Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I was the Walrus, but now I'm John.

Thirty years ago today, John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan.

"Deranged fan" is how everyone in the media--without exception--describes his killer. And I find that increasingly strange.

"Deranged fan" is too easy, too pat. Was Mark David Chapman a fan? Certainly. Was he deranged? Probably. But the stock phrase has become empty and meaningless, a cliche. It's an easy explanation that allows us all to dismiss him without further thought.

I am supposed to hate him. I hate what he did. I absolutely loathe what he did. But I find the man sad and perplexing. I think about what it means to love something so much that you have to kill it, or to love something so much that your love turns to hate, a perversion of the Wheel of Fortune. If you identify with someone so strongly that your identity is inextricably bound up with his, what does it do to you when you destroy him? I also wonder what it is like to live with your actions for thirty years. How do you feel, knowing that millions of people despise you, and that any number of them would gleefully murder you without regret? They want to send him to hell. I think he's already there. I don't know how I feel about that.

This takes some courage to write; as a Beatle fan, and especially a Lennon fan, the safe ground is hate, condemnation, vilification. Pity and compassion are thin ice indeed. But when I see Chapman's face, I don't see a monster. Not anymore. Not the way I did when I was 14 and his face was all over the news, when everything in life was still firmly in the field of duality, of black and white, of right and wrong, of good and evil. I see a sad, lonely, bewildered man.

In my more philosophical moments, I wonder if we choose our lives before we're born. Do we choose our parents, our path, our manner of living and dying? Do we choose with a greater purpose in mind? If so, who would choose to be the killer of an icon? Who would choose to be the icon, destroyed? Did John's death serve a higher purpose? Would a long and peaceful life have diluted the potency of his message? Would "Imagine" be such an anthem, were he still alive, or would we view it as a quaint relic of a more idealistic time? John strenuously opposed the idea of the Beatles petering out, a middle-aged quartet flogging their greatest hits to nightclub audiences in Vegas. The John that held that opinion might well have chosen an early death. Then again, this John, just weeks before his death, clearly felt differently:

 It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don't appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It's the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison -- it's garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They're saying John Wayne conquered cancer -- he whipped it like a man. You know, I'm sorry that he died and all that -- I'm sorry for his family -- but he didn't whip cancer. It whipped him. I don't want Sean worshiping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it's garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn't he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I'll take the living and the healthy.*

I don't know whether any of our martyrs chose their fate beforehand. Whether they did--whether John did--or not, I'm not sure it's relevant to what I think about his murderer. Loving my enemy is a central tenet of my spiritual struggle. It's not easy. It's not supposed to be easy. The most I'm able to accomplish, most days, is compassion. I have more questions than answers, certainly, but I'll keep asking them, and maybe one day I'll figure it out.

*Interview with David Sheff, for Playboy, published January, 1981.

Not exactly news, but... it turns out, nit-picking is much more pleasurable when you do it figuratively rather than literally.

The girls came home last week with head lice. This capped off a month in which we passed a strep infection back and forth, my freelance gig petered out, and we drove to Chicago twice. (Okay, the last was not a hardship other than in terms of time and fossil fuels.)

Now, the schools have done a good job of removing the stigma of head lice. You don't get them because you're dirty or poor. So my girls were not at all nonplussed (does this mean they were plussed?). On the other hand, I kind of freaked out. I never had lice as a kid, and didn't know anyone who did; then again, it was stigmatized when I was in school, so it's more likely that no one talked about it. But my own itchy, dry scalp suddenly took on sinister implications as I imagined the vermin crawling, feeding, fornicating, laying their eggs...


Anyway, the school nurse kindly checked my head for me, and checked it again the next day, and I am (knock on wood) lice-free. But because Pink had crawled into bed with me that very morning, and because we'd shared a bed in Chicago (our hosts' bed, of course, and let me apologize to them AGAIN if they should wind up with uninvited guests), I still laundered all my bedding in hot water...along with their bedding and their coats, hats, towels, pillows, and stuffed animals. 

