Tuesday, March 31, 2009

4G 3G wtf?

If you're a modern-type, and by modern I mean you e-mail more than you fax, you probably have been scratching your head lately about the choices in communicating via phone, Internet, skype and VoIP. And for entertainment, should you continue with cable? Try dish or direct tv? Watch everything via your computer screen? Or should you just Netflix what you want, or download it via youtube or iTunes or whatever else comes out of the digital birth canal?

Ah, the choices. All this G stuff. iphones are 3G, wi-fi is 4G. It's all so confusing, eh? As are the consolidation/bundle/cancel options.

My husband and I are still in the throes of merge, and discussions on what to consolidate, what to keep separate, what to banish entirely fill the allotted pragmatic plate. A few weeks ago we pondered the latest "bundle" offer from Comcast. $114.95 for basic cable, land line and Internet. Since I was currently paying Comcast $120 for just Internet and tv, I thought that by eliminating Qwest and Sprint, we'd be saving $80, so I called for a disconnect and had my brand new husband call for installation under the new service price.

Of course, I knew it wouldn't be that simple.

So the installer shows up on appointed day (after a snafu which included an inadvertent cancellation of my cancellation, thus generating a new invoice, leading me to suspect that I'd be paying double for the next month) and right away, he pronounces amazement and surprise when I query him about the wireless component to the order. "Wireless," says he. "Ain't gat no order for wireless. Don't even have a modem with me in the truck."

"No problem, I have the modem and the router already."

"Oh, well, this here is a differnt type of hook-up. They'd charge you an additional $100 for the wireless hook up."

"What hook up?" I vehemently protested. "It's already hooked up. All you have to do is hook up the phone."

So, with the impatient installer standing in the doorway, I dialed up Comcast on my iphone (dialed isn't right with the iphone, I know. We need to invent some new phone-calling verbs. For now, let's say smeared. I smeared my fingers over the screen), and after the queue of mirrors, was told I was shit out of luck. I'd have to reschedule my hook up, and my installation would be $100 instead of $45, and then there was a sur-charge for this and a tax on that. I hung up the iphone. No, make that tapped END CALL, or whatever it says in that red rectangle.

Long story short, I decided, Who the hell needs a zillion sports channels and a landline that seems to serve only to usher forth phone calls from solicitors? All I really need is Internet. Fast, furious, Internet.

Luckily, Portland is a test market for a great new Wi-Max service (4G) called clear. They have mobile Internet, home Internet and phone services all compartmentalized with gradient pricing. After a little investigation, I found out that I could get exactly what I needed for $35 a month (and five of that is modem rental). The best part was, I simply took the modem out of the box, plugged it in, and voila!

If you live in the Portland area and you're sick of Qwest and/or Comcast and their big box bullshit, call my guy, Simon Benz: (503) 875-4709. Or email him at simonbenz@clear.net . He'll come to your house with the goods and determine whether your location is in the clear zone, and hook you up! Tell him Suzy Soule sent you :)

Monday, March 30, 2009

there is a season

I've reached the point in my novel where I have to very, very quiet in order to hear the heartbeats of my characters. Discern the strength of pulse, of intent, of sorrow and redemption.

Ideally, this is when I'd go hide out in a hole somewhere and banish all manner of monkey mind from my day.

Instead, I'm doing what I typically do on Monday mornings: making a list, attending to the queue of inbox tasks that I envision are starting to grow microscopic flora. Mondays are always "too much with me," and I think it has something to do with locating myself in the world.

This is a particularly onerous Monday because it is the Monday after Spring Holiday. Can you see the circles under my little boy's eyes? He spent the week with his father, sick and in bed. Came home with a rattly cough and diminished energy, but his usual strong will to go to school today (he can't stand the thought of being out of the loop--what a Type A!); and there's his older brother, Sam--my first baby. Spring break for a college boy is all about beer, video games, laundry and, in the case of my son, voicing all the things he's going to do when he wins the lottery.

