Saturday, February 22, 2014

Everything Is Workable

I chewed through George Saunders' Tenth of December a few weeks ago and read the Bonus! Materials! interview between Saunders and David Sedaris at the back.  It was a little weird to watch two famous authors dance with one another, politeness and craft and modesty all circled like tigers in a cage.  What are you going to do, though?  Writers are a neurotic lot, perfectionists to the core.  It was comforting to see that even the most accomplished of us are not immune to this dance of self-consciousness. 

In addition to getting my little socks rocked off by the collection of stories while enduring plane delays on our way to a baby shower, I found Saunders had some pretty things to say about the work of writing itself, and I wanted to share a few with you. 

"Part of the artistic contract is: no preaching.  And knowing how a story is going to end before you start it, and why it has to end that way, and what it will "mean," is (at least when I do it) a form of preaching.  It has an inherently condescending quality, and any sensible reader would be offended/bored."


David Sedaris
: There are so many fantastic names in this book...Do you make these up or are they the names of friends?

George Saunders: ...I try to come up with those sorts of things at speed, feeling that if I do it that way, there may be an accidental organic authenticity to it that will go slightly beyond rationality.  Making the selection in a full-bodied way, I might get lucky and get that extra x percent of implied meaning.  Whereas if I was collecting them, I think my tendency would be to steer the story in a direction that would allow me to use some of the good stuff in my notebook, if you see what I mean.  I guess my working theory is that if I fill up my mind with whatever I naturally come across, when the time comes to invent something, I'll be well-primed to just take the leap.


"When something is failing, I try to ask it (gently!): 'Okay, so why are you failing?  What's the problem?' And also ask: 'Where are you failing, exactly?' This is done at the line level - just going over something again and again, sentence by sentence, trying to see where it departed from its natural energy...With this approach, almost everything is workable, if I can be patient enough."

Ah, patience, and gentleness, and talking to paper like a beloved child!  These, I believe, are the things of which sanity is made. 

Speaking of sanity, mine is hiding under my pillow lately.  I recently heard that the last part of pregnancy is a lot like the first trimester, and I really get that.  I feel slower and foggy and full of emotions for which I find no rational handle.  Walking down a sunny street, I see a robin or a glossy red house-door, and my eyes sting with tears: one part appreciation, one part terror for the beauty of the world.  I hope I can bring a child into all this with some kind of grace.  Sometimes I wish my job were to simply keep wild animals from eating her, a la cave days.  The idea that I have to hold things together while keeping her alive as I (maybe) impart some wisdom is more than daunting.

And while pregnancy has been, in some ways, a hibernation, it has also made me fully awake to the world, and especially my place in it.  Along these lines, I resist the idea that "pregnancy brain" is a bad thing.  I love how easily my mind lets go of anxieties and work details.  Frankly, who gives a shit?  There is a big ball of fire outside the window every day, at night the moon glows over the house, and in the middle of it my body grows ripe like a forest.  I feel a little bit like a bear in a field - nose to the wind, belly growing down, paws planted on the dirt.  This open physicality is a welcome respite. 

And, as Tim joked when I said how nice everyone is to me all the time, kindness towards a pregnant woman is at least one thing our country gets right. 

If you want a peek into some things we might be skewed about it, check out the Ricki Lake-produced documentary about hospital births called The Business of Being Born (you can stream it on Netflix).  I found it utterly fascinating.  While I tend to feel really comfortable around doctors and hospitals, having been the beneficiary of modern medicine's abundance and healing at critical times in my life, I also found that the statistics presented in the film echoed my own feelings about the body's ability to do the work it needs to do - both in birth and in healing - without extensive intervention.

The topic of birth choices is a hot one, and while I feel passionately about natural approaches to almost everything, at the same time, I honor every woman's choice and experience in birthing a child, and every family's passage through those experiences.  I'm grateful for doctors of all kinds - surgeons, shamans, and angels-in-scrubs alike.    

Speaking of angels, a woman approached me at the grocery store to give me a gift card yesterday.  I was scared she was going to bless my belly or perform Reiki on it in the cereal aisle, but she just passed along a gift card to share what she called the blessings her family had experienced.  It was sweet, awkward, and our groceries were $25 lighter on the pocket, something I will take any day.  When I told Tim what had happened, he said we need to get me a new coat - mine must be looking a little ragged. 

I find the well of grace to run a little deeper than surprise gifts but, at the same time, moments like that really make me pause.  As much as I write about gentleness and trusting the process of life, I continuously work to embrace the world as a safe place.  Moments like the one with the gift card or - more often - lunches with girlfriends and phone calls to my grandmother remind me of the treasures in my life, and how little I am holding up the sky. 

With that, I wish you a beautiful weekend.  I hope the above words of George Saunders, someone with his nose to his craft or art or passion, whatever you want to call it, remind us all of the wisdom that comes from deep listening. 

With love,

P.S. The pictures in this post are, like most pictures on this site, courtesy of Tim's camera.  Several are from a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The hot tub pic (hellooooo eighties!) is from a motel we found after a 10-hour Interstate ordeal.  The last was taken on a road trip through Utah, and while we are not reading some roadside sign about Billy the Kidd, there is a lot of opportunity to do that out West. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Famous Misogynists and Admirable Men

This is awkward, but I don't know how to count the progress of my pregnancy.  On Saturday, I crossed the mark that means I have 8 weeks left.  This is easier for my brain to hold onto, rather than the 32 weeks along measurement some use.  Then there is the lunar counting system used by some books (and witches?), as well as the standard month by month count of my mom's generation, which seems sane to me, but sounds confusing to others. 

