My brother, Curtis, has a new blog, which I just discovered this week. Those of you who know Curtis won't be surprised that he has a lot to say about certain things, mostly regarding topics philosophical and/or political. I love that he's begun writing these things down and putting them out there for quasi-public consumption. He and I differ on a lot of things, but that's what discourse is all about. Intelligent debate. Not these vitriolic spit-fests leading up to political primaries, or the partisan finger-pointing and name-calling which inevitably arise once the elections are over. I'm talking about thoughtful, reasoned discussion.
Today, I commented on Curtis's blog for the first time. It's really a response to several of his posts thus far, but I enjoyed writing it out, so I thought I would share it here for fun. (Also to encourage anyone who likes to read Libertarian treatises on modern society to visit pCoast Compelled.)
In Curtis's most recent post--Thanksgiving. To who?--he makes the case for personal responsibility and congratulation. An excerpt:
My comment is as follows:
Wow. Well, first, thank you for spilling your optimism about the average individual human all over the interwebs.
As I read through these initial posts, I found an interesting pattern. You're writing to a certain subset of people, and that subset holds close to a rubric set by your own life experience and personality. On Thanksgiving morning, you'll be patting yourself on the back for choosing a job which pays you enough money to be able to buy a new home. And you'll be praising yourself in the mirror for taking care of your own health. And you'll be looking at your brainy, beautiful wife and thinking, "It's a good thing I've actively made myself funny and handsome and successful enough that she wants to be with me." All across America, there may well be similar people giving themselves similar affirmations, but the grave weakness of this fallacy is in its incompleteness.
Allow me to apply what I'm talking about to my own life first. There are plenty of good things in my life which are here in spite of me or my choices. For example:
It will never cease to amaze me that I have the choice not to have children. Until the 1960s, married women either had kids until their bodies gave out, or they stonewalled their own husbands to reduce the odds of conception. Worldwide, women had only one dependable option to limit their family size: abstinence. A close second was abortion, which was illegal and, therefore, not widely available or safe when it could be obtained. The invention of the birth control pill and the legislative victories which made it legal are two things I can take ZERO credit for, but which affect me every day of my privileged life.
I am also thankful for the existence of extraordinary people who do good things for the world and spend their lives selflessly in service to their fellow man. Malala Yousafzai is one. Nelson Mandela is another. I am thankful for public defenders, inner-city teachers, first responders. I am thankful for my friend Jeremy, who pulled an unconscious woman from her burning vehicle and dragged her to safety. And for victims' rights advocates. And for people who pay for the coffee of the person behind them in line at Starbucks. And for whoever gave the homeless man on my street a new blanket and shoes last week. These people are empowered and making their own choices, and what they do has no direct effect on me whatsoever, but I am grateful to them. Humbled by them. Hopeful that there will always be people like that, because--on my worst days--I might need one of them, and--on my best days--I might be one of them.
Time flies when you're writing thousands of words every day. It's all because of National Novel Writing Month, a masochistic writing commitment which I've attempted and failed to complete twice before. But this year, I told myself, would be different. This year I would be joining several wonderful friends in the NaNoWriMo attempt, and would benefit from their encouragement and solidarity. Also, I would be publicly stating my intent to do NaNoWriMo as part of my work for The Postmasters Podcast, and our audience would hold me accountable. On top of all this, my writing life is better prepared now for such a mission. In years past, I'd tried NaNoWriMo while working on my master's thesis or trying to jumpstart other new projects simultaneously. Huge mistake. This year I've got my head on straight, my priorities aligned, and time in the day to write write write write write. And then write some more. It would be different this time.
I was right. Since November 1, I've averaged almost 2,500 words a day. That's nearly 1,000 words more than the required daily average for a successful NaNoWriMo (1,667). It's working. I haven't missed a day. My novel is developing. Shooting up into the air like some kind of jungle plant, thriving under the pressure and the heat and all that unselfconscious first-drafting.