Yesterday was quite fun though. Sam, Carson and I played miniature golf in one of those blacklight basement venues that are cropping up. Sam, who takes all games seriously, kept the scorecard, announcing at each hole how much over or under par he was. I loved how we matched pace-wise: we're efficient when it comes to putt-putt, taking our turns in the middle of each other's turn, leap-frogging over slower families. None of us cares to dilly-dally.

Next on the list was a trip to Home Depot for a dehumidifier for Sam's soggy basement apartment, and then a stock-up trip to the Japanese market for staples. Sam is an aficionado of Asian cuisine, and he trotted me around to the various shaker spices for sushi rice, a particular type of Nori that he likes, and a quest for fresh uni. We rounded out the chores with the acquisition of more duct tape to hold Sam's headlights in place.

In other news, my mother-in-law continues to fade. All the Soules were up for another good-bye session round the bedside. Dorothy is in her final furlong, offering gaspy witness to a collapsing temporal reality: her parents, her children, her childhood, her wishes for the near future. "I love you," she whispers. Then: "I want to go home."

We're entering the second month of hospice, and Kirk and his sister are taking turns spending the night with her in her assisted living apartment, the oxygen machine as metronome in the background, its bellows like the blow hole of a whale. It's peaceful, scary, large and human: all of those things and many more. Her imminent death greets us every morning, and each of her children must go through the dance of letting go anew. The exhaustion of that is taking its toll on some more than others. As she shrinks from us, both physically and psychically, we are reminded of the miracle of the body: the tenacity of will and spirit. Myself, I think she has another week in her. She'll hold on until the month of her birth, which is fitting.

So, today is Monday. The holiday week is over. The kids are back in school. My checklist is moderate, and my heart and mind are open to the next thing. I'm trying to purge the jangly sounds in order to hear the voices of my other family: the Messmeirs, and for that, I may need to walk in the woods.

Friday, March 20, 2009

self worth: the never-ending pursuit

Last night, after workshop, I came home to my sleeping husband and I was in the mood to share. Workshop had been full of emotion. With ten of us, it happens sometimes that there's a leak in the boat. Someone feels dissed, or insulted or threatened. I wanted to download all of this with Kirk, the way he does with me sometimes after basketball when a fight breaks out on the court amongst his long-time hoopster friends.

I yakked on about how much I love my writer friends, and what had transpired during the evening's session. I offered the anecdote that one member gave as a way to help the other member who felt shut down. I don't think I was very articulate. It was the red wine mush-brain syndrome. The, "I've been up since 5:30 a.m. and now it's 11, and we have to get up at 5:30 again" thing going on there in the bed. I was trying to convey the relationship between language and emotion, and it was late. Too late.

"That's nice, Honey," said my husband, whose sleep I had interrupted.

This morning though, at o'dark-thirty, as he bounded out of bed to grab his basketball knee guards the way you only do when it's the Friday launch pad day of spring break, he'd thought over the broohaha I had assumed he'd not absorbed.

"I guess I just don't understand the creative process," he said. "What writers go through. Seems there's a lot of suffering."

He wasn't being dismissive, he was just stating a fact: artistic angst just isn't in his frame of reference. He views writing as a pragmatic endeavor. "You have an idea, you outline it, you write it, the end," he said.

"Well, yeah, if you're writing for the intellect, I guess," I said. Then, I went into the whole Dangerous Writing paradigm. "When you go for the heart, you actually have to open yours," I told him. "You have to get vulnerable, and sometimes that's messy."

"You know what I think," he said, "I think there may be too many girls in your writers' group." With that, my lover gave me a kiss and then bounded off in his basketball outfit to get in a little chipping, pushing, shoving and dunking in before work.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Power Play

The other day, after spending some time on my pages, the balance of power between my characters loomed large. Starting with the grandmother character, trickling down through my narrator, via her mother, and then onto my narrator’s niece. My novel is a study in matriarchy. The men in my novel are “shadowy extras on the set” which is the actual descriptor early on. This is a family where the men lope behind the women like pets. They are expendable and mostly badly behaved. This is exemplified in the opening scene, in which a male forebear commits a murder/suicide—a definitive statement from which the tale unfurls.

