Friday, December 29, 2006

confessions of a book slut

Before Google became the Kleenex of research, there was the library. I logged many a happy, lost weekend at the library, over the years. Scavenger-hunting and blazing trails spiked with non-sequiturs.

The tactile practice of coveting books and periodicals chock full of ideas and passion, and then carrying those lovely tomes in a stack, under my arm or, when the bulk grew too cumbersome, cradling the books with both arms, was a type of gluttony I rarely felt guilty about.

But, alas, like so many other writers, I rarely venture into those hallowed halls these days, now that most magazines and facts are so easily accessed via Internet without leaving my easy chair.

Recently, I had a retro afternoon. A reunion with the 3rd floor (north) of the Central Library. I ventured into the stacks for books on a specific activity, and much to my pleasure, was treated to two-and-a-half shelves of material on the subject. Giddy with finder’s glee, I investigated material for another project, and found several books on the second floor, in the art stacks.

I left the library with an armload of meaty books—some of the coffee table variety, even! I took them all to bed with me, too. Such indulgence! I pored over one after the other until I dozed off, finally, after midnight.

I love waking up with a reading hangover!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

out with the old...

You just have to love a Christmas tree that fits inside a yard debris bag, right? Damn, I’m so happy to have all this behind me. My oldest son (who turned 20 yesterday), just zoomed off to his University town, and that means the holidays are officially over.

Today my writing group broke with tradition, and we met in the morning. It was a lovely way to start the day—centered around story, craft. On the heels of our group, I tinkered some with Unkiss Me, which was rather unsettling, because I’m working on a chapter that focuses on unpacking a particular aspect of male anatomy. You know which aspect I’m talking about, I trust.

In revving up the sex, I’m getting pretty concrete. Read: there are no throbbing members and heaving bodices. No wink-wink innuendos. Rather, I’m exploring sexuality under a microscope, from a variety of perspectives.

I have a great resource for this, too. The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. For the remainder of my “downtime,” before regular life resumes on January 2nd, I’m going to set up my laboratory and get busy. Namaste.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the day after

Christmas was a long, slow ride through hell. Beginning, even, with the goddamn eggs Benedict (completely forgot the Canadian bacon). What is that Bukowski line? “It’s not the big things that send a man to the mad house...”

Navigating the chasm teeming with loneliness and failure was exhausting and heartbreaking. I now get why people kill themselves during the holidays.

And yet, there was no way around it. My seven-year-old was 300 miles away, out scrambling cliffs and celebrating Christmas with his father and his father’s friends. And trying to orchestrate reunion, just like those twins in Parent Trap. He called me a couple of times, finishing his conversation with: “Papa really wants to talk to you!” And meanwhile, my ex-husband had carefully removed himself for the duration of the phone call but was told: “Mama really wants to talk to you!”

And then there was: “Are you going to come out here? I miss you so, so much.” And his litany of parting shots: “Miss you, love you, miss you, love you…” OCD runs in the family, so I’m trying to figure out if my little boy is blurting this mantra with quantifying rules, worried that if he misses a ‘love you’ I will die.

That my ex-husband continues to hope that our divorce is a temporary condition was problematic as well. His sentimental, beseeching voice. The sweet talk. The memories. Fifteen years of tumultuously loving this man, and writing about that love: I didn’t just divorce a husband, I banished a muse.

My guilt and self-hatred was in full swing all day. Not only was I questioning my marital dissolution, but many of my recent coping mechanisms, also. The solace-seeking, diversional, semi self-destructive impulses I’ve employed to get me out of hell—even if just for an hour or two. But everything’s closed on Christmas.

Except the movie house.

I went to see the French thriller Bridesmaid, and I was the only person there. My usual sure-fire antidote for torturous self-slaying failed me, and I sat in the cavernous theater aware mostly of the empty seats around me. Earlier, I’d taken a walk through the park and happened by great clots of families healthily striding, their cohesive chit-chat settled on my ears like wind chimes. It was pleasant, until it started competing with the abnegating voice in my head.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t have options. I turned down offers of companionship throughout the day mainly because, even though I wanted to jump off a bridge, I sensed that getting through this Christmas alone might lead to a cure.

Where it brought me in the short run, was to poetry. I pulled one of the poison spears from my chest and fashioned it into a bad poem. Concretizing free-floating self-loathing by thrusting it into form actually was a great exercise. And probably healthier than the two hours I spent on the phone with my ex-husband as Christmas turned into the day after Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


A decade or so ago, my father was married to a crazy woman who left him for someone she met in a chat room. I think the chat room concerned lhasa apsos, but it could have been mastiffs. Anyway, she got a bunch of his dough and most of his retirement, and we lost a colorful, brilliant and somewhat diabolical relative.