I wake in the morning, shuffle into the office, close the door, sit in the chair and turn on my computer. Scrivener (the software I'm using the first time this year) is already open to my project. There's a fresh text document ready for me (titled the night before with the day's date and a few key words to remind myself where my characters are and where they need to go next). I begin. Tap-tap-tap-clatter-clatter-backspace-backspace-backspace-tap-clatter-tap. New leaves and branches and blooms on the jungle plant, out of my control, from someplace sincere within my writerly heart. When I write, my personality splinters, and I hear the voices of writers from Hemingway to Kingsolver to O'Brien hollering at me, whispering to me. Do it like this. Not like that. Go further. Write faster!
Forty-six thousand words so far. And a lot of it is terrible!
For instance, I've wasted time on sentences like this:
Closer they came, but slowly, and Dottie found herself staring at them, trying to guess what was passing between them. The mood was tense.
That's a whole lot of ugly, bad grammar in one place. And boring to boot!
I've also been typing so fast, I've managed to garble perfectly good sentences with duplicate words, like so:
Triage. The moment when when mere moments made a difference, and if you wasted them with the wrong boy you might lose the right one.
Don't worry. I've tried to keep the word count padding to a minimum, though, I have allowed the crutch of cliché to creep in when I need to keep up my momentum:
Her mind was running wild and she knew she couldn't afford that now.
If I weren't obliterating the minimum each day, I'd be unable to afford such lame sentences, too. But it's all okay, because occasionally I've managed truth and beauty and, hopefully, some of the gravity I pray will be integral to this story.
Planes she couldn't see droned above her in the night sky, shadowy as fish in a river, but she caught herself looking up anyway as the buzzing drew closer, so close she wondered if she could reach up and feel her fingers pass hotly over the slick belly of an enemy aircraft.
I have faith the gravity will be present if I'm honest and follow my instincts and try very hard not to try very hard.
One evening this summer, I led my writers' group through several back-to-back short exercises. This was easily the favorite of the night:
Create a story that is 26 sentences long. Each sentence must begin with the next letter in the alphabet. For example, the first sentence should begin with A, the second with B, the third with C, and so forth.
Here's what I came up with:
"And stay out," Pa yelled at the tail-end of the escaping dog. "Bloodhounds aren't good for anything. Call Peterman and tell him to get these mongrels off our property. Dammit. Enough is enough."
"Fella's just doing us a favor." Gripping the open door screen, Ma shook her head, her white hair fluttering in the aimless breeze like dandelion fluff.
"He comes around here one more time and I'll shoot him."
"I'd like to see you try," said Ma and reached for her husband's soft shoulders. "Just come back inside, Xavier."
Keeping the screen open with her hip, she guided him into the house. Liver spots shadowed his shaking hands. Many years had passed since either of his deep brown eyes had seen a thing.
"Never will understand why that man sends his dog over here."
"Oh, Pa," she said. "Peterman means well."
"Quit pushing me," he said, swatting at her hands.
"Really, he's trying to do right by us. Service dogs cost money is all. Tramp don't cost a thing," she said and walked toward the bathroom, but then stopped and looked back.
Underlit by the glow of the television set, where the football game had suddenly changed to static, Pa appeared alien to her all of a sudden. Very odd to have a blind, ornery stranger in her living room after sixty-four years. Wind picked up at the corners of the house, as she expected. Xavier hunkered down in his chair as the tornado siren sounded.
"You know, I think this time we're heaven-bound, Ellen," said Pa over the high, fearsome whine, and his voice tugged her heart once again, bringing her back to his side; she knelt on the floor and held his hand.
Zeb Peterman pulled Tramp into his root cellar next door, let the doors bang shut above them both, and whispered, "Well boy, at least we tried."
Someone must be last. That's the rule. And in my kingdom, this works out fine, because the last shall be first. Yet, this little leaf, now brown and curled around the edges, dampens even my spirits today. Perhaps it is the way it clings so hopefully to the branch. Well, last week, still surrounded on all sides by his family, his clinging might have been hopeful. Not so much now. Unflanked and exposed. His determination, then, brings me down a fraction of an inch. He won't give in to the turning of seasons--a process which has undergone more revolutions than anyone can count. Except me, of course.
