Monday, December 31, 2012

Just under the wire.

When I think back to New Year's Eve of 2012, I'm going to remember (fondly?) the hours I spent sitting on my bed, playing Plants Versus Zombies while finishing the audio book version of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. Because I'm nothing if not a party animal. Books and my bed? Sounds about right--ring in the new year the way I spent the old one.

But anyway. I finished two more books this week, which makes 36 for 2012. And which, frankly, is the most books I've ever read in my life. That's like 3/4 of a book or something, per week. Or whatever. I don't believe in math. I could figure that shit out but it would take too long and I am not going to deal with that rainbow of crazy right now.

Anyhoozies.

Here's what I read, my two last reads of 2012, completed after the world was supposed to end. Suck it, Mayans.


The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin

Short review, because I'm afraid I'll accidentally write something to embarrass myself when discussing a book that was written by a professor in my program (who also happens to be the LA Times' book critic). Luckily, I loved the book, so I don't think I'll say something stupid, but you never know. The night is young.

The Myth of Solid Ground is an examination of what it means to be a Californian, to make our homes on top of the crisscrossing fault lines that run beneath our state. The book is a wonderful mix of science,  history, and reporting. It's about the people who think they can predict earthquakes (yes, including the total quacks) and the experiential part of earthquakes that makes them a bit ineffable and hard to pin down. Ulin uses the term "geopoetry" and it fits well. I really enjoyed this book, especially the passages when he describes his drives around the state to meet with people of all different ilk. Ulin has a wonderful style that moves freely from personal narrative to interview to historical face.

My recommendation: A great read for people from the Golden State. Or anyone else who wants to know why we would be crazy enough to live here.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Whoa. This book.

Here's what I'm going to do--this first paragraph won't have any spoilers in it, so if you haven't read it yet and you don't want to know anything, don't read anything after this paragraph. Short version: It's a good book, and it's the book that everyone is and will be talking about. You should read it. It is definitely a page turner. But honestly I didn't really like the characters or the author or the whole idea of it. It made me feel kind of hopeless and angry and frustrated. And I felt like I was deliberately deceived, by the author through her narrator which I am not a fan of. But since I'm 100% sure it will be a movie and it's already a part of the zeitgeist, just read it. And then we can complain about it together. Or perhaps you will think I am nuts, and that's okay too.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book movie date

I saw Life of Pi with E last night. He read the book years ago (I read it last year), so I knew we had to see it together. Plus, he wouldn't mind my discussions of "this was different/better/explained in more detail in the book." He's used to me.

Anyway, I couldn't NOT see a movie about a book I read. That wasn't going to happen. (Saw Anna Karenina recently for the same reason.)

I liked the movie. I'm glad I saw it. It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever sat and stared at for 2 hours. The images of the film felt like carefully choreographed ballet. (And we saw it in 3D... I don't even like 3D and this was nice to look at in 3D.) I think the filmmakers managed to capture a piece of what the book was like (including the ending, which I won't spoil, but if you've read it you know what I'm talking about), but I also think that since the book was so much about Pi's internal struggle, that's something you just can't capture on film, no matter how many thoughtful looks a character gives to a tiger.

I don't think this is a movie I can watch over and over again -- it's slow, and I had forgotten how much sadness there is in it -- but visually, it was amazing. Stunning and beautiful.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Crossing Over: The Zip Up

Do you remember the moment you realized you were a serious adult? The moment you awakened to the fact that you had left the carefree, halcyon days of childhood behind to accept your place among the grown-ups, the moms, the makers of pancakes?

Thanks to my camera's automatic timer, I have photographic evidence of myself crossing the threshold.

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You see that, Internet? See me, there, in the front, in a fuzzy new white robe? My grandparents gave us each a robe on Christmas Eve, and we liked them (robes and G-parents) enough to snap a pic or two. Look, another one:

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Little did I know that as I set the camera's timer, ran back toward the group, and slid into my place at the front, I was recording forever the moment I became a legitimate, capital-M Mommy.

