12
Jan 09

Further Thoughts on Snow

Last January my friends Edie and Deb and I made a plan to ski out to the cabin on the South Fork of the Wood River and spend the night, and in February we actually did it, which is more than I can say for many of the plans I make. Deb took many great pictures, and one of these days I’ll post some of them. The snow was a little bit slushy when we went out — Edie and I skiied and Deb snowshoed, and we each went at our own pace — but the moon that night was beautiful. Edie kept running out and then running back in and saying, “It’s good moon! It’s good moon!” and then we’d go out to look, too. Overnight it snowed, and so we woke up in the morning two miles from the nearest road, with the snow all over everything and no tracks in it at all, and Deb got the woodstove roaring again and I made eggs and coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, and later Edie did the dishes and we packed up our things and skiied and snowshowed back through the snow, which went all the way over our skis.

I didn’t start out to write about this, but it’s where I’ve ended up. Deb died just before Christmas. I don’t think I have quite taken that in yet. 2008 had its good parts, but it was also a year in which far too many people that I knew died far before their time. My godson Phelim; Ashton, the daughter of our superintendent; Deb; and then, New Year’s Eve day, Jim Pusack, a friend who was a last-minute member of my MFA thesis committee.

I hope that 2009 holds fewer such events for me and for any of you who may be reading this.

I lost my father and my grandfather within a few months of each other when I was five years old, and then for a long time nobody I knew died. One does not get such a reprieve forever.

One thing I am thinking about in 2009 is how to go about both mourning and remembering the people I care about who have died. The only useful thing I know about grief is that it does not end, and that it isn’t necessary for it to end. You can be a little bit sad every day for the rest of your life. You don’t have to get over it. This year I’m going to be thinking about how to recognize those little bits of sadness and honor them. (I sort of can’t believe that I just used honor as a verb with feelings as the object, but that’s what this world does to you.)

I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway when I was seventeen years old, and I was stunned, simply stunned, by the book. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of one day in the life of a woman in her fifties, but in the course of that day, when she has a big party, she remembers all these other various people and places in her life, and there’s a good bit that has to do with the summer she was eighteen. Until that moment I had no idea that grown ups dwelt in the past as well as in the present and future. I was so used to adolescence being dismissed by grown ups that I figured none of them ever thought about the past. I suppose there are grown ups who don’t, but I am not one of them, nor do I wish to be. The things you remember are, in some ways, all you have. I strive to remember as much as I can.


12
Jan 09

Things I Like About January

  • my friend Jenna’s zine, which arrived in the mail the other day
  • cross-country skiing
  • figuring out who in town made New Year’s resolutions about exercise by checking out the new names on the Rec center’s exercise punchcards (remind me to offer them help with their website)
  • a clean house! (Usually I try to clean in December, before I leave for the holidays. This year I didn’t clean till this past Saturday, but hey, now I have a clean house!)
  • cold weather means snuggly kitties
  • the days get longer, little by little

I love Winter. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, I don’t live in a place where winters are particularly harsh. They’re no worse than midwestern winters, on average, and they’re in some ways less “bad” due to the lack of moisture in the air, which somehow makes the cold a little less cold. But I don’t mind below zero temperatures, or snow, or ice. I would not want them all the time, but while they are here, I relish them.


14
Dec 08

Like the Weather

It’s 16 or so below zero here — the Cody weather says -16, and I’m too lazy and warm to get up and look at either of my thermometers. I like cold weather largely because surviving it allows me to feel morally superior to people who live in more temperate climes. But in a perverse way, I do enjoy the cold, and the way your nostrils freeze and thaw with every breath, and the frost on the insides of the windows, and how very bright and crisp everything seems, and the crunching of the snow when you step on it, and the ice formations everywhere. I walked around my house this afternoon trying to pound my windows back into place so I could get them shut properly before I put plastic up over them, and I discovered that somehow the faucet attached to my leaky hose had come on, and there were ice sculptures at all the places where it leaks. I don’t suppose it’s good for the hose, and I rather dread what it may have done to the water bill, and I hate waste — but it looked beautiful and fantastical — a pleasure dome with caves of ice and all that.

