which I just did, a few minutes ago). What depths do these little toes hold? What are the possibilities inside this head, which for now even my tiny hand dwarfs? Even a baby should know these questions are futile: you will simply become, and I will try to be there to see it. For the next few moments my chest will rise and fall alongside yours. Each time I'm holding you, I'm ready.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Discovering Precious

On Thanksgiving night Brock and I began a tradition--which makes this the first annual--of going to see a movie after spending daylight hours stuffing ourselves with turkey and dressing. We were fifteen minutes early to see Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, but I suppose that was equitable to be thirty minutes late on Thanksgiving because the movie was already sold out. Fuck, even Old Dogs was sold out, not that I would've considered seeing it. I may have been sweet potato-fat, but I still had my dignity.

We bought tickets to the 10:30 movie instead and returned home to clean for the two-hour interim. So we did and I was grateful for our being forced to see the later show so that we could leave the house looking perfect and cranberry-cleaner smelling (another thing I love about Thanksgiving, besides getting fat: its insistence that you change out of dark perspectives). I stuffed the requisite tissues and can of Diet Coke in my purse since I'd heard this was the kind of movie you have to prepare for.

And it was, oh my god, it was. It's been years since I've seen a movie with this kind of intensity, and even as I say that phrase--it's been years since--I feel I'm hitting a false note because honestly I've never witnessed anything comparable to this. Monster's Ball, In the Bedroom, you both are so weak. While watching this film, at the point you hope-hope-hope something awful doesn't happen to your sad protagonist, Precious, it happens, but much-much worse than you expected it to. I won't give away details, because presumably you will see it and we can talk about it. My point in writing this is instead to reveal to you the odd behaviors occurring around us as we watched the movie, and try to discover why it went down this way.

I won't mince words: we were the only two white people (as white as I can consider myself) in the movie theater. We were the first to arrive because we wanted our perfect upper-deck seats, and the auditorium filled up quickly. Something else I won't mince words about, even though it's perverted and I'm not proud of it: it's thrilling for me to be a dwarfed minority in public places. For a few moments I feel like, hey brothers and sisters, I'm one of you--I care about the same things you care about, watch the movies you want to watch, empathize with the very feelings you own. In other words, I love all of you.

Before you react, just know I realize how very Harper Lee, how very dumb-admiring-from-afar-white-woman this is of me. My heart might be something to admire if it were for my oft-piddling brain.

Tangible evidence of why my thrilled mentality was problematic: the audience members behaved very badly throughout the entire movie. I'm not saying they fulfilled any racial stereotype, no, it was worse than that. On the whole, this audience hated the movie. It might be said here that the entire cast of Precious is black, and that the characters' circumstances are beyond bleak, and that the way these elements are evoked on the screen are hyper-realistic. Literally you can see every pimple and scar and twitch of a character's face. The camera is unrelenting. Much like a horrible car accident, you know you must look away for fear of what's inside, but you can't. And when you look, you cry at the inexplicable. In short, Brock borrowed half of my Kleenex. My husband is not a crier.

But around us people were bored. They were texting. They were laughing at those horrifying scenes that tensed up my calve muscles, tensed up my teeth. Moments when the movie gave us a brief respite from the sadness and one of the characters said or did something hilarious, the audience remained stoic, texted some more. Every one of the audience's visceral responses was the exact opposite of mine.

* * * * *

Let me give a brief respite from this audience analysis and take you a year or two into the past. I was (and still am) in love with Barack Obama and was dedicated to electing him our next president. So along with making phone calls, door knocking, and spreading the word as effectively as family and Facebook will allow, I was becoming someone else I'm not very proud of now: a vigilante.

The perpetrators I was to uncover and out to the world were the racists. I saw them everywhere I went. White man in a fishing cap = racist. Old white woman with perfectly manicured French-tip fingernails smoking a cigarette outside of Buddy's gas station = racist. Mini-van with a Sarah Palin bumper sticker = mini-van full of racists, even the kid in the carseat (okay okay--future racist). It was a sense I got from certain people. Of course I didn't believe all whites were racist, but if I felt something askew about them, if they squinted at the sun in a certain way, Racist was the invisible sign I'd frame above their heads. If what I was doing weren't so damaging and ignorant, I would've seen myself as a hapless Inspector Clouseau. Instead I was the one-woman member of the John Birch Society, only in reverse.