Ask me to tell you about any morning at my house as a child, and it includes my mom uttering the phrase, "hold on, I have to put on my robe," followed by the sound of a zipper. One of those skinny, monochromatic, high-pitched zippers that rest just below the thickness of the fabric. Ziiiiiiiiiiip. Then she'd oblige us with whatever we were asking her to do, like, feed us cereal or make french toast. My most vivid morning memory is of Mom curling her hair, the newspaper spread across the bathroom counter so she could read it. Mom, soft and comforting in a burgundy robe, though I know there have been many different color iterations of the zip-up over the course of my 33 years. One factor, always the same: the zipper. I don't ever remember her wearing any other type. It is, to me, what moms wear in the morning. The uniform.

I have robes. I have been a wearer of robes. I think I got my first one in high school, probably for Christmas when somebody got tired of me complaining about being cold from October to May. But they were always the other kind--the belted variety that wrap around (but honestly, don't stay around). The robe I've been using for the past 12 or 13 years is a cast-off that E's sister April was going to sell at a garage sale when she was in college, and I nabbed it from the pile. That's the purple belted robe I walked the halls of Kaiser hospital in as I waited for the pitocin to induce my labor with Miss Roo. It's the robe I pulled around myself when I'd get up in the night to rock my babies, the robe that I slid open to nurse them. It's the same robe I wear now as I stumble out to the kitchen to pour cereal for my kids and try not to flash anyone. It's long and it washes well. For a long time that's been enough.

But this new zip-up specimen has ushered in a different era of official mommyhood, and I've taken to my new vestment like a teenage girl to an Abercrombie hoodie. I put that robe on Christmas Eve, and I'm pretty sure I could live in it for the rest of my life.

WHY WAS I EVER WEARING THE OTHER KIND OF ROBE, YOU GUYS? THIS ONE IS MADE OF WARM!

Seriously. The zipper. God bless it. It keeps shit locked up from my knees to my chin. No chance of a wardrobe malfunction when the UPS man shows up early one morning or the family stops by, unannounced, on a Saturday before noon. Just zip. that. up. I love my new robe, or as I like to call it, the blanket I wear around myself in all rooms of the house.

On the list of things that have made me feel like a real mom (giving birth to two children, being able to break down a whole raw chicken, dealing with someone else's bodily fluids, packing for a camping trip), the robe thing snuck on me. But I feel its power now. Boy, do I feel it.

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For my birthday, someone please get me a muumuu.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Reflection Questions

I am continuing in my tradition of answering these annual reflection questions. I got them from Simple Mom. You can find the full original attribution information on my 2009 responses and read my 2010 or 2011 responses by clicking the links.

This is always the longest post I write all year, so put on your cozy pants and grab a cat. You're going to be here a while.

1. What was the single best thing that happened this past year?

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The single best thing that happened was not one thing, but establishing a once-a-month-ish regular date with Addie. She's getting older and it's really nice to know that she and I share a stronger connection this year as she starts to head into some turbulent times. We started our little activity dates in the fall and were pretty successful at continuing them through the holidays. I'm glad, too, because I started to feel her pulling away from me. I don't feel that anymore. She's happy to go anywhere with me and I'm happy to give her focused attention. I think that's going to come in handy in the next decade or so.

2. What was the single most challenging thing that happened?

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The single most challenging thing was probably maintaining our marriage. No one thing was wrong, but being married is hard. Especially for us, it seems, even when there isn't a person to blame or a cause to bemoan. This year was just a challenge of living in the same house, sharing the same space, and speaking to each other with kindness. That sounds like it should be easy, right? But we're both complicated and we both have our individual challenges. We spent more time in therapy this year (together and alone) than we have in some time. And though neither one of us is consistent about making that a priority, or making it a priority to manage our own issues, we tried more than we have ever tried. We're at a happy spot as we bring this year to a close. I think maybe some years are just working years, more so than others. And I also think the fact that we are willing to work makes this marriage seem like it's earned. And I have a sense of accomplishment about my part in that. Hard or not, we want to be married. Worth the challenge.