Revolution: The act of rising up in defiance.
Each spring is something of a revolution, and even this last leaf has had his spring. That's the rule, too. I don't demand that the trees give up their leaves, all of them, at the close of the year. It's merely the way I built the machine. And the circumstances of spring--all noisy green, pushing up through the snow to hail the sun--seem like a victory. A resurrection. A thrilling surprise, at least for the new buds, the newly unscrolling leaves, green and emphatic. We live in spite of the death that came before!
But resurrections in my universe are also part of the plan. People were surprised by mine, you know. but make no mistake. What appeared a revolution embodied in a revived heart behind a stone was really ordained long ago. Back before there were springs at all, which is to say, back before there were winters.
And so, even this last leaf must fall.
I am afraid to name her.
What if I call it wrong?
If my moniker choice resists
story, history, or song?
Details of breeding and face,
habits, regrets, disgrace...
These I'll slap on her like travel stickers on a suitcase,
but a name?
So much weight.
So I wait.
One false christening could render her
uninteresting and ugly.
even Scarlet O'Hara was first Penelope.
No matter how far I travel from it, my heart belongs to Yosemite. My husband and I grew up there, fell in love there. That's why I'm so proud and excited to announce that my short essay "We Climb Anyway" will be published this winter as part of a new anthology from The Yosemite Conservancy:
Inspiring Generations: 150 Years, 150 Stories from Yosemite
"On June 30, 1864, amidst the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. This act that set aside the first public parkland for future generations was a legacy for our nation and an inspiration to the world.
"To honor the 150th anniversary of this milestone, a call went out inviting the public to celebrate in prose and poetry the national park they love. The 150 pieces in this book were selected from hundreds of submissions from people who have visited, lived in, or worked in Yosemite National Park. These collected reflections feature, among other things, treks up Half Dome, escapades at The Ahwahnee, revels at the long-gone firefall,and, yes, encounters with those bears; and range from the hilarious to the historical, the enlightening to the uplifting. Inspiring Generations will encourage many journeys to the park filled with family, friends, and the stuff memories are made of."
This commemorative book will be published by the Yosemite Conservancy and will be sold as a fundraising item benefiting the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant.
"One of my passions is hearing from park visitors how Yosemite has impacted their lives in a positive way. This book is a great way to record those experiences and recount how cherished and important the park is to past and present visitors," said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park Superintendent.
Every piece in the anthology is less than 1,000 words. Micro-essays and flash fiction. Knowing even that much of my writing will appear in a book for sale in Yosemite National Park is a dream come true.
Inspiring Generations will be available for purchase in YNP bookshops and visitor centers this December. At the Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2014, the book will receive an official launch. And you can buy the paperback on Amazon in May 2014 (preorder it now).
I encourage everyone to Like the Yosemite Conservancy on Facebook; it's an easy way to keep up-to-date on anniversary events and park news. And please buy a copy of this anthology to support the efforts of the Yosemite Conservancy.
If you're planning a transatlantic flight in the near future and are looking for a book to keep you from going dull-eyed in front of the four-by-six seatback video screen, Gone Girl fits that bill.
Once begun, it was difficult to put down. It stuck there in my hands, sticky the way blood is sticky. Four-hundred sixty-three pages in two days. I expected no less. A dozen people must have recommended this book to me within the last six months.
Ordinarily, I am wary of pop culture phenomena like Gone Girl. Too many people entertained by the same book logically equates to a lower common denominator met. People are unique in their likes and dislikes, curiosities, and tastes in literature. When something appeals across the board, I hold back. Is it The Hunger Games? Is it Twilight? Is it Harry Potter? Is it Fifty Shades of Grey?
At least in regard to the former three titles, I found the reading level to be too young for my taste, and didn't get past the first chapter of the first book in each series. This is not to say they aren't good books. Millions upon millions of people (and book sales) would beg to differ. It's just that they are easy reads. Manageable. Digestible. Entertaining. I assume the same is true of Fifty Shades, with the addition of one important adjective: titillating. All things an eager populace with short attention spans and addictions to the blood spatter of Dexter desire in their books, too.