Months and years later this reminds me of the story my landlord Clay told me about when he was held up at gunpoint by two black men in his home. The lesson he learned, he said, was to be more vigilant around black people. Of course not all of them are bad, he reminded my increasingly horrified visage, but after the robbery he'd picked up a sixth sense about these things, and in public he was able to root out the bad ones from the good.

Meanwhile I thought the Palin rallies had similarly taught me where rotten could be found in white. But I justified this to myself: I was on the right side of history, and these dipshit troglodyte bottom-feeders prayed to God that the nigger would go to hell. They truly deserved my contempt.

Please don't equate these admissions with the idea that I blindly supported Barack Obama because of my reverse-John-Birch-Society mentality. I haven't been sitting around these past five years after poor milquetoast Kerry was defeated and looking for a splendid black man to support. He just showed up, happened to be black and was a terrific writer and brilliant mind, the latter two being the reasons why I ultimately supported him (and which admittedly have little to nothing to do with politics or someone's ability to run the government, but I didn't--and still don't--care much of a lick about that).

* * * * *

So the audience members I blindly loved in my blind comraderie did not love me nor Precious. When the movie was over I slapped myself silently a couple of times to restore color to my cheeks (how 19th century of me), dried my eyes and walked with Brock to the men's bathroom, where I waited outside. A group of ladies walked passed me and lamented, "Shit, we shoulda seen New Moon. We coulda seen Old Dogs."

I wanted to stop them and ask what they were looking for in their movies, what kind of entertainment they thought a bunch of white teenage vampires who--gasp!--cannot fuck could provide them. Yes, this is snobby of me--there, I said it: to hell with New Moon--but I'd just seen a transformative, real, existential kind of movie, and these women seemed put out by it.

Secretly I wanted to say, Do you know what's good for you? Do you need me to tell you what can be learned from this film?

John Birch Society all right, but not so much in reverse at this point.

All the way home I cried intermittently for the movie and for the audience reaction. Brock suggested this particular audience reaction (he's a very careful, deliberative liberal white man) might have rejected the movie for its sheer realism. "It's Thanksgiving, after all," he said. "Most people probably don't want to experience this kind of pain today."

Then I asked him about Tyler Perry, why his films are so popular among the black community. I described to Brock the Perry film I just saw a few weeks ago, Why Did I Get Married?, in which four couples go on a mountain retreat to reevaluate their lives together. What was stunningly lame about this movie was how each couple and each individual fit into some black stereotype I believe was created mostly by white people (or media, or history--essentially, white people): there was the always-drunk woman, the fat god-fearing woman, the rampant infidelity among three of the couples, the welfare-check collector, the gold digger, the guy with VD. The characters were black but they weren't real. Even if black people of these types do exist, these particular characters struck only one note in the entire range of human emotions and behaviors. They encapsulated one or two ways of being only, and that just isn't right, Mr. Perry. Though he's clearly doing something right; his movies are some of the highest grossing of any auteur filming today.

"They watch him because he's easy, because he doesn't make them think," suggested Brock.

Then again, what the fuck do I know? Where are my real, fleshed-out human black friends for whom to base my Tyler Perry character comparisons? Why aren't they coming over to my mini post-Thanksgiving party today?

My black friends are out there, I'm sure, living meaningful, purposeful lives, reading Richard Wright novels and working diligently to support minority voting rights and absolutely falling in love with the movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. I just haven't met them yet.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Leche con Chocolate

Virgin milk in a tall glass that shudders at the cold it holds, a child's chin on the edge of the kitchen countertop, admiring the pour. Then the long, elegant stream of dark, how obscured by the thick whiteness until, like magic, a full-bodied spoon is dunked in the glass and after a couple of pirouettes, the thick darkness unveiled. Mi leche con chocolate. Even the glass tears up at how pretty all this is.

A calculation: my childhood veins carried about 30% blood, 70% chocolate milk. It is impossible to remember a morning without it. What impresses me most about the memories is how grateful the small me is for each and every glass. More mornings than it is possible for my head to hold were spent with my chin on that countertop waiting for the dark magic. When I think of how many meals in adulthood have become obligatory, the chewing and swallowing like a drone punching in and out of work, I myself feel dark and lonely, and I mourn the death of eating ecstasy.