3. What was an unexpected joy this past year?

I had an unexpected joy at my most recent residency; I'm finding that there are other possible career avenues for me in writing, and it feels as though doors are opening. I know I need to do a lot of hard work in the near future, but for the first time at residency I knew what to ask and I didn't feel like I was intruding on the time of the "real" writers. I had a strong sense of myself as a writer by this December, and that's huge. I had the knowledge that I was progressing, just as I should be, and that I'm on the right path. There's so much joy in that.

4. What was an unexpected obstacle?

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I kind of expected it, actually, but it is a way bigger obstacle than I thought it would be. Teaching three AP English Literature classes this year of approximately 36 kids each (in addition to two freshman English classes of similar size) is straight up kicking my ass. One person cannot remain healthy, rested, and sane if she is teaching Advanced English class to one hundred seniors at a time. It's just not possible. I'm doing everything I would normally do because I still want to be the best AP teacher I can, because I want to give those students the same experience I was able to when I had one or two classes of 25, and I am dying. D-Y-I-N-G. I am burning (or burnt?) out. I am working way beyond my capacity and I see no end in sight until the end of the school year. I can't sacrifice rigor or expectations for a minute because I'm too much of a good girl, so I'm just wearing myself out. So even though my MFA school load is completely wonderful and manageable and fulfilling, I'm exhausted all of the time, and I hate it. I didn't expect to feel so overwhelmed this far into the year.

5. Pick three words to describe 2012.

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confidence, growth, mothering

6. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe your 2012 (don’t ask them; guess based on how you think your spouse sees you).

party, travel, excitement

7. Pick three words your spouse would use to describe their 2012 (again, without asking).

charming, responsible, father

8. What were the best books you read this year?

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I'm not done reading for the year (I think I'll finish at least one more: Gone Girl), and I've read 35 books so far in 2012. THIRTY FIVE, my friends! Geeeeez. Who does that? And the thing is, now I can't stop. Last year I was scrambling to read all of the required reading for school, and feeling like I couldn't catch up. This year I'm a quarter ahead and if I don't have a book on my Kindle (or in my hand) and also one on the iPod as an audio book, I start to feel like something's missing. I've crossed over and become one of those crazy people who read things voraciously. And I love it. I always wanted to be one of those crazy people.

Here are the favorites that I read in 2012. :

Short story collections
Interesting and unusual: A Visit From The Goon Squad
Beautiful and weird: Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Nonfiction
Amazing. Read in one sitting even though it's huge: Columbine
Glad I read it when I was camping:
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Novels
Dense, satisfying read: Empire Falls
Best pair of books I read together, and subsequently nerded out over the connections:
The Hours & Mrs. Dalloway
Stayed with me: The Book of Jonas
Could not stop myself from laughing out loud:
The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
Sprawling, beautiful, stirring, engaging classic: East of Eden
Favorite new book I read this year: Beautiful Ruins

9. With whom were your most valuable relationships?

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I would say, probably, that my answer hasn't changed much in the four years since I've been answering this question. My most important relationships were E, the kids, K. My circle is small--teeny tiny--and I like it that way. I had other relationships that were important, but none that I relied on so heavily as those. I find great comfort in the parts of my life that are dependable and secure.

10. What was your biggest personal change from January to December of this past year?

Two changes. First, I had to get better at saying no to things. I feel like around 2008 or 2009 because E and I were separated (and then back together, trying to heal a broken marriage), I had to start saying no for the first time in my life, and stop trying to please everyone and make everyone happy. The side effect, back then, was that I suddenly became really happy and really focused on the things that actually mattered to me. But over the next few years I started to have a hard time saying no again, and I started committing myself to things that were wonderful, but that took me farther away from what was really most important and most satisfying in my life. So I'd say the biggest personal change in 2012 was in getting better (or trying to get better) at saying no again. I think I accomplished it. I think just having an awareness of it represents some kind of change. It's an ongoing goal.