As evil as she was, she was the best gift-giver ever. Her ability to crawl inside someone’s soul was part of how she undid people, but the talent, when she didn’t use it for treachery, supplied us with presents that still, ten, fifteen years later, hit the highest of marks for form and function, both.

Case in point, my Joy of Cooking, which I consult on every single holiday and dinner party I host. Tomorrow is Christmas, and that means page 55, via page 130—hollandaise sauce and eggs Benedict, respectively.

The eggs Benedict thing involves all sorts of filial connective tissue. The ritual began on the morning of August 1st, 1987, which was the last birthday of my first husband’s short life. He was 25, and my mother came to visit and prepared the dish, along with mimosas, and we indulged in our brunch while watching our little baby, Sam, crawl around the living room.

Over the years, the dish somehow jumped tracks and aligned with Christmas morning instead of birthdays, but I never could get that hollandaise to taste right without my mother’s help—that is until my dad’s crazy wife bestowed that cooking tome upon me.

The fabric of my family is somewhat tapestry-like (as opposed to, say, a sweater of Merino wool). Our rituals are abstract and accidental (like right now, my daughter has departed for a candlelight service with a friend, and my son and I have opted for the comforts of home, high-speed Internet and the fireplace), but tomorrow morning, by God, we’ll get out the blender, the butter, the eggs. A little lemon juice, pepper sauce, and a stained and dog-eared copy of Joy of Cooking, because some things you just can’t wing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

conundrum of the day

More trees today. More trails. I worked on a paragraph. Over and over I recast it, refined it. I am editing my novel and I am editing my life and I am trying to go against my whapping-paint-against-the-wall nature and take my time.

Practice impulse control.

Untangle, rest, check it out from a different angle.

All this flies in the face of my other objective, which is to have more fun. Lighten up. How can one go deep and lighten up at the same time?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Helmut and Erna and their legacy

The thought snuck up on me today, on this, yet another “shortest day of the year,” that I am only 20 years younger than my grandfather was when he died on the table during open heart surgery. I am 20 winter solstices away from that age. Sobering, but oddly, not in a bad way.

Meanwhile his wife, my grandmother, rots slowly in a nursing home. She is 94.

I think about them more and more, those two— my Oma and Opa. I think about them especially, having recently closed the book on an 11-year marriage.

When my sister and I were children, we spent many summers with our grandparents. They were Austrian immigrants, and their house (where my sister and her family now reside) was appointed with all manner of Viennese Bourgeois mixed with Tyrolean kitsch. The cut crystal. The gleaming Steinway. Shelf upon shelf of Hummels. The kitchen smelled of sour cherry jam spread on warm toast, and that smell mingled with oil paints and turpentine from my Oma’s back porch studio adjoining the kitchen. Separating a formal dining room from that studio stood a built-in, floor-to-ceiling teacup display case. On every conceivable occasion, it was my grandfather’s habit to present to his wife a fancy teacup and saucer.

My grandfather’s office was separated from the house by a garage, and at the noon hour you could hear the series of doors opening and closing as he made his way over for lunch. My grandmother would serve him a frankfurter, some brown bread. A little cucumber salad. Opa wolfed this down before striding over to the piano in the parlor, where he spent the remainder of his break time playing mostly original music. Stuff he’d spent decades composing, erasing, composing.

My grandfather was a physician by trade, but his artistic nature burst cholerically from every cell. He sketched, he wrote poetry. He built my sister and me a lavish, multi-story dollhouse with every miniature refinement found in their own home: little Victorian chairs, cabinets festooned with bric-a-brac. When my father, their only child, was a boy, the result of Opa’s obsessive handiwork was a railroad masterpiece spanning half the cellar. Not wanting to leave anything out, Opa fashioned forests and mountains. A village bisected by a paper mache creek. The railroad sat in grave disrepair during my childhood, finally becoming permanently disassembled by my sister and her husband just last year.

My grandmother was a temperamental hausfrau, ruled and defined by the degree to which she felt uncherished. Her sole creative outlet, painting pictures that became more and more abstract as she aged, was not embarked upon until she reached 50. Compelled by duty to engross herself in quotidian tasks she abhorred, she became as brittle as her teacup collection, over the years. And yet. And yet. At 94, she somehow continues to supply the necessary trickle of blood to her wounded heart.

