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31 July 2012

ON NOT RUNNING


We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.—Joseph Campbell


Usually by the end of July, Gary and I are managing long runs—long by our standards, so more than six miles. This time last year we were running close to thirty miles in a week with a ten miler on Sunday. This year I have been having foot issues. After an easy four-miler in April, I had so much trouble walking a mere two blocks in Portland one evening that I wanted to sit down on the sidewalk and weep—in frustration and pain.

The local PA was pretty useless, but the orthopedist I went to next walked me through his set of Xrays and explained why a stress fracture was unlikely. He was candid that “I probably won’t be able to get you running again” but suggested a later referral to a podiatrist might be more successful. I haven’t had the MRI he wanted mostly because I wasn’t feeling confident that it would provide useful information beyond something is wrong with my feet and I need to stay off them. Maybe they will get better, maybe not. My image of myself as a little old lady still walking to the store to buy her own groceries crashed to the ground.

There’s a great deal of baggage here. My maternal grandmother was unable to climb stairs for the last years of her life, could barely walk at all and her second husband who had brought her coffee in bed for as long as I could remember, carried her to and from her bed in the living room. My mother, too, had increasing difficulty trouble walking in her last years, falling again and again and even finding a scooter challenging. Gray, wrinkled, and old are not so bad, but frail and immobile is not the way I want to spend the last decades of my life.  

So I didn’t run for three months. Maybe I would heal.

Four days ago I put on my gear and went out for a very short run, so short it hardly counted—I would not have counted it three months ago—no more than a mile. Then I took my shoes and socks off and stood in the ocean to ice my feet and came in and put my feet up. I took a day off and then did the same thing two days ago. Today I intended to do the same thing again, but it was clear that my feet considered any running at all to be abuse, like knives stabbing my instep.

So Gary and I walked. We walked along the surf line and I picked up sand dollars and then rounded the Cape for the first time in over a year, well into Falcon Cove and back through the Arch. I walked in shallow waves to ice my feet and now I sit up in bed, grateful that I can walk. If I am careful and determined, perhaps I will last a long time—it’s what my husband and I have said to one another since we were young: Take care of yourself—you have to last a long time. 

25 July 2012

GUN CONTROL IN 5 ACTS


The first argument I ever won with my father was about gun control. It took me about five years, but one day my dad decided that guns were dangerous. I wasn’t the one who convinced him that guns were too prevalent in our culture and I don’t know what convinced my dad, the same dad who taught me to handle guns safely and took me to the range when I was too small to lift his pistol.

But here are events leading me to exercise my own personal gun control.

1. The first boy I ever dated was a good guy and even though we broke up, I always had good feelings from the last time we were together. A few years later he stayed with a group of friends in a vacation cottage in SW Washington. It was a party and everyone was drinking. Someone found a gun hidden where no one would ever find it, and that person didn’t know enough to check if it was loaded before picking it up and accidentally shooting Scott through the spine. The next time I saw him, he was sitting on a blanket at the University Street Fair looking like Ron Kovic.

2. My second job was working in a record store (so was my third job). For my first term at college I was able to work enough hours to afford to rent a bedroom in a house with a co-worker. She was a couple of years older than me and sometimes in the night when her boyfriend visited her bed would knock the wall behind my bed, knock, knock, knock. And then business was down so I was laid off from work, got the flu, and moved home until the summer when I found the next record store job and moved out again. The next time I saw that co-worker she told me her boyfriend had stayed with a group of friends in a vacation cottage in SW Washington. It was a party and everyone was drinking. Someone found a gun hidden where no one would ever find it, and that person didn’t know enough to check if it was loaded before picking it up and shooting him through the spine.

3. I used to be president of a dog club and one of the other board members I’ll call Ida had a tendency to drink too much and become loud and aggressive. Her husband tried to control this, but the situation sometimes went very bad and so did their marriage. After the divorce, Ida was camping in northern California and got more than a little drunk, while waving a pistol at nearby campers. The police came and the outcome put her in the hospital with a severed spine.