The other big personal change is in my writing. There aren't things I could quantify here (or that I think anyone would want to read about), but I know that I'm a better (and different) writer than I was last December. Just being in an MFA program gave me a giant kick in the butt, but then I decided to take class from the one person who scared me most, and it paid off. And honestly, I'm in a fun place with my writing now. I want to try things. I like the new release I feel in my stories. I'm not (as you know by now) a throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of person, but in my writing I'm doing things that scare me every day. I love it. Very freeing.

11. In what way(s) did you grow emotionally?

Being in grad school was good for making me crawl out of the cave my introverted spirit wants to live in. But this year I feel like I struck a better balance of knowing where I am in terms of wanting to be social, and also knowing when I need to just say "hey, I'm going to stay in tonight because I'm exhausted." Oh, and I decided I didn't want to ever drink so much that I barf, again. So there you go. 33 years old and I have all the emotional growth of a college student.

12. In what way(s) did you grow spiritually?

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I just read this in my post from last year, and I still kind of like it:
I've really come to appreciate how important it is to take time to both create and be still. I've stopped sweating the small stuff altogether. I am convinced that God really doesn't care and that 99.9% of the time I've spent on guilt was wasted. I've pursued happiness in the moment rather than happiness once all the hard stuff is over. I've enjoyed the blessings that are right in my simple little life. I grew vegetables, too.
Honestly, that's the sweet spot for me, aiming for all of that. I don't think I'm there, but I think it's a good goal, a good target for my life. Creation. Stillness. Letting go of guilt. Happiness in the moment. The blessing of a simple life. Veggies. Amen.

13. In what way(s) did you grow physically?

I gained about ten pounds. I thought--no, hoped--I had a thyroid problem so I could just take a pill and move on with my life, but it turns out I'm a perfectly healthy fat person. I GAINED MASS.

14. In what way(s) did you grow in your relationships with others?

I made a commitment this year to enjoy my opportunities to spend time with the people I love. I find myself making conscious choices to see them or to have conversations about things that are important. I don't know if other people are like this, but often in conversation I'll want to know something and I won't ask--I feel like I might intrude, so I let the thought pass. I've tried this year to ask those questions, and I've been happy with what people in my life have wanted to share. I've tried to be a better listener, to ask more often about how others are doing or feeling. I certainly could do a lot better, but I'm trying hard to be consistently curious and interested. Because I certainly am, and I don't want to appear otherwise.

15. What was the most enjoyable area of managing your home?

Can I tell you a secret, Internet? The most enjoyable area of managing my home this year was NOT managing my home. Well, at least not deep cleaning it. We hired a housekeeper this year and that one single decision has had more of a profound impact on the happiness of our home life than anything we have ever done previous. A housekeeper is a wonderful gift for me--a gift of time, which is short--and I just sleep better at night knowing that the deep cleaning stuff is getting done. That my family is not living in filth while I pursue my MFA. Plus, we have to pick up our stuff every two weeks before she comes. That alone is priceless.

16. What was your most challenging area of home management?

Since we got the housekeeper, things have really changed. And in terms of daily chores, we've sort of separated duties. I used to loathe the laundry. Now E handles it almost exclusively. I don't love doing dishes, but it makes sense given the fact that I mostly cook our meals. So... this is so small and I am lucky to have such a small thing be my gripe (or my challenge). I hate the cat box. And I wish I was better at dealing with it daily. That's my challenge.

17. What was your single biggest time waster in your life this past year?

Pointless meetings.

18. What was the best way you used your time this past year?

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Same answer as last year: reading and writing. But I got better at estimating how long things would take me this year and I have a whole system with my calendar. On any given week I can tell you how many hours I need to read and to write to get things done. I've also become a "get it done first so I can relax later" kind of person, and I never thought that would happen. Ever. But I've come to love my guilt-free laziness, which means I need to take care of business first.