That my grandparents had a horrible marriage intrudes vaguely on my recollections of them. (Much like the ever-present tinge of turpentine still permeates their house.) The sharp bickering between them, cast in German aspersions, is far less defining to me than their strong personalities. My grandfather clearly could not bear to spend time in the same room with his difficult wife—a woman who has outlived him by over 30 years, keeping the same middle-aged likeness of him in a gilt-frame within arm’s reach of her bedside. But still, I continue to think of them as a pair of bookends—Oma riding shotgun and Opa trying to escape.

So here, on yet another winter solstice day, I have more humanness than I can easily contain. I am feeling deeply part of a tribe, and less alone, actually, than usual. I feel weirdly connected to my dead grandfather, a man whose heart gave out from over-use. I feel, in turn, playful, adventurous, contemplative and, well, I’m just going to say it—sexy. It’s part unfettered liberation (hard won and playing, always, with guilt), and part flagrant gratitude. In short, I guess I just I’m just having a good day—even us dark, over-thinkers can have those now and again.

Addendum: On a solstice walk through Forest Park this afternoon, my grandfather's presence loomed even closer. That he would have loved the park, that he died decades before I moved to Portland, and that my grandmother, upon hearing that I'd moved to Oregon muttered only, "But Washington is so much more beautiful!" all seemed a harmonious and fitting alignment to my solo trudge. Oddly, a freshly fallen monolithic fir (the last storm sent this puppy crashing down over the path, to rest atop a tree that had fallen in a storm a couple of years ago) gave me pause. As did a brand new bench, memorializing someone young. The epitaph from RW Emerson read: "The measure of a life is not in its length, but in its depth."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

the mighty winds

A storm blew through Portland the other day. Eighty-mile-an-hour gusts uprooted trees and splintered massive branches. Thousands of families lost power for days—hundreds in my neighborhood alone. For 24 hours, the Willamette Valley was cut off from points east and west by hurricane and then blizzard conditions in the Cascades and Coast Range.

Typically, winter in the Pacific Northwest is a long, slow, damp affair. One gray, soppy day after another, with the occasional sanguine burst of sun. Much the same as our population, come to think of it. We mellow, flannel-clad fern-dwellers, we like our microbrews and our bitter, dark coffee and our moss-flecked roofs. But every once in a while, we crack open and wreak havoc with the status quo. Unfortunately, much of our press has to do with scandal and misfortune—Tonya Harding, Bob Packwood, Neil Goldschmidt, hypothermic hikers. (My father loves to forward me e-mails linking to yet another Oregonian in disgrace, letting me know, I guess, that he’s keeping an eye out for me—or on me, perhaps?)

As a culture, we’re pretty young out here in the upper left. I’d like to think we’re still mulching our art. Building up compost to sustain generations of artistic fertility. We’re not as angst-ridden or intellectually nimble as our eastern counterparts; instead, we’re rather cautious and particular. Kinder, perhaps? Less convinced of our momentary authority?

I watch people a lot. Lately, I’ve been spying on families. Couples and their body language. Their roles as they march through town. Here’s what I’m noticing; the women are getting more frantic, and the men are becoming phlegmatic. Okay, okay, maybe I’m projecting. I’ll allow that that may be the case. But. Time after time, day after day, I see a little family embarking on, say, a bakery. The dad is carrying one of the children in his arms, while the mom is multi-tasking to beat the band. She orders, then explains to the whining kids why she ordered as she did. She procures the cutlery, the napkins. She hunts and gathers extra chairs from nearby tables. She flies around the room, leaping up from the table for cups of water or bar towels to mop up spills. Meanwhile, dad is trying to extract the kid from a front pack, or take off its parka, or keep the kid from tearing open yet another creamer. Dad looks war-weary. Exhausted. Okay, I’ll say it—downright catatonic.

Here’s a couple I witnessed on an elevator yesterday. It was one of those security elevators, where you have to insert your room card into a slot before the elevator will move. The woman was explaining all this to her clueless partner. He asked her if she had the room card. He’d forgotten his. He asked her if she remembered their room number, he did not. He asked her if she’d made reservations for dinner, and when. She attended each query with clear, measured answers, as though guiding a feeble-minded octogenarian.

My own son, on vacation from college, fell asleep with an empty saucepan of macaroni-and-cheese by his bed the other night. When he awoke, at noon, I offered a moderate amount of opprobrium, and asked him what his girlfriend thinks of his slacker behavior. I asked him what was up with these over-achieving women and their lackadaisical sweethearts. (His gf, by the way, is an 'A’ student, pre-med, speaks three languages fluently, and busies herself with all manner of domestic tasks—like cooking my son dinner and baking him pies—betwixt bouts of studying.)