What are the chances, I used to wonder during the short period of time that these events occurred, that three people, unconnected by anything but me, would become paraplegics? It felt like a sign to me. Maybe it felt like the Bradys did, like the universe is telling you to do something responsible. Forcing you to look at an issue from another perspective. Maybe something hard or self-righteous, except it’s not self-righteous when you see people, decent people, make a single terrible mistake that cripples their life. I don’t know the final outcome of those three stories. Maybe all three of them have gone on to make beautiful lives. That’s why I’m not saying their lives were ruined. I don’t know that. I know they lost the use of their legs for nothing, just because someone was drunk and playing with fire arms.

4. A man I’ll call Ted has a long history of drug abuse, drunkenness, and anger. He’s been to jail for things he’s done while loaded. He can be pleasant enough when he’s not loaded, but the truth is he’s loaded a good deal of the time. His buddies, who have enough ammo of their own to start a small war, felt it was unfair that Ted isn’t allowed to own a gun on account of his previous convictions, so they bought him one. And ammo. And they all got loaded and shot crows and other birds just for fun. One day Ted got in a fight with his ex and showed up at his girlfriend’s mother’s house waving a loaded gun and threatening to kill anyone who got in the way of his seeing his ex. The police came and arrested him and Ted did not become a paraplegic.

5. A family member I’ll call Bob has a bad temper. Bob also has mental health issues which he has only recently accepted as a result of court-ordered therapy. In the past, he’s grown and used dope, drunk a good deal, married and divorced more than once, and on at least three occasions the police were called to his home for a domestic disturbance. The last time this happened he’d injured his wife seriously enough to require medical attention, which led to charges, which led to therapy, which may or may not be helping him to get better. He wanted the gun that was once owned by a mutual relative who has died, and he had every right to that gun, surely more right than I do. I didn’t give it to him.

Gun control.

I would like to believe that people would be responsible. I would like to think that if I found a hidden gun I would either not touch it, or at least have sense enough to check whether it was loaded before waving it around. I would like to think that I would not wave around a gun if I’d been drinking, especially in a public park or if I already had a criminal record. I would like to think that if I were clinically depressed and tending toward violent outbursts, my family would not allow me to possess a gun.

I know people who fill their freezers with meat, who enjoy deer season and target practice, and who care lovingly for their great grandfather’s rifle. No quarrel there. (And I know men whose idea of hunting is to walk into a fenced area and wait for cage-raised birds to be released, which I find disgusting, but is another issue altogether.)

I also know raging, drunken paranoids who are so scared, so terribly afraid that they keep a loaded gun under their pillow and a dozen semi-automatic weapons, and some that are not even legal to possess, in their attic. I know three paraplegics and not a single person who saved their own life with a loaded gun. That’s just my experience.

Oh, I hear the stories all the time: A junkie broke into the house of my uncle’s friend and the only reason he’s still alive is that he whipped out his gun and drove the killer from his house. Okay. Maybe so. But the statistics show that this doesn’t happen often. In America guns are more often directed against the owner. The fear of home-invasion is one of those stories, at least among the people I know and the places I have lived, that never happens. Spinal injuries happen.  

My dad used to say that one of the dangers of registering guns was the criminals would know where to find them. Some gun owners—the scary ones I know—advertise that they own weapons. Bragging about their arsenal is the only way they feel safe. Maybe my dad figured that out. Maybe that’s what did it.

Ironic, isn’t it?

23 July 2012

NOT DONE


Sherman Alexie told a Cannon Beach audience that he feared he'd used up all he had in his first books, that there might be nothing left for him. Still in his 20s, I thought at the time, "He's so young, too young to know not to confess such fears to people he doesn't know." It was 1993 and he'd just published his first book of fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. These days my friend Mark Mizell teaches his 2007 novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Clearly Alexie wasn't done.