I’ve been thinking this evening, on the eve of my thirty-third birthday, about the time around my twenty-first birthday, when I was a junior in college and terribly depressed. I had a dinner party for my birthday, although I had to hold it several days before my actual birthday, since I had a nine a.m. final the day after my birthday, and so my friends had to go out and buy the wine. Everybody had some role — wine buying, dessert making, music selecting, cocktail shaking — and it was one night in that time I remember fondly. And I even remember my actual birthday fondly. I went down to the patrol office at the midnight shift change to say hi, and my friend Jack, who had the same nine a.m. final I did the next day, talked me into driving the shuttle. “Hey, if we can’t be hungover, at least we can be exhausted!”

But tonight I’m thinking about another night from around that time. I was trying to take my finals and pack up all my belongings and get them moved into my friends’ basement. I was moving off campus the next semester, and I had to be out of my dorm room but couldn’t yet get into my apartment. The girl next door to me was taking my room, and she asked every time she saw me when I was moving, and every single time I told her not until I was done with my last final on Friday morning. Anyway, when I wasn’t working, I spent my time packing up my room and studying. I had one book out that wasn’t part of my studying regimen. It was the text from my Romantics class, an anthology edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, and I wasn’t at all sure why I’d left it out, until one night, unable to concentrate on anything else, I opened it up to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight“:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud — and hark, again loud! as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude. . .

It is not really a poem about my situation then, or my situation now, but one of the things I’ve come to appreciate as a librarian and a reader that I did not appreciate as a writer and a teacher is that sometimes literature is not so much about what it is about as it is about what it needs to be for the particular reader in a particular place and time. A story isn’t yours once you’ve told it: it belongs as much to the people who read it and come to inhabit it as it does to you. And so tonight I’m thinking about the secret ministry of frost and the quiet moon, and I hope both are working their magic over you all, wherever you may be.


04
Dec 08

Why I Hate Facebook

There are many reasons to hate Facebook (and many reasons to like it, to be sure, but I’m not going to address them here. Incidentally, if you are reading this on Facebook, it’s because I have my personal blog feed into Facebook so I can contribute there without actually going there). But I hate Facebook primarily for one reason: Facebook always tells me I’m fat.

I do my best to keep updated with AdBlock and Greasemonkey scripts and other things that make the web a prettier place to be, but it doesn’t seem to matter: invariably, when I log in, there’s an ad there telling me I need to get rid of my muffin top, or that I can get a flat belly if I just click on this link. What truly astounds me — and frightens me — is not only that Facebook thinks I’m fat, but also that it manages to focus on exactly the parts of my body I feel least secure about.

Mind you, I don’t think I’m fat. At least mostly I don’t think I’m fat. It helps that I can remind myself that I once weighed a lot more than I do now, and I tried very hard not to think I was fat when I weighed thirty to forty pounds more than I do these days.

And most of the time, I’m fairly successful in this mode of thinking. I have some advantages. I was raised to believe weight was irrelevant when judging character. I have never had a doctor tell me I need to lose weight. I was fairly well shielded from popular culture for most of my childhood. I spent summers for over a decade at an all girls’ summer camp where they focused a lot on acquiring skills and had very few mirrors.

But it doesn’t seem to matter: there is something so insidious about the idea of being fat that it seems it’s impossible to escape. Girls at camp spent a lot of time in front of those small mirrors, and some years there were girls who were sent from camp to the hospital to be treated for anorexia.

And I don’t think it will ever matter what I weight, or how my clothes fit, or how I actually look to the rest of the world: every time Facebook tells me I’m fat, I’ll think I am. And that’s why I hate Facebook.


29
Oct 08

The Psych Ward, Ten Years Out

woman outside the Professional Union for Woman Suffrage holding a banner that reads Forward out of error / Leave behind the night / Forward through the darkness / Forward into light.