19. What was the biggest thing you learned this past year?

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I learned that I'm a different person than I was a few years ago. The world is more open to me than I thought. I think this year I started to trust that I can do these things I'm working toward.

20. Create a phrase or statement that describes 2012 for you.

It's okay to want something different than you wanted before. Assess where you are now, make choices, move forward.

Currently.

Listening to the quiet. The kids got put back on time limits for electronics today, and we've had a video game, TV, and computer game-free afternoon. Left to their own devices, both monkeys retreated to their rooms to read. Twinkle found my afghan on the couch and is keeping my feet warm.

Working on a few papers for next quarter. I always think I'm going to have a real break when I'm off in between classes, but the truth is that my first due date is January 7th-ish, and I need to have three book reviews and 35 pages of creative work ready to turn in. Since I am (still) way ahead on my reading, I figured I better start actually writing some of this stuff so I can focus on new creative work in the next week or so.

Feeling guilty about how overdue my library books are. But hopefully I can make it to the library on the way to the dentist tomorrow. That was the other reason I needed to work on papers today... had to get quotes written down so I could take the books back.

Excited that Downton Abbey is back in early January. Related: really angry that I read a headline the other day that had a HUGE spoiler in it. Thanks a lot, Internet. On a completely different note, I'm also eagerly anticipating the return of Hank Moody in Californication.

Looking forward to a rousing game of Littlest Pet Shop Monopoly with Addie tonight.

Reading: Gone Girl. Still listening to the audio book... I'm about half way through and even though I'm mad at just about everyone in the book and the author, I'm hooked. I also just finished The Myth of Solid Ground and it was very good. I feel lucky when I get to lay in bed in my cozy pants and finish a book over a few days.

Enjoying the smell of a whole chicken as it cooks in my Crock Pot. No reason at all that I needed to cook it today, other than the fact that it was going to go bad if I didn't. The house feels more like a home when something's slow-cooking in wine, though. Always.

Annoyed with the dog, who won't stop whining like a little baby when he's outside. Boxers aren't so good in the cold. (Hence the fact that he's back inside now, curled up on the Santa rug.)

Incredibly happy that our Christmas gifts are put away. I'm having a much better day than I would be if I was sitting in the middle of a bunch of boxes. Hopefully this weekend we can do the tree and then next week I won't worry about any of it, just the 100 Hamlet essays I need to grade.

Enamored with my kids, my husband, my pets, and my house. I love my peaceful real life and the fact that my job allows me to be home to enjoy it twice a year. Five performances a day of The Mrs. P Show can grate on my nerves and sap my energy, but it's worth it when I get a break and I get to be home to just be Mom for a week or two. Life is good.

Cozy.Sneaky cat is on my bed. At least she matches the quilt. #cookiestackhouseWas working on my paper this morning on #TheFaultInOurStars and found this. Wish more people talked about it. #authorsnote #fiction

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What I want to remember | Christmas 2012

This year I want to remember E coming home with $50 of supplies to brine a $3 turkey. I want to remember the smell of smoke wood from our peach tree every time he opened the back door to check on the bird. I want to remember Gram EV in her green fleece, looking healthy after her recent surgery. Cousins, playing together on the landing and then having conversations over dinner. Uncle Ron telling me how he uses a pink teddy bear for his target in archery practice. Three different soups. I want to remember a huge nap on Christmas Eve, more of Auntie Anne's "moonshine" (a little too much more this year... I need to pace myself better when drinks are made of champagne and liqueur!), more soup, glowing snowmen place cards  and a seat on the good couch.  Gram's Irish Cream and mom's homemade fudge. I want to remember bouncing nephews who couldn't stop jumping onto the trash bags like they were full of leaves. Henry, reading a book under the tree. Our whole family, in new robes. I want to remember how happy I was that I didn't have to wrap when I got home on Christmas Eve, but how late E was up fixing things up for the kids. Waking up at 3:30 because I was so excited for the kids I couldn't stand it. Quiet Christmas at home, the familiarity and comfort of our time as a foursome. Santa, leaving the fireplace door open. Driving to K's house, waking her up. Cinnamon rolls. Grandpa Norm in his Hawaiian hat. More cousins. Skylanders galore. A new camera. A drive up the hill in the pouring rain with an industrial air compresser tied to the truck. Elizabeth saying "what happened to TV?" Deer out the back window as we warmed ourselves by the fire. An inflatable, remote-controlled shark. Cornish pasties and appetizers. A new electric toothbrush. Unpacking from my trip on Christmas day. The monkeys, tucked into new loft beds. Cats. A snoring dog. Hugs, under flannel sheets.