I'm not proud to say that I went to Target immediately after picking them up from school and bought a box of RID. I knew that it was full of pesticides, and I further remember reading that lice were becoming resistant to it. I had heard of alternatives, like slathering on olive oil or mayonnaise or vinegar as though one were dressing a salad. But I panicked. So I got them home, and I treated them with the shampoo, and I used the worthless little plastic nit comb that comes with the RID. I did, thank all that is holy, refrain from spraying their mattresses with the aerosol pesticide, because I knew that couldn't be good.

After the panicked carpet bombing of the vermin, and in the middle of the laundry, I started to research. I contacted Eileen Fishman, a woman I've known for years through Single Mothers by Choice. Eileen left a successful CPA practice in Atlanta to begin a lice-removal company, Elimilice. Eileen has been a life-saver, talking me through the panic and responding patiently to my myriad questions. We're now armed with a natural enzyme product, a high-tech nit comb, and knowledge about how to prevent infestation.

I won't take up space here with the details, because you can visit the Elimilice site for more information. I will, however, share a few prevention tips that I wish the schools would have given out to parents (and yes, I did pass these on the nurse, who is passing them on to other nurses in the district):

1. Don't go crazy with the shampoo. Lice infestation has nothing to do with hygiene; in fact, lice LIKE clean, freshly-washed hair. It's easier to attach the nits to a clean hair shaft. 

2. Use product. Gel, mousse, hair spray, and leave-in conditioner all coat the hair shaft, and lice don't like them. You can use one specifically designed to repel lice (Fairy Tales Hair Care makes a line called Rosemary Repel--it smells rather strongly of citronella, so go easy--and Nit Free makes a mint-based spray), but anything that coats the hair shaft will help deter the little buggers. (Fairy Tales' leave-in conditioner may also be sprayed on the skin to repel mosquitoes, according to the website, but I can't vouch for that.) Both product lines use natural plant oils lab-tested to be offensive to lice.

3. Ponytails are your friends. If you have a girl, or a long-haired boy, get in the habit of pulling the hair back into a tight pony, braid, or bun whenever your child is going to be in a group setting. Then spray it (or use gel). Lice can't fly or jump; they run along the hair. If your child's hair is pulled back, it's less likely to make contact with other kids' hair.

4. No sharing! This is really the only one the schools tell us about. No sharing hats, scarves, headphones, brushes, combs, headbands, etc. In fact, everyone in the family should have his/her own brush and comb. (We were guilty of sharing at our house, and I think I only escaped infestation myself because I use leave-in conditioner.)

Should the above fail and your child come home with a head full of hitch-hikers, I recommend using an enzyme-based product like Fairy Tales' Lice Goodbye and, at the very least, you must invest in the metal Terminator nit comb. The plastic ones that come with the product are worthless. You can use the comb on more than one child as long as it's cleaned thoroughly.

I know this was not easy to read. My head itches as I write it. I hope you'll never need the info, but I had to do my part to combat the staggering amount of misinformation out there in cyberspace. You wouldn't believe the tips people are sharing, up to and including saturating the head with lamp oil. Lamp oil! (Here is where I would like to say something unkind, involving Darwinism, but I will refrain.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Here and gone.

I've neglected my infant blog for the last couple of weeks, due to a perfect storm of complicating factors. I was hired for a short-term project, researching and writing bios for a forthcoming poetry anthology. I also got hit with some weird virus that has taken me out of commission for almost a week. (Not a computer virus, though, thank goodness.) And I had so many topics (and suggestions for topics) to write on that I never could settle on one to "git 'er done." (Thanks to Sheena, my primary source!)

I'm taking off tomorrow for Chicago, to read at Columbia College's Creative Nonfiction Week celebration. One of my essays, "Blood," was excerpted in the current issue of South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art. My fellow UMN alum and good friend Priscilla Kinter also has work in the issue, and will also be reading. (One of the topics I had considered putting up here was the relative merit of bringing my daughters to the reading; on the one hand, the essay is, in large part, about them, and it would also be nice for them to see Mom reading for an audience. On the other, they're 7, the reading and Q & A is two and a half hours long, and I'm bound to be stressed out about whether they're behaving or not. So the other hand won.)