Last night I couldn’t sleep. I’d had a lot of coffee that day—I, who have become accustomed to a half cup a day. I’d also eaten two mediocre restaurant meals, but with excellent company. My husband and I had visited with a dear friend I hadn’t seen for nearly a year and with our sons, daughters, and granddaughter. It was a wonderful day. And I have been reading Cheryl Strayed’s newest release from her Dear Sugar column. (It's wonderful!) One of the questions came from a woman who wanted to write and wasn’t writing, and Sugar had considerable wisdom to share about that. So I thought a lot about that as I looked at billions of stars visible from my rural home. This morning I read an Op-Ed that reminded me of what writing is supposed to do, and of what I have wanted to do with it.

It seemed easier to stop. It had seemed easier to ignore the problem that I am not done.

I’ve been working on poems—a sestina about weaving, a free verse poem about Sojourner Truth, who has been my hero since I was a girl. Every morning I open drafts of these and other poems I started this year and I read and revise. A verb shifts, alliteration leaves its mark, a simile arrives, rhyme where I hadn’t planned. Mostly I try to figure out what the heck I have to say. Yesterday I pulled out a story that I began in 2005. I think I know what it's about now. Maybe. It’s a good story, but seven years and dozens of drafts later, it is not done.

In the moments of “black despair” sometimes all we want is to be done, to be allowed to puddle on the floor instead of standing up to greet what comes. It seems easier to give up. I named that creative fear “black despair” when I was a visual artist back in the day. I would reach a point in any work of art where it wasn’t working, the vision I had was not clear, it would never be clear, everything I hoped to achieve was useless, trivial, and doomed. Black despair. And the truth I learned in my 20s is that I had to keep working on it. Every day I had to keep walking into that dark country until I got someplace better.

J.P. Patches will never die, but Chris Wedes, who created him has passed. 

I am not done yet. 

21 July 2012

HOPE 2

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.—Howard Zinn

I have been discouraged by the bickering and bad temper, mostly on Facebook. As a result I hid all my FB posts and put this blog on pause—which no one noticed—and why should they? While I've thought of my blog as a public forum, it's really a personal space. And on my personal space, one person carps at another. A response whines about a lack of citation, while failing to cite. An anonymous poster takes me to task for being hopeful, as if my hopefulness were a personal affront to his or her lifestyle rather than a personal philosophy. Enough already! The truth is that I enjoy writing and always have enjoyed a lively discussion and if that's what we'd been having I would have thrived. This is my space, my thoughts, my words. Disagreeable readers don't have to like it. They can go elsewhere. 

The "blueberry warp" is through the heddles and maybe I will beam the warp today. I have been working on a rather awful sestina about weaving. I was once assured that if you could finish a sestina, it would inevitably be good. I'm not so sure now. It's "done", as in complete, but it's not good yet. 

07 July 2012

22 BOOKS JANUARY to JUNE 2012

• DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLY by P.D. James (2012) is a murder mystery involving Jane Austen's characters from Pride and Prejudice. Set six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth, a murder comes close to the gates of Darcy's ancestral mansion, Pemberly. The entire cast is on hand, including the infamous Whickham. James patterns her novel after the Austen's writing style. On the whole I think I would have more enjoyed rereading Austen, or stepping forward a century and rereading Dorothy Sayers, but it was a decent read.