Grandma Lila and Grandpa Ed's house 2012Scratchers and shrimp cocktailAunt Anne's gift to the poor Partingtons whose mother/wife won't let them eat hydrogenated oils in their peanut butter.IMG_7611IMG_7614IMG_7617IMG_7618IMG_7626IMG_0015IMG_0026IMG_0030

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Silent Night

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On my nightstand:

A letter, needing a reply.
Clipboard.
Charging Kindle.
New New Yorkers. My (first ever) very own.
Library books & books about which I'll write critical papers. (Later. Who knows when.)

10:49 PM, Christmas Day, 2012.

I'm tucked into bed, but I'm playing with my new point and shoot camera. I took pictures with it all day and they all came out lame. Yellowy. Out of focus. Crappy camera-like. Since it's not a crappy camera, I was convinced it was user error and I've been sitting here trying to figue out how whatever "auto" setting I had it on was the wrong "auto" setting. I've been taking pictures of the sleeping dog, the TV (a new to me episode of last season's Person of Interest... that's how deep we're into the DVR tonight), and the stack of books on my newly organized nightstand. I think I have it now.

Organized is code for the fact that I stacked some books there tonight after finally unpacking from MFA residency. I've been tripping over two purple suitcases and a quilted bag full of books, business cards, and scribbled bits of paper since I got home nine days ago. You know, it just didn't happen, what with the Christmases and all. But tonight I returned home from E's parents with a new set of electric toothbrushes, and dammit if I didn't need a clean bathroom worthy of their splendor. Clean bathroom begat laundry sorting, which begat clean bedroom, which begat unpacked suitcase, which begat nightstand book stack. Ta da.

E is out in the front room, swearing at his XBox. The monkeys collapsed into their flannel sheets hours ago. Hurley dog is snoring away in his chair. All is calm, all is bright.

Christmas was good, certainly a healthy dose of extended family. But this year wasn't relaxed for me. December is hard. This one, especially. I've been tense and tired. Weird combo. What I wanted was to relax, but I didn't quite get there. Still, my children continue to bless me with the way they bring me immediately and decisively into the moment. Christmas with them is like nothing else I know. I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited for them.

Tomorrow I have plans to clean the whole house and grade 100 Hamlet essays and take a nap and cook healthy meals for the entire week and put away all of the presents and decorations and trash.

Or, alternately: get up late and have a big cup of coffee.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Photos... here and there...

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Escape

Yesterday was terribly long and stressful. The residual unease from last week's news combined with a rumored threat and then a credible threat to staff and students this week at my school left me numb. By the time I got home from work I needed an escape. K was here watching the kids and had The Nutcracker on the TV. I found myself glued to it after she left.

I haven't let myself watch (or go to) The Nutcracker in quite some time. My short stint after college as an apprentice to a local ballet company was the amazing realization of a childhood dream, but it was also a tense and highly critical environment. My memories of my time there are complicated. And though the closing of that door pushed me toward other things I needed to do in my life, it hurt when it closed. I had to redefine myself in my early twenties--I'd always thought of myself as Heather the dancer, and it took me a while to move beyond that. I haven't wanted to really sit or think about ballet for a long time. Certainly not this show. It's every company's bread and butter--how you make your money for the season--and in your time as a professional dancer you dance it more than any other show. I was Nutcrackered-out.