It can still be found in desserts that friends are munificent enough to make: chocolate-cashew tortes, honey pies, doughy cake balls dipped in white chocolate. Luckily for me I indulge in these only at parties, which is not often, as a runner cannot go far with a bellyful of cake balls, delicious as they are. But when I do allow myself these desserts, my ever-loving lord: again the sensation that shuddering must accompany eating, that maybe here inside the stickiness can be found some purpose in our lives, an unveiling of a larger scheme.

Willy Wonka's ideology within a hymnal? God inside of chocolate? Though my people (and by my people, I mean Lala) are adept at hyperbole, I'm not sure about all that. Really I'm saying that as an adult, I'm most conscious of what I eat when it's sugary, because it's so damned good and I know exactly how damned bad it is for me. During the moments I'm eating it, though, I say goodbye to all that and am transported, madeleine-style, back to the smaller body with its chin on the kitchen countertop. Sometimes it feels good not to feel oneself.

I think on this because I couldn't remember the last time I drank a glass of milk, but then I woke up this morning to find a miniscule white pool at the bottom of the glass on my nightstand. My first thought was, Who left this empty glass of milk here? It took a few long opening minutes of consciousness to recognize it was indeed my glass, and I'd drunk the milk. Still I'm trying to remember the taste but can't--I slept through the every sumptuous gulp.

Two things sadden me regarding food: that it's a nearly ubiquitous issue for women, and that what I do remember of food during my childhood, that gorgeous pre-issue period, doesn't extend much further than those mornings of chocolate milk. When we met, Brock had the idea that every meal Lala cooked for me was exotic because, well, we're brown. Don't your people make great food? Aren't overseas, possibly black market spices involved? Is there some form of incantation?

What follows is the sad reality of everything I remember eating before I was responsible for putting food together for myself:*
  • leche con chocolate
  • taquitos
  • arroz con huevo frito
  • cereal--either Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs or Cheerios
  • arroz con pollo
  • papas fritas
  • platanos con carne asada
Now that I look on the list, it seems that without meaning to I've produced one of those Highlights Magazine's "what's-the-odd-thing-in-this-picture" scenes. One thing I can guarantee with nearly 100% assurance is that if I was eating at home, and I was younger than ten, these were one of seven meals I'd be eating.

Last night at our solitary Thanksgiving dinner, Brock ate two plates to my half-plate, which is as it should be--he's a big strong man, and I'm trying every day to become a better runner. Again and again he dipped into the broccoli and cheese casserole, the brussel sprouts and mushrooms, the upside-down turkey, the cranberry, the mounds of mashed potatoes with their caves of gravy. At one point he reminisced that when he was a boy, all he ever wanted was to be able to eat more than he could, but he was so skinny it was impossible. Now as a man, he has to force himself to stop eating, and often fails. Then he asked if I was going to finish the errant crescent roll and sweet potatoes on my plate. I pushed them over.

Here I realized something else I miss about eating while young: Lala's complete devotion to every bite I ever took. It often drives my mom crazy because Lala still does this, stares at us while we eat, and says, Que gusto que me da, viendote comer. Mom gets no joy at those big eyes of Lala's obsessed with each moment of mastication. But my secret is, I kinda love it. Lala sort of makes you feel proud for being able to eat heartily, which has always been a discounted skill of mine. She reads your look, knows your love for what's slow in becoming part of you, and she compounds that joy you may feel guilty for. Her look says, you know what? Fuck that guilt. Look at you, you are eating and happy and so good at what you're doing, which is understanding what it is to enjoy yourself fully. That is a skill, and you, mijita, are a master.

It is weird, though, when she waits until I've got a mouthful of food to tell me how beautiful my body is. That ruins things a little bit, transporting me to my next five-mile run. How in the world, I think, am I ever going to work this off?

Running: a thing almost entirely absent from my childhood. There was no place in the world I needed to get to quickly. Everything I could think to need and want always sat before me. Now I'm always running, still unsure of exactly where I'm going.