I'll try to post from the road, but meanwhile, I'd like to get some thoughts on the following article from NYT: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. What do you think, especially you parents? Are we pushing our kids to chapter books too soon, or is this a "manufactured crisis"? Do you think the cost of picture books (upward of $20) is a factor?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Practical magic.

The Writer's Life is Best When It's Boring, from Tayari Jones by way of SheWrites.

I think Tayari and I must have similar writing styles (by which I mean the act of writing, not necessarily our work), because a lot of this resonated with me. I'm not good at the whole starving-artist-miserable-alcoholic method of creating. I need to feel secure, well rested, and relaxed.

So a question for the readers who are also writers: What's your practical magic? What routines help you be more productive? What routines are you failing to follow, even though you know you probably should?

Life Lessons from Klickitat Street, Part Two

(Or, "Speak, Memory of Teaching Undergraduate Creative Writing")

Ramona's hopes soared. Her teacher had smiled at her. "Miss Binney, I want to know--how did Mike Mulligan go to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall?"

Miss Binney's smile seemed to last longer than smiles usually last. Ramona glanced uneasily around and saw that others were waiting with interest for the answer. Everybody wanted to know how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom.

"Well--" said Miss Binney at last. "I don't really know, Ramona. The book doesn't tell us."

"I always wanted to know, too," said Howie, without raising his hand, and others murmured in agreement. The whole class, it seemed, had been wondering how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom.

"Maybe he stopped the steam shovel and climbed out of the hole he was digging and went to a service station," suggested a boy named Eric.

"He couldn't. The book says he had to work as fast as he could all day," Howie pointed out. "It doesn't say he stopped."

Miss Binney faced the twenty-nine earnest members of the kindergarten, all of whom wanted to know how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom.

"Boys and girls," she began, and spoke in her clear, distinct way. "The reason the book does not tell us how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom is that it is not an important part of the story. The story is about digging the basement of the town hall, and that is what the book tells us."

Miss Binney spoke as if this explanation ended the matter, but the kindergarten was not convinced. Ramona knew and the rest of the class knew that knowing how to go to the bathroom was important. They were surprised that Miss Binney did not understand, because she had showed them the bathroom the very first thing. Ramona could see there were some things she was not going to learn in school, and along with the rest of the class she stared reproachfully at Miss Binney.

from Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary, 1968

I've been meaning to post about this for days, since I read it with my kids. Seeing Ramona and Beezus sparked an interest in the series, which is great, since I've been desperate to spark an interest in chapter books, any chapter books, and if they're written well, so much the better. But anyway...

My first, visceral reaction to the passage above was a flashback to teaching Intro to Creative Writing. Oh, the frustration I would feel when trying to get undergrads--many of whom just needed a writing credit, thought creative writing would be "easy," and had zero interest in learning how to write a poem, short story, or work of creative nonfiction ("isn't that an oxymoron?")--to distinguish between significant detail and, well, too much detail.

I can't really blame them, because it was my job to convey the concept, and clearly I wasn't holding up my end of the deal. I can't blame them, but I kind of do anyway. I wonder if Miss Binney felt that inner exasperation. If she did, she was probably better at hiding it. Why is it so hard, I reflected, to think of your narrative in cinematic terms? To know that you focus the camera, maybe even in tight close-up, on the things that are meaningful, either to the plot or the characterization? If you throw in everything up to and including the kitchen sink, it becomes a muddle.

Wow, am I insufferable, or what? Had I written this point four days ago, when I intended to, that's what it would have been about. How undergrads just don't get it. Poor Miss B., holding it together while her students fixated on an insignificant detail. But the post has had time to simmer a while, and in typing the passage above, a few things occurred to me.