  • • ANTIGONIK by Sophokles, trans. by Anne Carson (2012) is odd and interesting. I haven't read the Theban plays in a few years, but I remember enough to recognize how Carson plays with the play. I like the idea of the translucent images on velum, these non-illustrations a lot more than the execution of them. I assume (I hope) there is something more going on with these stilted drawings, that I do not understand. And someone else should have done the lettering. I'm fairly certain that I do not want to struggle to figure out, "Is that an E or a K?" Still, this is something special.
  • • RAILSEA by China Miéville (2012) is the newest by one of the most astounding writers I have ever read. I did not expect to enjoy a rewriting of Moby Dick in a future (?) world where the sea is a vast plain of dirt inhabited by monsters—giant moles and earwigs—and crisscrossed by railroad lines. I did not think I could get caught up in any sort of retelling of Moby Dick. But this was smart and funny and so marvelously odd, I could barely put it down. Angels are real but not what you expect, and woe be to any who set bare foot on the railsea. Our Ishmael is a young physician's assistant on his first voyage aboard a the moler, MEDES—a diesel train that travels the rails hunting giant moles the size of whales with a one-armed captain in search of her "philosophy", an enormous pale "moldywarpe"—the largest of the giants. I cannot make it sound crazier than it is . . . only it worked for me.
  • • ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION (July 2012) has a wonderful story by my friend Felicity Shoulders, "Long Night on Red Rock." My husband ordered it for me so that I could read that story, but once it arived I found one by Megan Lindholm—an author I've enjoyed from years ago. Also, a great review of Atwood's book on SF and Fantasy and Robert Silverberg's remarks about choosing not to keep up with notepad technology. I read it cover to cover.
  • • PROMISE NOT TO TELL by Jennifer McMahon (2007) is a ghost story and a murder mystery. I finished it, but I didn't love it. I kept hoping I would.
  • • ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Alison Bechdel (2012) is a "comic drama" graphic memoir. Bechdel's therapist calls her "adorable" which is pretty true, especially when I saw her in person. She's charming and funny and real. But she's also smart, and her exploration of her own life, mind, and relationships—especially with her mother—is a far more compelling and provocative read than I expected. In my teens I was fascinated by psychiatry. Here it is all spread out and illustrated in words and pictures I can read.
  • • HOME by Toni Morrison (2012) is the newest and shortest of our Nobel Laureate’s novels. Frank Money comes home from the Korean war damaged, as many have before him. In brief passages, Frank speaks as if to direct the author in telling his story, and the chapters explore the points of view of many characters—thus developing a complete picture in the way she explored long ago in her first novel The Bluest Eye. It joins a great line-up of novels that specifically explore the pain of soldiers returning from war—such as Ceremony.
  • • manuscript by a friend. Though not the first time I've done this, it was a very interesting experience. I read an early draft and had to turn my line-editing radar off as best I could and focus on the big stuff. Fun. Some day I'll get to brag that I read it in ms.
  • • DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE by Sue Kaufman (1967) is the novel on which the 1970 film is based. (My husband graduated high school in 1967; I did in 1970 when we saw and loved the film, which is terrific but still not available on DVD.) Betinna Balser, called "teen" by her husband, a disappointed liberal-turned-frantic capitalist, begins a secret diary as a means of hanging on to the shreds of her sanity in this domestic comedy. I regret it's taken me this long to discover the novel, which is, of course, even better than the film. As best I can recall, most of the film's dialogue is straight out of this book. Bettina slowly comes unhinged as she tries to accept her role as obedient and supportive wife to her domineering husband without losing herself in the process. It might be a bit dated—I'd like to think women don't do this anymore—but the story still reads as fresh. The film's ending is probably more realistic, but the novel is satisfying and both are wickedly funny.
  • • THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (2011) is the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner. There have been exceptions, but most often I love the Booker winners. This one involves an older man confronted with his life by the return of people from his past—one alive, one dead. Retired, divorced, solitary, he muses that "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." This short novel reviews an entire life with sense, sensitivity, and the cold, hard light of experience. I read it in one long gulp and I was sorry when it ended.
  • • WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL by Cheryl Strayed (2012) is a memoir by a courageous woman. Strayed's mother dies before her 44th birthday and Strayed (then 22) tries to hold things together and falls pretty much apart herself in the process. I read a few reviews who criticize Strayed for her mistakes—I have the opposite reaction. Here is a woman willing to own her errors rather than "cry woe is me". Strayed hikes both a literal and figurative trail through agony and hardship, struggles over high desert and snow, meets rattlesnakes and bears, and makes some friends while determinedly continuing alone. She talks a lot about fear, her mother, her regret for ruining her marriage. She beats herself up physically and accepts blame for everything that goes wrong—and a lot does go wrong. I haven't read a more brutally honest, humorous, humble, and beautifully wise memoir in a long time. I laughed, moaned, and cried a little at the end. From Southern California to the Columbia River through wild country, she finds herself. This was not my journey, but I could connect to every step.
  • • THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK edited by Chris Van Allsburg (2011) provides stories by 14 great authors for Van Allsburg's illustrations. I've used the original book, which has 14 marvelous and mysterious illustrations with captions and story titles, to trigger student writing. Here Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, and others do what I and my students have done, writing the stories that go with Allsburg's drawings. Attached to my own, I was worried that I wouldn't like their versions, but these are almost without exception fabulous in every sense of the word. "The Third Floor Bedroom" is my favorite drawing and I loved the story. Even M.T. Anderson, whose writing I didn't love, provides a marvelous story. These are not really children's stories, or perhaps in these days of THE HUNGER GAMES, the darkness here is what we give children these days. In any event, I highly recommend both the original book of prompts, and this story collection with an introduction by Lemony Snicket.
  • • TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA by Shaun Tan (2009) is a collection of illustrated stories. The title story has two boys finding a man in a deep sea diving suit wandering their neighborhood. Tan is the author of THE ARRIVAL, which is fabulous. These little stories, such as "Make Your Own Pet" and "Alert But Not Alarmed" about anti-ballistic missiles in suburban backyards, are pretty wonderful too. Some stories are almost entirely illustration, but most are a marvelous mix—wonderful tales and Tan's incredible illustrations.
  • • THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS retold and illustrated by Peter Sis (2011) is a unique presentation of a 12th century Persian epic poem. The illustrations are appealing, but the text was a little lean. Nevertheless, this is a handsome and unique book.
  • • PASSING by Nella Larson (1929), is from the Harlem Rennaisance, a short novel about the perils of passing, of pretending to what you do not feel, of racial and sexual identity, of mistaking the pretense of normalcy for a real life.
  • • NO ONE IS HERE EXCEPT ALL OF US by Ramona Ausubel (2012) is a novel about Romanian villagers who decides to remake the world as a strategy for evading the coming holocaust. The strategy doesn't work, and for me, neither does this novel. I loved Ausubel's One Story offering, “Safe Passage” and expected I would love this too. The first hint that I might not was her New Yorker story that most people seem to have loved, but which I couldn't quite believe. And then the novel arrived and I began reading. The premise is brilliant. Ironically, since so many people (including me) admire Ausubel's skill as a writer, the writing is the problem for me. Characters are held at a distance. Other reviewers remark on the fairy-tale feel, and perhaps that's what they mean. I felt always held at arm's length from these people, even as the story dips into the minds of multiple characters. The point of view shifts from first person to omniscient to limited third without ever settling. It's a problem of narrative distance. I cannot quite catch hold of these people as if the author didn't hold them close and so neither do I. Their dreams and suffering are not mine. It is a story about people rather than a story of them. Perhaps she wasn't ready for a novel, perhaps she wanted too much from herself to write such a novel. Perhaps, if this had been a short story (a longish one), I would have loved it. Perhaps I am wrong. In any event, although I love magic realism and I love fables and fairy tales, and I loved "Safe Passages," I do not love this book. Perhaps another time.
  • • A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan (2010) won the Pulitzer. I’d avoided it because I’d not been much impressed with The Invisible Circus (2007). But then I read a couple of Jennifer Egan’s more recent short stories and I decided I should read this prize-winning novel. So I’ve been slogging through it for a month. Several of the stories I’d already read and some of them recently and with pleasure. I liked “Safari” in the 2011 BASS. I had not read “Selling the General” before finding it here, but it’s my favorite. Seventy-six pages are given over to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” which had not been published previously and that doesn’t surprise me. I suppose it’s memorable, but it’s also an ugly and sterile graphic in an age when graphics are sophisticated and intimate, and it’s boring—not forgivable in any form. The stories in this book—and this is not remotely a novel, regardless of the claim on the cover—involve several recurring characters, most of whom are rich or entitled, mostly both. They do not seem to be living in the world the rest of us live in. And while this is literally true for the final story, set in the future, it’s also true that these people seem not to face wars or social movements or genuine poverty or even an interest in caring for their children until they’re old enough to misuse drugs. Music and fame are at the center of some stories, and serve as thin connective tissue. That and drug abuse.