Forward out of darkness. Harris & Ewing, photographer. [Women’s Suffrage]. [Between 1910 and 1920] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A few days before Halloween in 1998 my mother hauled me out of the chair I’d been living in and into the car and into the hospital, where I signed a great many pieces of paper, including the ones that said I was committing myself to the psychiatric ward. I seem to remember that I was riding in a wheelchair, although that seems unlikely, since surely my legs were still working, even if I wasn’t inclined to use them. But the wheelchair is an appropriate metaphor (although I realize this is about to be hugely insulting to wheelchair users, for which I do apologize): some one had to push me, because there was no way I was going to move anywhere unless acted upon by an outside force.

I was what they call a voluntary committal, which is to say that I was not ordered into the ward by a judge. I would not say, however, that I went voluntarily: I was not volunteering for anything at that point, although I suppose if God had said, “Hmm, we need someone who’s willing to die,” I would have stepped forward.

Due to the vagaries of medical fads and the travesties of managed care, psych wards nowadays function as little more than holding tanks for the suicidal. As soon as they decide you’re not going to do yourself in, they let you out, regardless of whether or not you feel any better. As Kay Redfield Jamison points out in Night Falls Fast, this discharging is not a particularly good or helpful policy, since a great many suicides occur just after people are let out of the hospital.

The psych ward was, I suppose, useful to me in one way. I loathed the place. It was small and crowded; the windows didn’t open and the blinds, which were set in between two panes of glass, could only be tilted, not raised or lowered. The furniture in the main room was uncomfortable, and uncomfortably close to one’s fellow residents. The smoke leaked out from the smoking room. The TV was always on. If you sat in your room to read or think or just not be around people, they marked you down as unsocial. There was another little TV room where you could watch movies borrowed from the hospital library, supposing you could get someone to go there for you, or had privileges enough to go by yourself. They would not give you caffeinated coffee, not even in the morning, though they’d sell you pop at 8 p.m. They had an alarming fascination with your bowel movements, or lack thereof. And they would not let me vote.

Somewhere, in all my stacks of paper, I still have an evaluation form they sent me after my hospital stay. I have been carting it around all these years because I keep thinking that someday maybe I will be mellow enough to complain about the experience without screaming, but that day has not come.

I was only on the ward for five days, but I was under the highest level of lockdown the whole time. I could not leave the ward, no matter what, not even in a straitjacket with multiple attendants. That meant I couldn’t go to one of the many absentee voting booths set up around the hospital during the weeks before an election. I asked every doctor, every nurse, and every aide I saw. “How will I be able to vote?” Not one of them answered me. It was an off-year election, and I suppose that most of the other people on my ward, who mostly had schizophrenia and were fairly heavily medicated, were perhaps not very in touch with current events and thus not as interested in the whole business of participating in the democratic process as I was. But I was appalled.

So I suppose you could say that it was, in the end, my belief in democracy that saved me from depression. I worked as hard as I could to get out of that place. I spent all my time in the common room and played Yahtzee with people who didn’t know where they were. I watched day time television. (Seriously, all the stuff they tell you is bad for you in the outside world they totally push in the psych ward–the place is smoke free now, but when I was there, I swear the answer to every complaint was “go take a smoke break” or “go watch TV.”) My mother very kindly started bringing me coffee in the morning. It was, for some reason, permissible to have someone bring coffee to you, but they’d only give you decaf. I ate the horrible hospital food and stopped making extra-big circles around the COFFEE option. And it worked, I guess. I was discharged on election day. I walked the four blocks home to my mother’s house, got in my car, and drove to my polling place.

It was a long time, and a lot more ups and downs, before I really got better, and even today, there are parts of me that still aren’t always better. This year I’ll be spending thirteen hours in a chair at the Meeteetse Town Hall ensuring that the machinery of democracy is working smoothly. I know most of the people who read this will vote, or have already, but I’d urge you all to think of anyone you can who might be prevented from voting and try to help them get to the polls. My mother now works in the psychiatric department where I was once a patient, and she assures me that everyone there will have the opportunity to vote this year. I hope that’s true for everyone on the outside, too.

As for me, I’m still cynical as all get out, and I still think voting is the least thing you can do to make the world a better place. But it’s still important to me — so much so that, you might say, voting saved my life.