Dizzy with words and characters and plot points, off I went to the gym, headphones in pocket. On the elliptical machine, there in front of me on telly one, was Tony and gang. Commensurate with my state of mind, this was one of the quintessential power-shift episodes, the one where Little Anthony gets in trouble for being drunk in gym class and is consigned to the school counselor to rule out ADD.

The undercurrent is in backstory, where we learn the root of Tony’s ensuing existential crisis: his first awareness of the family “business.” This is juxtaposed with his own decision to reveal or not reveal the nature of his livelihood to his own kids, and the confession of his philandering ways to his shrink.

The one scene in Melfi’s office unveils, in my mind, the core of the success of this show. There is this stunning confrontation between Melfi and Tony, a standoff of psyches, on the heels of a session where Tony revealed his “love” read: transference, for his therapist. Tony’s need to balm his vulnerability with face-saving machismo is so wonderfully, classically, hyperbolically male. Melfi’s retreat into professional stance when she is clearly intrigued by her patient, is played on the edge. The chemistry between these two characters comes up against their sense of control and power and hunger for winning. It’s everything I want to explore in my work, and left me feeling drained and excited all at the same time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

lost in translation

This week, we have a lovely young girl from Toyamaken, Japan visiting our home. She's a 16-yr-old high school student here on an exchange through the high school where my husband works.

She speaks a bit of English. We here at our house speak zero Japanese. Hand gestures abound. I didn't know I could move my eyebrows up and down that energetically!

I haven't been a host to someone from another culture in a very long time, and this exercise is teaching me a lot about communication, presumption, non-verbal cues, etc... It's making me realize that a lot of my day--really, a lot--is about anticipating disaster and managing expectation. Having a non-English speaker in the house has magnified this. It has magnified my ineptitudes as well. For instance. I'm a really shitty folder. Sheets, towels, Origami, you name it, if the goal is to make something look like it just spent a week in the hamper, I'm a pro. Our house guest is an expert folder. She handed me her dirty laundry and it was presented in this beautiful shape, as though it were a bouquet she was offering. I'm going to labor over the folding of this laundry when I hand it back to her. Or maybe I won't actually hand it to her. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to stack it by her bedroom door. Maybe she'll think my nine-year-old did it that way and I can save face.

So, I'm a terrible folder, BUT, I'm good at flinging things. And the hip check? I have that down pat. Plus, I can scramble through a Safeway, get everything on my list and into my car in less time than it takes to, uh, fold a load of towels.

In order to give our guest an adventure, today we took her skiing. The mountain was more blizzardy than I've ever seen it. My ass was literally lifted off of the ski lift during one gust. Our Japanese girl was quite amazed, though certainly polite, as horizontal ice pelted the few exposed areas of her cheeks. She had enough after three runs down the bunny slope. And who could blame her? I tried to joke in that way that you do when you speak a different language than the person you're joking with.

"Bet you wish you were on a nice beach, eh? Well, we're tough here in Oregon. Very tough. This is what we do for fun!" I said, emphasizing the joke words by saying them way too loud, Trying out hyperbole with my cheek muscles, though, my voice was muffled and my jaw was enshrouded by the neck warmer I'd pulled up to my goggles.

She's off to slumber land now, our guest. The trepidation she carried in her body the last two days (she was very nervous about this impending ski trip, I think), has melted, if, indeed, the ice on the mountain has not. She's relieved and looking forward to the next few days, where she'll attend American high school with the other Japanese students, and as far as "home stay" activities--I think we'll take in a movie tomorrow night. I'm thinking Coraline.

Monday, March 09, 2009

David Foster Wallace

Interesting article on David Foster Wallace in this week's New Yorker. The newest issue isn't online yet, or I'd link to it. If you're a fan of Wallace, or even if you're not, it's an important read. Also in the issue is an excerpt of his soon-to-be posthumously published novel, THE PALE KING-- a book which seeks to argue for the transcendence that comes through abject boredom.

I never could sit still long enough to get through Wallace's verbal hyjinks in INFINITE JEST, but I admire the intensity and energy of Wallace's writing--his unapologetic wrestle with language. His ambitious and arrogant approach to the relationship between thought and word, image and concept, idea and paradigm.