  • • FINNISH LESSONS: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By Pasi Sahlberg (2011) reviews the astonishing success of the Finnish school system, which a few decades ago was one of the weakest among industrialized nations, but is today the poster child for excellence. Finland worked deliberately toward a simple goal, beginning in the 1970s: equity. All Finnish children should have access to a good education regardless of where they lived, north or south, rich or poor, urban or rural. Their example presents a series of troubling paradoxes for American school reform, but with only 4% of their children living in poverty, Finland also has an enormous advantage over the US with 22% of our children living in poverty. Graphs in this book as well as other research in America point to poverty as the single most significant impediment to improving American schools. Well-supported by international studies and an insider’s understanding, Sahlberg explains how the Finns developed a system that suddenly attracted international attention when the results of international review found Finnish students outperforming nearly every nation in the world beginning in 2000. They did it by closing private schools and demanding equity—demanding professionalism from their teachers and granting them respect and autonomy, trusting schools to work to develop strong curriculum by focusing on creativity and access, and eliminating most testing and all private education. In fact, they did the exact opposite of the current trend in America which focuses on school choice, competition, teacher accountability, standards-based curriculum, and regular high-stakes testing. Finnish children start school at age 7 and are outperforming US children overall by age 15. Further, their teachers spend fewer hours in the classroom, and their children do a lot less homework with the result that they learn more.
  • • "GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES" by Anita Loos (1925) is the novel that inspired the Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell film by the same name. The characters in that film are pretty faithful to this novel, which is written as a series of diary entries by Lorelei, hence the quotes around the title because that's our girl talking. She is a terrible speller, is fond of certain turns of phrase which she repeats endlessly without annoying this reader (it's a voicy book), and thick about just about everything except money and manipulating men into doing what she wishes. I found the book funny enough to read aloud a few choice bits to my husband. Just as in the film, Dorothy is the one with the dry sense of humor and wicked tongue. The film version includes a few characters from the book, but the novel's plot is decentralized, focusing on a series of marginally realted adventures. Lorelei is analyzed by "Dr. Froyd" who is amazed to find someone lacking any inhibitions: "So he asked me if I really never wanted to do a thing that I did not do... So he called in his assistance and he pointed at me and talked to his assistance quite a lot in the Viennese landguage." (Those are not my typos, btw, that's pure Lorelei.) Wikipedia has this book published in 1927, but my copy lists the first printing in November, 1925. The illustrations by Ralph Barton are 1920s camp.
  • • THE SECRET OF CASA GRANDE by Helen Randolph (1936) is a racist, classist, and rather dreadful book written for girls during the same period as the original Nancy Drew stories. It's possible that Nancy Drew is as terrible as this and I simply don't remember—I remember them as badly written, not offensive. Young women "ejaculated" a comment twice, and every awful habit of bad writing I was taught to avoid in my MFA program is clearly illustrated in the pages of this book. I read the whole thing in two sittings, just to say I had. I'm sure I've read worse, but I couldn't tell you when.
  • • THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2011 edited by Geraldine Brooks with Heidi Pitlor as series editor (2011) is an excellent collection. From the introductions through the author's notes, I found only one piece that failed to impress, and a wide range of truly inspiring work. Each book in the series shows not only the times from which it was collected and the eye of the editor, but often also some particular concern. Here I found many stories that dealt with entire lifetimes—childhood to death. Mark Slouka, in his notes on the source of his story, "The Hare's Mask" explains: ". . . I sensed a story about history's losses, time's compensations, and a child's ability to misread the world. I had to mix three generations. It was easy enough; in my heart they were already blurred." In mine too.
  • • OFFSHORE by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) presents an oddball collection of people living on permanently moored boats on the Thames. A young woman and her two daughters whose husband does not understand the attraction of living on a leaky craft, a wealthy man of the City whose wife is similarly unimpressed and wishes they could simply buy a lovely house in the country, an aging sailor hoping to escape in time, a prostitute who suffers a thief to store stolen goods on his craft. The boats themselves become characters: the Dreadnought, Lord Jim, Maurice, and Grace are much like their owners—falling apart, perfectly polished, leaking, punctured and drowned.
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