Glossary*: I've recognized that some of these terms might have to be interpreted, and I thought it might be useful to have the food of my youth defined fully for myself and others. This should also serve as a reminder of what not to eat, although eating it can be so good.

leche con chocolate--chocolate milk, best concocted using 2%, only acceptable in tall adult glass
taquitos--more like taquotes (that's a big taco, to you and me), these large flour tortillas are fried lightly in butter then filled with about half a block of mozzarella cheese, the two sides of the tortilla then folded over like arms in a hug, and then gorged upon
arroz con huevo frito--a generous bed of rice with two fried eggs on the top, lots of butter, salt, and pepper to top it off
arroz con pollo--same bed of rice, but spicy chicken on top, probably the most healthy among these meals
papas fritas--friend potatoes, or french fries, which require no explanation
platanos con carne asada--plantains (those hard green bananas on steriods that one can never find at Winn Dixie) chopped into medallions and fried in butter alongside a healthy cut of steak with spicy spices

I almost forgot: Que gusto que me da, viendote comer. What pleasure it brings me watching you eat. Watching others eat makes her happiest these days, and all the days I remember of her. If Lala could crawl inside our mouths or hearts and curl up there for awhile, she would. What we are is what her dreams are made of.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Subject is Everything

A few weeks ago, in the midst of a wine-tingling night, I came up with a fabulous plan I had to share with Brock right away, like Right Now: a book project. We'd compile a list of subjects/topics/ideas (starting with my thousand) and one by one I'd tackle them through prose, and Brock would write a poem on the exact same subjects. The word Brilliant kept flashing across the blackboard of my mind in neon pink, and in cursive. By the time I related the idea to Brock I was ready to throw all our collective thoughts into a hat, but when I looked over to him he was shaking his head and said, in a not unsweet manner, "No, that's not how it works. Curb your enthusiasm."

Brock had supped on a little wine, too.

It reminded me of a similar conversation we had years ago, only in this instance it was a series of my bright ideas that were shut down in a similarly not unsweet manner. See, Brock would tell me a story about something interesting that happened at the grocery store or gas station, some lack of communication between himself and the outside world (one of his finest tropes) and I would respond, "Brilliant. You have to write a poem about it." Sometimes Brock would agree and actually write it, other times he wouldn't, but eventually we discussed whether or not anything on this good earth has the possibility to be a subject for our writing.

I was on Team Yes, Brock on Team No.

Brock's position reflects the refrain we've heard from writing teachers all our lives: "Just because it happened to you, doesn't make it good, or real, or worthy." And this is admittedly hard to disagree with in a fiction workshop when a writer's defense of his story is simply, "It has to be realistic, because this really happened!" It's like Dan White's Twinkie defense in the 70s--it doesn't make right what you've done, and really it's positively laughable. In short: yes, your story happened but it still sucks.

On the other hand Brock's position is ironic because his wonderful mentor and newly minted poetry star, Mark Halliday, has made a career of writing about the minutia of his own daily life. One of my favorite poems of his is called "Muck Clump," in which he discusses how insignificant he often feels alongside his wife and daughter Devin, and how one morning he gets up to fix Devin her breakfast of shredded wheat, and as his wife glides through the kitchen she tells him he hasn't poured enough cereal for Devin, a growing girl. And then for two more pages of poem he imagines grandly, Walter Mitty-style, how wrong his wife is and how right he is, and how the profuse amount of cereal she's poured for Devin will congeal and turn into a nasty muck clump, because no one can eat as much shredded wheat as his wife has poured for his daughter. After he imagines making an extravagant show of tossing the massive muck clump down the drain he awakens to find Devin placing her empty bowl in the sink and kissing him, then skipping off to school. Classic Mark Halliday: breakfast scene, family, insecurities, hopeful-delusions of grandeur. And while part of this is the persona Halliday creates specifically for his art, he is also writing about the small events in his life worth recreating.

And I love that.

As you might be able to tell by now, I heavily depend on persistent thoughts, observations, and wishes for my subjects. More and more I'm realizing my subject is not just Lala, or my family, or my youth--my subject is everything. And even Brock would agree that if one constructs this everything artfully, there's nothing wrong with that.

My concern comes in when considering the ethics and value of certain writing scenarios. I toil, I worry, over this:
  • Am I exploiting those I love in my writing? Am I depending on their strengths and weaknesses and daily actions, whatever they may be, in order for my work to work?
  • If there is a line to be drawn on which subjects are off limits, where is that line? Is it what makes me uncomfortable, or what makes my subjects uncomfortable? And if I keep my toes just on the edge of that line, doesn't that make me a bit of a coward? Isn't my responsibility to the truth of the matter and not anyone's comfort levels, no matter how much I may adore these anyones? (I can tell you now the answer to the last two questions must be a resounding yes, or I might as well close down the computer now. I just realized the answer as I was typing.)
  • If a writer must (should, whatever) establish her ethos before garnering an audience, and the foundation of my writing is all ethos, all the time (look at me: voice! voice! voice!), how will I draw anyone new into the fold? How will I convince those who don't love me to love me? Which leads to the most difficult question of all,
  • Am I too I in my writing?
An admission: part of my aversion to beginning sentences with I is that I've convinced myself that if the sentence is constructed in a way that buries the I, my reader won't think me so self-involved. This is really bad, because I'm clearly trying to trick my reader, whom I love, in a not-so-subtle way, and any readers I have are certainly a lot smarter than I'm giving them credit for.