And I say "arrogant" partly to stir the bee's nest, and partly to elevate the notion of arrogance, because, let's face it, writers are a study in chutzpah. Who else would deign to invent a human, give him language and hire him to carry out the stray thoughts and conundrums of wholesale invention other than a writer? Well, maybe George Double-ya, but he's old news.

Wallace suffered. Geniuses tend to suffer. Do you know any geniuses who don't suffer? The New Yorker piece digs into the pain of Wallace's inability to accept praise of his various efforts. He always fell short, in his opinion. Writing drove him mad. It was his salvation. And it drove him mad again.

When I was younger, I was afraid I might also be swept into madness exacerbated by creative endeavors. Fortunately, it was only youthful craziness in my case--being blessed by overall favorable bio-chemistry, my pendulum won't let me swing too far one side or the other. Nevertheless, I find the connection between madness and creativity both scary and fascinating. The piece on Wallace was a reminder of the fragility of the psyche. It left me feeling extremely sad. The despair and hopelessness that squeezes in on incredible artists, like Wallace, like Cobain, like Sexton--stemming their gifts to the generations who might have otherwise experienced transcendence from their art.

Friday, March 06, 2009

dining continental

Last night, at workshop, I brought in a piece where my characters were assembled at the grand family dining table, and I offered a tidbit on dining "Continental Style." Here's the passage I had:
Ursula and I drank goblets of Hawaiian Punch, careful to wipe any telltale stain from our top lips. Now, after a few bites of carefully cut, fussily delivered meat—Grandmother eschewed the trend toward American dining, so we had to put down the knife and transfer the fork to the knife hand after every painstaking Continental bite—it was time to begin the ritual Ursula and I longed for—the supper gossip.

Chuck told me that I had it wrong. That "Continental Style" necessitated keeping the fork and knife in hand at all times, and eating with the "tines down."

My information was incorrect? How could that be!? So I checked it out with the "expert," Ms. Brouwer, and found out that, et voila, Chuck's right and I'm wrong.

Check out this "expert" video below (you'll have to sit through a 15 second commercial on Swifter or something equally stimulating--but it's worth it just to watch Brouwer's etiquette lesson).

Ms. Brouwer is the expert, I suppose, but I found this "comment" on the "expert village" website even more helpful to my story, as I believe it embodies my matriarch character's feeling on the matter:

The problem is that the Continental style of eating is rather barbaric, so talking about its "etiquette" is silly. The Continental style suggests that you have to gobble your food down so quickly that you cannot take a split-second to change hands. This lack of pause for switching hands also results in the tendency of the diner to bend over more and more until his head is nearly to the plate and he is just shoveling food into his mouth. In the United States, it's also an affectation --in essence announcing, "I've been to Europe." Therefore, although, as Ms. Brouwer says, it "is what you will find all over the world" (I guess like spitting or flatulence), it is generally not appropriate in the United States and it is offensive for her (from her accent, apparently a European ) to come here to advise us that we are eating improperly and that her way is what is done "all over" the world. In addition, it looks silly to hold the fork upside-down, especially when one must mash peas onto the fork to be able to pick them up, looking like a slob and destroying the fun of eating peas, which is to pop them between the teeth.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

on becoming a writer

In October, I will be celebrating my 20th Anniversary of moving to Portland--and, my 20th Anniversary of defining myself as a writer.

Even though I've been writing stories since third grade, it's only after moving to a city where I did not know one person that I formalized this reinvention of myself as a writer. Until then I was a mom. A dietitian. A widow. A young lady. All vague designations that had much more to do with my reflection to the world than my self-concept.

The first Monday after I moved into my one-bedroom apt in NW Portland, two babies in tow, I rented an electric typewriter--a cumbersome machine that weighed about the same as the microwave ovens of the era. The Willy Loman-type salesman who delivered it stayed for an hour or two, while I made him tea, and my babies crawled around and climbed all over him like puppies. He asked me why I was renting this state-of-the-art typewriter, and, just like that, it came tumbling out of my mouth: "I'm a writer."

"Oh," he said. "I thought maybe you were a student."