16
Sep 08

Bangs and Whimpers

We all know, or know of, people who crash and burn, the mad ones, the ones whose candle burns at both ends, who end with a bang, who burn out instead of fading away. They are common enough, in fact, that I am able to write an entire sentence about them using other people’s words. The rock stars, the drunken poets, the strung out artists, the ones who get Rolling Stone issues dedicated to them, whose graves inspire supplicants, who put the chic in heroin chic and the manic in manic depressive.

I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the sufferings of these people, which are real, and troubling, and which surely do as much to detract from their lives as they do to enhance their art. But this weekend brought a sad reminder that there are other kinds of suffering — less blinding, perhaps, but no less real.

I first read about David Foster Wallace’s death via my friend Steve’s FriendFeed post. I have rarely been so grateful to have an online community. Watching the comments on that post, and later posts by Steve and Steven and Rochelle and Jessamyn, I was bouyed somewhat from the awful shock of it because I was connected to so many people for whom the news was equally tragic, and in some cases more so.

My cousin Jennifer gave me a membership to the Quality Paperback Book Club when I graduated from college, and one of the first books I bought was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I knew Wallace because his story “Girl With Curious Hair” was included in the anthology Voices of the Xiled, which I bought, I think, on some New York City trip in college, and I was just starting to think that essays were perhaps my favorite literary format. The book didn’t disappoint; a decade later, it’s still on my shelf, and I still crack up every time I even think about the title essay.

I remember the boyfriend, later husband, of another good friend talking about how he and some friends always meant to take a pilgrimage to Bloomington-Normal to go pay him a visit, although they never did. I remember starting Infinite Jest and thinking it was marvelous and wonderful and crazy and then stopping sometime in the middle of a footnote and not getting back to it, though I always meant to.

Just this morning I was talking to a library patron about Wallace and about how sad we were, and about how both of us had started but not finished Infinite Jest, and about how guilty we felt, me because I bought a remaindered copy; she because she gave hers away.

Today at work I checked through all the various blogs and things I regularly read, and I came across the New York Times story that quotes his father, who talks about how Wallace had been taking medicine for depression for twenty years, and how just last year medication had started to fail, and in the past year new things had been tried, new medicine, no medicine, ECT, and how none of them had ultimately worked.

And I was reminded of how cripplingly, dully, horrible depression is, how unromantic, how difficult. We think so often of the mental illness of artists as being of the crazy, manic, candle burning at both ends sort, and in doing so we forget that just as often it is the sort of unrelenting, boring, deathly illness that probably plagued David Foster Wallace for years, that has plagued me at times, that I believe probably ultimately killed my father, who killed himself when he was only about a decade older than Wallace was at his death.

There isn’t any really happy conclusion to this. I don’t have a policy proposal or even a pat remark, except to say, as one does in so many situations, that it is terrible that things should have to come to this for us to take notice.

PS Steve has a good collection of links on DFW.


28
Jul 08

Read All About It

It stays hot — even here, at 5797 feet — too late on summer nights for me to be able to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, which explains at least in part what I’m doing up at this hour writing and making chicken stock. Well, it explains the up part. The chicken stock part is because I have this chicken carcass that needs to be made into stock, and it’s way too warm during the day to heat up that much for that long, so I figured I might as well do it now.

The writing part is just a sudden desire to try to articulate a few things I’ve been thinking about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my online presence and its various manifestations and how those have influenced, and in some cases created, the friendships in my life. Of course, I also spend a lot of time online, tinkering with various aspects of this presence and talking to my friends and my “friends,” and so it is perhaps not surprising that I think about it quite a bit, too.

At the moment, it breaks down kind of like this

  • This here blog is supposedly the real me, but it tends to get neglected far more than anything else.
  • lis.dom is the library me
  • Facebook is the place for people I went to high school with and other strangers from the past to find me. I’ve had a website of some sort or other since 1999, so it’s not like I’ve been hiding, but I guess a lot of people who don’t really want to find you are down with finding you on Facebook. I used to play Scabulous on Facebook, too, but I couldn’t keep up.
  • Flickr is where I always intend to put more pictures that I forever intend to take.
  • Twitter is on hold while I sort out my relationship with it.
  • FriendFeed is where I spend most of my time.