For example, by monthly standards, I am in my eighth month, which sounds like I will have a baby in a month, because I'm so used to talking about gestation being 9  months long.  But that's 9 full months, so, really, I have 2 months left. 

Don't worry, this is not what I spend my nights thinking about!  I save unsolved algebra problems from high school for that.

The whole point of the disastrous anti-math experiment above is that I am currently caching entertainment to pillage when breastfeeding (although I've heard that screens are as addictive for babes of a certain age as they are for adults, so this may be a bad plan?).  This brings me to the fact that I saw Anchorman 2 on Saturday night, and boy, did it make me feel good about my years of parenting ahead.  If that's what cinema has to offer, I and the library's DVD stash are going to get along just fine. 

There was plenty to laugh about and, despite its shocking amount of race-joke fails, I'm not sorry I went to see it.  In fact, it made me feel great about my stay-at-home ways of late.

On the Road
The movie I did have trouble shaking, however, after watching it recently, was On the Road.  I haven't read the book in about ten years, and although he has the ability to ruin lots of things for me, Tim's tepid feelings for Kerouac and other Beats has not poisoned my well of fascination for them.  I can't say I regret watching the film, but it is not a good film by any means.  The interior sets in New York and San Francisco far outweigh any casting, acting, or direction in the thing.  (Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen do, however, kill it in their few scenes.) 

When I read On the Road in high school and then again after college, I found it to be about freedom, and friendship, and adventure, and about "losing it," in a way, in order to find "it," "it" meaning bliss and true love itself - that is, the wild life-force that binds us all and does not necessarily come in romantic or conventional containers. 

The movie didn't appear get the memo about these themes, however, and seemed to fall down a rabbit hole of brute sexuality, with entirely too much of Kristen Stewart's swollen lip-pout thing (sorry, Amerz).  But the dingy colors and washed lighting had fantastically claustrophobic effects on this viewer, which was probably its aim.  And I came away wondering what the hell it was like to be a woman in the fifties, because even the women running in literary circles (or perhaps those women more than any others?) seemed to have a pretty lame hold on their relationships. 

I know I'm not saying anything new here about the depiction of women in On the Road, or the treatment of women by the real-life characters of the book If I were a different person, I would be doing proper research right now, reading essays written by people much smarter than I am.  But since I spent the night layering a chicken with carrots and onions in my crock pot, and walking outside in such low temperatures my legs needed to thaw out when I returned home, all we have to work with right now are my thoughts.  Which are:  WTF, women of the fifties??  Why so okay being sex objects?

I've rarely had the, er, opportunity??, to be regarded as a mere sex object, so maybe I don't understand the power, or the allure, or the circumstances around it.  But I am haunted by the character of Camille, played by Kirsten Dunst, in On the Road, whose life is wracked by her love for Dean Moriarty and nearly ruined by her commitment to him and the family they build together.

Is life way better for women in our country these days?  I guess what I'm getting at is: it sure as hell seems like it. 

Phew.  That was long and messy and, unfortunately, my whole point.  

I read an essay today about insomnia, something to which I 100% do not relate, but maybe I just eat too many carbohydrates and sugar?  In my experience, that stuff will knock you out.

The essay kept listing books the author read while not sleeping.  Lists can be kind of fun.  Indulgent, sure, but hopefully entertaining.  Here is a list of books on my desk, books on which I am making zero progress because I keep doing weird things in the kitchen like making my own sauerkraut, and doing other weird things like going to work:
  • Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith (Still need to finish!!)
  • Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich (Adore L.E.)
  • Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz (This book's design makes teenage room decoration look totally sane)
  • Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, Ellen Meloy (Features big horn sheep on the cover.  Nuff said.)
  • Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon MooAllem (Has picture of growling polar bear on cover, in glass case.  Not as cool as big horn sheep in the wild, sorry Jon.)
  • PapaDaddy's Books for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages, Clyde Edgerton (Tim recommended for my peace of mind as a mother.  I don't always ask, I just follow.)
  • Love At First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself, Julie Klam (Dear friend sent to me, can't wait to read.)

That's all.  I couldn't even manage to just list the books properly.  Had to jam all my own narrative up in there.  I also realized that, while the author of the essay listed books he has gotten through, which is kind of cool, I listed books I have failed to get through, which is sad. 

Cake Advice

Lastly, I stumbled upon Cake's website today (Cake the band) and found an Advice page where you can write in with questions.  On the subject of being or not being a sex object, this advice was given:  "The tragedy is when girls don't work towards becoming completely self-actualized because perhaps they learned at an early age the value that being a sex-object can bring."

I just love that, don't you?  Without overly dissing my body and the natural strength of my non-leggy legs, I have often thought, yes, without some of the shame I experienced as a young woman, of not feeling beautiful enough, I would never have made my way to art, and to writing, and would have missed out on many opportunities to feel compassion for the other people in my life.  Is that weird to say?  Maybe so.  But it's true - like that freaking Garth Brooks song.

With love,

Kara Norman: Sex Object