As it turns out, Gone Girl's popularity is something of a relief to me, in that its foundation is an intelligent, high stakes plot conveyed by expertly-rendered unreliable narrators.
My bedside library slouches around the base of the small silver lamp on my nightstand. The New Yorker is to blame. Four issues, each only partially read. One still shrink-wrapped. They are too large. Their covers too slippery. In the pile, they move whole inches at the slightest jostle. Sandstone. The wrong foundation for this mound of literature. But I cannot tuck them away on the shelf yet. James Wood's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in the current issue refuses to be neglected that way. I also flag the best pieces, ones that resonate personally or strike me as prime material for teaching someday. Keeping the Faith: Egypt's preachers after the crackdown by Peter Hessler (Oct. 7) requires such a flag. Then I'll put the magazines away. I promise.
Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and a slim, white volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot rest lightly atop the rest. I finished In Our Time weeks ago now, but I can't put it back on the shelf yet. The brutality of its passages about wartime, the bloody pilgrimages and hoary revelations about man's character, stick like burs to my brain. No, I need it in arm's reach for a while. Before he was Papa, Hemingway was a young man with a machete-pen and a raw, stark way of looking at the world. Everyone has a beginning. Every author has a first book. So, it sits there, reminding me when I roll to the left and open my eyes first thing in the morning that I've got a first book waiting within me.
Eliot's poetry, too, has been finished (if one can ever truly finish reading a poem). I picked it up at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris on my last trip. Last week, it was my bath time book. Light as the bubbles in the tub, I drank the whole thing in a single soak. Prufrock, yes, but other meditations on life, aging, family, society, poverty, and play also. It is here among the rest of the nightstand mess because, warm and blushing from the bath, I wandered straight to bed and fell fast asleep without remembering much that came between. My poetry shelf in the office is too disorganized to welcome Eliot anyway. So, he'll stay.
Even before learning the language, an expat must contend with the proper nouns of life in a new country. City names. Street names. Metro stop names.
Pronunciation, particularly in places which use grander alphabets than we're used to, can be a problem. Skøyenåsen, anyone? Nuances in accent and emphasis can also cause a problem. In California, I used to love watching non-Californians attempt names like Mission Viejo or Joaquin Murieta or even San Jose. (Which exit takes you to downtown San Joh-zy?) My own parents admit that, when they relocated to California from Illinois in the early '80s, they mispronounced Tuolumne Meadows for a while... Too-oh-LOOM-nay.
The inability to pronounce place names can be disorienting, but because it's a question of survival--you must know how to navigate your way to work, food, community, airport, and entertainment--as an expat, you do it. We did. Thanks to brunt force memorization, words like Stortinget, Jernbanetorget, and Frognerseteren entered our vernacular. Quickly, we knew where these places were and how to get there via the clean, efficient Oslo Metro. Nailed it.
Only later in our immersion did we realize that we were actually visiting Big Thing, Railway Market, and Frogner Farm. That's why I love this hilarious direct-translation map of the metro.
The next time you're in Oslo, make sure you visit some of my favorite places (on this list), including Spankfield, Son of Toe, Stretch, Hellfire, Stump, Breastfeed Farm, Funny Hillside, and Scary Laugh.
When Jonathan and I decided to move to Norway almost three years ago, we knew only a few things for certain:
- We'd be able to travel more.
- We'd need warmer clothes.
- And we'd likely never receive any visitors.
This last, we understood, because, unlike France or Italy or Switzerland, Norway just isn't one of those legendary, popular European destinations. Few non-Europeans can name any Scandinavian city other than the three big capitals. Even fewer could locate the capitals on a map without help. Plus, unlike Denmark, which shares a border with Germany, Sweden and Norway are just plain UP THERE. Oslo and Stockholm share roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska and St. Petersburg, Russia. So, we resigned ourselves to our loneliness, determined to make new friends and buy plane tickets back to California as often as necessary to remain recognizable to our old crowd.
And then the unthinkable happened. People came.