By next month, of course, all of that could change.

I was just saying today to my friend Steve that (and I quote, from my own IM transcript): “I also sort of wish this kind of thing had been around when I was young and convinced no one else had my problems — although that may be a function of being young, not of medium.”

Reading, it has always seemed to me, serves two purposes: it reminds you on the one hand that there are a lot of people who are not like you and that on the other hand there are a lot of people just like you. I’ve always thought of reading in that sense as meaning reading books, but reading FriendFeed will give you much the same experience. And that means that those of us who face the world best by reading about it suddenly have a whole new place and way to encounter the world.

I might well have found some new world just as wonderful by some other route, but I think I can’t discount the medium in this case. The medium isn’t the message — as the Twitter-to-FriendFeed defection showed, I think a lot of us don’t feel brand loyalty — but it is the means (and perhaps someday we’ll have social network protocols as the means?). All those invisible ones and zeroes, all those packets pinballing around through the network — they make this thing, whatever it is that we have here.


14
Jul 08

A Peach is Perfect for a Very Short Time

I am trying to regard it as one of the blessings of this summer that I have not yet had a bad peach.

Given war, natural disasters, the collapse of various financial markets, deaths, and anxiety, it doesn’t seem like much of a blessing, but I’m trying to think of it that way.

And these have been just ordinary grocery store peaches, not the wonderful ones that I bought thirty pounds of a few years back that were selling from a roadside stand. These have just been on sale at the grocery store for $1.49 a pound, and I get a few every time I go, and they’ve all been good.

I never used to like summer much — school was out, which many people liked, but as school was something I was good at and summer activities were mostly things I was not good at, I sort of missed it. Fresh fruit was sort of my consolation prize for summer. It was hot and muggy and people were forever telling you to go play outside, where it was even more hot and muggy, but you got fresh peaches, and strawberries and blueberries and cherries and plums and melons and even mulberries, which are not really very good but which I ate in large quantities because we always seemed to have a mulberry tree in our yard.

I was a late-comer to cherries. I’d always thought I didn’t like them, since I never liked anything cherry flavored. Then the summer we were fourteen I stayed for a week in New Jersey with my oldest friend, who was living there with some family friends for the summer. We went into New York City almost every day, and when we got out of the train station, we’d walk along until we found a fruit vendor, and Sara would say, “We’d like a pound of cherries, please.” Then we walked along the streets of Manhattan, eating cherries out of a brown paper bag and spitting the pits into the gutters. We’d walk and eat until we’d finished the pound, and then, more often than not, we’d happen upon another fruit vendor and say, “We’d like a pound of cherries, please.”

I don’t eat cherries in quite that kind of quantity anymore, but as soon as I see them in the supermarket, I buy some (and then, because I am old, I take them home and wash them and put the pits I’ve spat out into the garbage can) and think about being fourteen and fifteen and seeing New York for the very first time.

So on days like today when the world seems to be not too great, which is how it generally seemed all the time when I was in high school, I am trying to be thankful for fruit.


19
May 08

Home

I’m writing this from a Java House in Iowa City, the one over on the west side of town that’s now part of this mini mall that, when I was in high school, was a field of wildflowers. Come to think of it, the Java House did not exist when I was in high school. I remember going to the one downtown during my first winter break home from college and thinking how pretentious it was. Sometimes I still think that, but given the hours of my life that I have now spent idling away in fancy coffee shops, I should admit to being either pretentious or hypocritical myself. Or both.

When people say, “I just couldn’t keep it to myself,” they usually mean that they have good news (or even the Good News). Mine is not good news. I’ve been pondering a good deal lately about the nature of online communication and whether, when we post something either good or bad, we are doing so in order to be informative or in order to garner accolades or condolences. I haven’t come up with an answer, but I have realized that, for me, the online world and the regular world have bled into each other so much that I can’t always separate out what happens in my real life into distinct parcels that fit neatly into pre-printed grids. I was always fairly good at coloring inside the lines when I was a kid, and I used to hate it when I made mistakes. Some years later, it seems to me as though mistakes are pretty much the currency we trade in, if we’re honest.