“What’s the attraction?” I asked my son, with no rhetorical intent.

“I guess it helps them feel better about themselves,” my son mused, in all seriousness. He cited several examples—his Halo-playing poker pals seem to have found themselves in similarly fortunate circumstances.

But then again, I know my boy has come through in certain ways for his young woman. He is gentle, sweet and caring. Those dimples in his cheeks, that inability to be anything other than what he is. His overwhelming comfort with himself. All that calm-in-the-storm that exudes from his conservative push toward grace.

So therein lies my attraction to Portland, maybe? You can’t help but find balance here. The city is awash with mitigation. That, and tree debris.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

Young woman talking to young man while waiting for an elevator:

Woman: I don't really get that expression 'bite me.'
Man: You don't?
Woman: Yeah, like when I'm really pissed off at someone, I'd like to bite them...not have them bite me.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

it's coming on christmas

…they’re cuttin’ down trees.

In creating traditions which might, at some point, become my children’s oral history, I’m feeling my way, Braille-like, around the edges of common culture. Being agnostic, I have the pleasure of embracing it all, or none of it. Different years I’ve dipped into our Catholic heritage for music, incense and nativity. Sometimes the holiday finds us at the local progressive and predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church (one year one of my kids had a role in a Christmas play there). We go to Chanukah parties. We attend holiday theatre. Occasionally we careen around all of it and opt for Christmas Day blockbusters, like Titanic.

This year, I’m all for minimalism. The excesses of the season just feel plain wrong to me. The other day my friend David invited me to a preview of a local Christmas production, Mars on Life: Susannah Mars. At intermission we sort of shrugged our collective shoulders eyeing each other for context. The show was okay, but somehow fell flat at inspiring any sort of emotion or resonance for either of us. David asked if I’d noticed a dearth of Christmas spirit about. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The usual lights were lit along the West Hills. The infamous martini glass, strands of colored baubles, lots of bare branches festooned in white twinkle.

But it was David’s feeling that there might be ennui, a down-spirit this year, and that this feeling might be tied to the protracted war and the global mess we can no longer be blind to.


I have to admit to a sense of things coming unraveled. Not just for me personally (though, that’s certainly been true of this past year), but for humanity, generally. Greed, fear, hate. It all abounds. Like three-year-old children, many of us begin to cling to the familiar, and embrace destructive patterns that keep the raw chaos of it all at bay. Perhaps we go on buying sprees, taking pleasure in holding a new jewel or piece of cashmere for just that period of time before new fades into repertoire.

But others search for meaning within their passions. This is potentially a great time for art. Art that is difficult to embrace, in particular, because it drives us to look at what we should be looking at, with a part of our humanity that feels somewhat dangerous. Now is the time, more than ever, to open our eyes, our hearts, our spirits. Eschew the predictable and well-trod for the unblazed.

My friend Rachel and I took our two little boys into the woods Friday, in search of Christmas trees. We trekked about the forest, climbed some hills, found a bit of snow to sled down and eventually sawed through a couple of spindly trunks. Mine, fittingly a hemlock, is now supported with chopsticks so it stands straight in its Rubbermaid bin in a corner of my living room. Two strands of light, a clip-on bird and a few glass balls is all the decorating I’m doing this year. My kids are appalled, even the one who helped fell the tree. But they’ve chalked it up to an acceptable eccentricity, and are willing to embrace my need to follow spirit instead of conjure it. We’ll see how they feel about a Christmas Eve dinner of sushi and miso soup.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

chuck lit to die for

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of looking over a typeset copy of Rant, Chuck Palahniuk’s forthcoming book. I was perusing said book for typos and such—a proofreading job. But. I have to say, I think this book is among his finest. Even as compared with Fight Club.

For one thing, the book is unapologetically complex. There is wrinkled chronology that actually works, there are metaphoric parallels to renowned social and political “race and resettlement” horrors. Then there’s the whole liminality motif. The guy’s a genius, and that’s enough said about that!

If you don’t want to wait until the release of Rant (sometime in 2007), for new stuff from Palahniuk, grab a copy of Monica Drake’s Clown Girl, out in January by Hawthorne Books. Palahniuk wrote the intro. That, and Monica’s book is terrific. You can read more about it here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

In a women's clothing store--one perplexed woman to the salesperson:

"I know that cows stand in the rain, I just don't buy the concept of washable suede."