It didn't take longer than a heartbeat in those days for me to question myself. "Well," I said, "I'll probably need to take a writing class..."

"So, are you published?" he said.

There it was--the need for proof that I was, indeed, a writer, and not a wanna be.

"Not yet," I said, peeling my one-year old daughter off of his pant's leg.

"So, what do you write?"

I had notebooks filled with the answer to that question. But all I did was shrug my shoulders.

A couple of days ago, I was reminded of that exchange when I spoke to a creative nonfiction class at PCC, where my friend Rodger Larson teaches. After I gave my spiel--chatting up the local magazines where I've penned several articles, offering publishing advice and plugging the lo-residency school where I got my MFA, it occured to me that maybe these students just wanted to learn how to write. So I asked them: Why this class?

The mostly 20-somethings in the room, it turned out, were not there to find out more about publishing their work--they were there to learn how to write. Or write better. They came alive during a discourse on electronic media and computer vs notebook. These students were a tribute to the anachronistic medium--they pretty much all were appalled at the demise of the "book" as the main conduit to narrative engagement. It was heartening. Young people who don't blog! I, who just invested in an iphone mostly due to peer pressure and the expectation of immediate response--after all I own a communications business--was humbled.

I passed out a sign-up sheet to snag the students' email addresses, and I had two sections: "I'm interested in workshops on the craft of writing," and "I'm interested in workshops on the business of writing." Business got only two interested parties, and both of those had also signed under craft.

That same lust that I had that first Monday after moving to Portland: to write! Was alive in that Community College group. And about what happens after that? Not so much.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Life. And death.

Much of the marketing copy I write these days includes a directive to find unique ways of saying: "In these tough economic times."

With AIG needing yet another bailout, the schools at risk of early closure, record-breaking unemployment, foundations and philanthropic organizations scrambling, "tough times," hardly covers it. I like the word "crisis" better, actually--but, like single-word sentences, "crisis" has also been used to death. To death? Is that what this is all about? Good old fear of mortality rising up around us like the stink off of a stiff?

All around us, tried and true economic fixes are failing. Zapping the economy with low interest, incentives, stimulus, recovery dollars--none of these infusions has positively impacted the stock market--which just today celebrated its lowest opening bell since the 70's. My husband, a schoolteacher with more than 20 years in the public school sector, was asked to fill out a survey over the weekend. The Beaverton school district stoked the survey with disclaimers, and basically, the query had the tenor of: We have no intention of doing this AT THIS TIME, but, would you leap at the chance to put enough dough in your pocket to buy health insurance for five years if we squeezed your ass out the door next year so we could hire newbies at less than half your salary? Oh, and, by the way, would you commit to being on the substitute teacher roll for X years as part of this deal?

Perhaps the district is worried about culling all the fresh-out-of-school teachers from the sub pool, and wants to cover their butts with the veterans. Hard to say. But one thing is certain, the air is full of people scrambling. Holding on. Not wanting to let go. Fear.

So long, Rocky Mountain News. Bye-bye rising GNP. Fresh out of college, needing to pay off staggering student loans? Hope you like yanking espresso machines. No, wait, Starbucks is closing stores! There goes the neighborhood.

I always get a pit in my gut when I pass by a newly shuttered store or restaurant. It hits me like the dissolution of long-time couples I always thought were still madly in love. Failure is so easily internalized. And yet, I can't seem to keep death out of my writing. Pretty much everything I write involves loss. Love and loss: my two great obsessions.

And now, in my real life, I am facing the imminent death of my mother-in-law, who is literally shrinking from our sight. Witnessing this human downsizing over the last three months has been a compressed version of solid companies collapsing and quickly placed "for lease" signs pasted on to merchant windows. It's a one-way ticket. There won't be anyone new occupying Dorothy's body. She's leaving us bit by bit, forever.

And meanwhile, daffodils poke up. All of the perennial hallmarks: greener grass, longer days, the occasional warm burst of air. Dorothy's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to live and grow and work and play and love.

Our infinite capacity to create and continue is our only salvation with so much death around us. We will find new ways to do business. To read the news. To ensure education for our next generation. To keep the dying safe and comfortable while we say good bye.