Friday afternoon, my godson, Phelim Andrew Thurston, the son of my oldest friend in the world, died suddenly. He was not quite eight months old.

When I was last in Iowa City, my mother, our friend Alice, and I held a baptism for Phelim in my mom’s house. I never got to take a formal picture of us all, and there are more pictures of Phelim’s older brother, Imriel, in that set than of Phelim himself, who was at that time still quite tiny and hooked up to a monitor. He was born prematurely and spent several weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit, and some months after that connected to a monitor. He was given a clean bill of health after that, though, and seemed to be thriving. You can see him flirting with his mom in this little video.

I got the news Friday afternoon when I got home from work. Before dawn on Saturday I was in my car and headed to Worland, WY, where I got on an eighteen-seat plane with three passengers headed to Denver by way of Laramie. I got into Chicago that afternoon and was practically apoplectic at seeing gas for $4.39 a gallon on the cab ride to my grandmother’s, where I spent the night as I was exhausted beyond measure. It turned out to be just as well, since I wouldn’t have been able to leave that day anyway.

I generally fly to Chicago because it’s almost always cheaper than flying to Iowa, and in this case there was the added bonus that I’d be able to use my mother’s car, which was at my grandmother’s because my mother had left it there when she took the train out to Boston, where she’s spending a month learning about street ministry. The difficulty lay in the location of the keys to my mother’s car, which, after numerous phone calls (including one to Triple A to get the car unlocked, because at one point we thought the key was in it), we finally learned was on my cousin’s dresser in his apartment, which was all very well except that he was in Peoria for the weekend along with the other people who might have had a key to his place, and we had to wait until six o’clock last night for them to return so that we could get the key so that I could drive to Iowa City, which is only about three and half hours away. I got in late last night, after the extreme disappointment of stopping at the Mobil Mart in Rock Falls for a doughnut only to find that not only do they not have Krsipy Kreme doughnuts any more, they also had no doughnuts of any sort at all. (And Firefox, apparently, accepts donut but not doughnut. Gar.)

I’ll be here for a week, at least. I am extremely grateful to my director, Frances, for telling me to go ahead and take off and we’d figure out my timesheet later, and to my coworkers, for covering everything in my absence.

And thank you to all of you. Those on Twitter got this news a few days ago; this is the first time I’ve been able to sit still for long enough to write the rest of it down. If you are a praying sort, please say a prayer for Caitrin, my friend, for baby Phelim, and for Imriel, Ileana, and Delaney, his older brother and half-sisters, and Sam, Phelim and Imriel’s father. And thank you all, again.


02
May 08

Facebook and the Not So Hallowed Halls

Facebook is really making me wonder if I need to reevaluate my entire high school experience.

I did not like high school. I spent as little time there as possible, but it was still far too much. If I had to do it over again, I’d drop out the day I turned sixteen, take some college classes, read a lot, and get a GED.

But then, you see, I joined Facebook. And then I started getting friend requests from people I knew in high school. A few are people I was at least friendly with, but there are plenty of others I can scarcely remember, and some I remember actively disliking me.

Of course, Facebook is in part about gathering “friends,” and some people are heavily invested in getting their numbers up, and that may account for part of it. And I have observed that people you know who haven’t seen you in a long time invariably treat you as a long-lost friend, regardless of how little they liked you back when.

A few weeks ago I got a message from a long-lost high school acquaintance in which said acquaintance mentioned that he’d always had a crush on me. I did not date in high school. I did not even come close. I certainly didn’t think anyone came even close to harboring an affection for me. But apparently I was wrong — and knowing that has made me start to wonder how many other impressions I had that were incorrect. And that in turn leads me to wonder if I had a whole other possible high school existence, a sort of parallel track that I never found a way to hop on. It’s almost enough to make me wish I could go back and do it again — but not quite enough. I think I’d still hate gym class, lockers, bells, the smell of the cafeteria, and my AP English teacher.