There goes that ethos again. Sheesh, I never give up.

Last semester I taught a creative nonfiction workshop in which rested the foundation that my students' subjects could (should, whatever) be everything. Many of them loathed this idea. Teri, my 60ish-year-old student who tediously reminded us of her age every other minute and thought it an interesting topic of conversation (holy shit, am I another version of Teri?!?), stated simply she could not write about herself. Fine idea, I thought, enrolling in a creative nonfiction course. Students were asked to write three pages a week--torturous, right?--and each Thursday she'd turn in barely half a page because, "That's all I could come up with." When I told them Proust wrote for fifty pages about a madeleine memory, or for three hundred tracing the history of one infidelity, and by the way, did so in some of the most stunning writing ever printed on the page, they thought I was full of shit.

Maybe pointing to Proust was too much. Most of them were about twenty, after all. So instead I gave them Bernard Cooper's two-page essay entitled "The Fine Art of Sighing." It reads much like a prose poem, really, but I wanted to show students that any obsession, observation, momentary fact of your life can be a subject as long as you've thought about it, really cared about it, make real meaning out of it. Cooper thought about sighing, about the world's daily sighs, and more specifically the sighs he heard constantly growing up, what they said about his parents and their wants and fears and how they helped to mold his own. In these tiny two pages he tried to learn the world through deliberation of sighing. There goes that neon pink Brilliant sign again, only for real this time. Let me give you a line from that essay that kills me every time:

"Where my mother sighed from ineffable sadness, my father sighed at simple things: the coldness of a drink, the softness of a pillow, or an itch that my mother, following the frantic map of his words, finally found on his back and scratched."

Delineating the people you love through their signs? And to do so in such clear, poetic language? This reading clearly had to win them over.

But the students' reactions were more varied than I expected. They conceded to the pretty phrases and perfect sentence structures, but weren't so thrilled about the subject. Teri, especially, made her views clear: "So what? It's about sighing. People do it every day. So what?" She sighed conspicuously as punctuation. I acquiesced under the weight of her obnoxiousness and moved onto the next one, not pointing out that people die and love every day too, and that these still make fine subjects for writing. I didn't remind her that one needn't scale Everest to get some exercise.

That's the thing I never got to tell my students that semester, a belief I have about writing that can't be taught and therefore that I may as well leave out of the classroom for fear of giving the Teris of the world the heart attack they're always sure is coming, and the belief is this: if you're going to write nonfiction, you've got to be at least a little cool.

By being cool I don't mean high school cool, or James Dean cool. In my entire life I could never be close to this kind of cool, and that's for the better, I think. The kind of cool I mean is closer to the definition of openmindedness: being cool is being open to whatever is before you (yes, even if that's Newt or Sarah or Teri), being genuinely fascinated by the sundry people who make up the world, seeing them and everything else on this good earth in neat, new, interesting ways.

Thing is, as we all know, you can't teach cool. So if I were to express this belief in class, my best approach might be to walk in on the first day and say, "Some of you are absolutely fucked when it comes to writing, and some of you aren't. Throughout the semester we'll discover whether or not you're fucked, but I can give you an early hint right now: if you are offended/appalled by my saying this, then you're very likely fucked. If you are confused or worried or curious as to what the hell I mean, you're very likely not."

This approach might save the Brookes and Teris of the world a lot of trouble, but would also cost me my job. So I'll continue directing my frozen smiles to the Teris and read their offensively boring work with a glass of wine to tingle my toes, since no other part of me could possibly be moved.

So for today my subject was, among other things, whether or not cool can be taught, and whether or not I should take any of this on as a subject. Through the writing you can see the answer I've come up with. And if you're still here with me you obviously agree. Kudos, you. And to ethos, for now, I'm thankful.