I still relate to Miss Binney. I mean, I got the same reproachful stares. But I can see where I might have let my students down. "More detail!" I would write on the papers of the ones who came to me for help. "Make this setting come to life!" "What did the air feel like?" (Oh, dear Lord.) Then I would hand their portfolios back a few weeks later, with comments like "I don't need to know this" and "This is bogging down the narrative" and "This image is important because...?" written in the margins. Most of these kids had no interest in creative writing, and while they could and should still be required to meet the course expectations, I don't think most were motivated by a strong desire to master the craft.

But this is also about writing for your audience, and I haven't really come to any conclusions about that yet. Maybe you can help me talk it out, get me from half-baked to fully baked and frosted. The passage above is funny to an adult with a grasp of what is important in story-telling, with a concept of "message" or "theme." But when I questioned Pink about it, about what she thought, she pondered a moment and said, "Well, maybe Mike Mulligan went in the bushes." 

Did the author of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (which, incidentally, is a real book) fail to consider her audience? The kids miss the point of the story, latching on instead to what they see as missing information. The same could be said for Cleary; my kids are in 2nd grade and they didn't get the point of that scene. Absent an adult to explain the deeper meaning, they never would have gotten it. Actually, even with an adult explaining it to them--in both cases--they still don't get the point.

I don't even know what my question is, frankly. I certainly don't advocate dumbing anything down, no matter who the intended audience may be. I love books and films that require me to do a little work. But at some point you risk obscuring the "message" (for lack of a better word) or, at worst, alienating your audience. I just don't know how to identify where that tipping point is. It's a problem I struggle with in my own work, so bring the insight.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Congratulations, it's a blog!

I hadn’t felt the urge, until now, to keep a blog. I’ve given it some thought over the years, but I think I resisted for the same reason I tend to balk at writing memoir. My personal essays are often very personal, but the idea of crafting my memoir feels very self-involved. (N.B.: I don’t think memoirists, as a group, are self-involved, and I’ve read many memoirs that I’ve enjoyed very much. But I’m prone to find qualities unforgivable in myself that I excuse and embrace quite readily in others; it’s just part of my neurosis. What feels brave and beautiful in the hands of another feels whinging or maudlin in mine.)

Oh, who am I kidding? I can call it “personal essay” rather than “memoir” until the stars fall from the sky. It’s still self-involved. Even though I may only use anecdotes from my life as a way to make the larger point, at the end of the day, I’m still saying “I” a lot.

But back to the blog. Since I’ve graduated from the MFA program, I’ve lost my sense of direction as a writer. While I’m still excited about my thesis as work-in-progress, I haven’t exercised my writing muscles over the summer, and they’ve atrophied in the absence of a regular regimen. There are no deadlines. The job hunt has superceded the creative impulse. This is a way for me to keep my hand in, to continue to think like a writer and hold onto that role even as motherhood threatens to overwhelm it.

So is this a mommy-blog? Yes, inasmuch as the business of being a parent occupies much of my consciousness, even when I’m not actively thinking of the offspring. But I find that definition limiting (and, let’s face it, somewhat pejorative), and I’m counting on you to contribute your voices. I miss graduate school and the conversations I had there. I don’t want to pontificate. I’d like to form a community of ideas and opinions. I want to bounce ideas off of you, and I need you to bounce them back. Think of this as a handball court of the mind.

So take this opportunity to read the previous entries, introduce yourself, link to your blog if you have one, and ask questions—especially if you don’t know me well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can someone explain why this is?

Women still make $0.81 to men's $1.00.

I read elsewhere--I think in relation to the GAO's study from 2000--that while women with children make less than women without children, men with children make more than their childless counterparts.

Clearly there is something about trying to combine motherhood and out-of-home work that is detrimental to a woman's earning power, and this makes sense in light of the potential for increased absenteeism and decreased "commitment" to one's job in favor of family responsibilities (although I find the latter arguable). But the fact that fathers' incomes are not similarly affected indicates that women are still bearing the brunt of the child-rearing burden. And I wish someone could explain to me why that is.

On the other hand, Diana Furchtgott-Roth argues in her blog that the gender pay gap is a myth. Predictably, she manages to blame feminists, saying that they view women who prioritize families as "societal problems." Those feminists, trying to destroy the family again.

What say you?