I also think I've been too distracted to sit and watch ballet. For years, really. But today I sat and let myself fall completely into the rabbit hole that was the 1989 recording of the Bolshoi Nutcracker. Ballet is about lifting things up and making them more elegant than they are in real life. It's an illusion, but a lovely one. Yesterday, as I cuddled Addie tight under a green afghan and explained the various dances in the Land of the Sweets, I needed that fantasy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On being a consumer of media:

My iPad is my favorite new toy. I used it the whole time I was in Palm Springs so I could flip through other people's creative work during workshop. I read short stories on my iPad under an umbrella on the patio. More than once I looked something up on it during a lecture.

The iPad is a strange device, though. As I've said before, it's all consumption, rather than production. Other than doodles, you can't really make something on an iPad. I don't think I truly came to appreciate the use of such a device until I was at my MFA residency, where ordinarily I'd need to print upwards of 250 pages to bring with me to various workshops or discussions. I'll admit it was really nice to carry one thing and to know all my notes, stories, and essays were right where I could access them anytime I wanted. It fit right in my purse, plus it's a cool, shiny doodad.

I'm a big time consumer of media, in general. I have no shame about it. I like that I can see the entire world through my iPad if I want to. I like that people are out there providing information and writing stories and taking pictures. I'm grateful for the digital age I live in, for the access I have to news and knowledge and the lives of my family, friends, former students, and colleagues through social networking sites. On a daily basis, I'm usually checking the news online, reading Facebook and Twitter statuses and browsing through photos on Instagram, watching informational, scripted, and reality television, listening to an audio book, reading a book on my Kindle, and reading a bunch of blogs. All of that, every day. From time to time I have a magazine in my hand, and I'd say I'm at the movies at least once or twice a month. I like to know what's going on in the world so I can talk about it. There's a lot of information in my life, but I feel like it's like anything else: you have to know your limits and what's going to work for you.

I had the TV on NBC in my hotel room last Friday morning as news broke of the shooting at Sandy Hook, and I saw the first AP photos on CNN's website; those few minutes of images sent me reeling for the next two days (enough for me to run a red light and almost cause an accident on Saturday) and I was in a highly emotional state about being 500 miles away from my kids. I wasn't reacting well to the news--I think it hit me from both sides, teacher-me and mom-me--and I knew it was affecting more than I could handle. I had no place to fit that information in my heart or brain. I couldn't see it anymore because I couldn't get those first images out of my head. I left the TV news off for the rest of the weekend.

Aside from my personal inability to handle seeing the pictures or video, I knew that any information that came out early on was destined to be wrong. If you haven't read Dave Cullen's book, Columbine, I can't recommend it highly enough. In Cullen's book, he examines how the 24 hour news cycle both created and then confirmed false "facts" after the shooting at Columbine because of the nature of its own spin. I knew that any early information that came out was probably speculation, anyway, or people parroting rumors back to the networks that they had read on Twitter. Just another reason to keep the TV  off in the early hours.

Once I got home Sunday night, I logged onto Facebook for five minutes. By then, my news feed was filled with statuses imploring that we focus on the tragedy through the lives of those who died rather than the notoriety of the man who killed them. And as I scrolled down the page, picture after picture of the victims appeared. While I understood the intent, seeing those victims--kids who were now gone intermixed with arguments about gun control and mental health and pictures of people's holiday cookies and decorations--was too much for me to bear. These tiny, innocent children, who lived quirky, funny, and loving lives just like my kids. These teachers who look just like my colleagues, who died doing what teachers do: making kids feel safe. I couldn't see it anymore. Overwhelmed, I shut it off, and I told myself I had to stay away from my news feed, too.

Sunday night, after just those five minutes, I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed and my mind took me to dark places not unlike what women with postpartum depression describe. Worst case scenario after worst case scenario played out in my head. Scenes of teaching. Scenes of vulnerability at school. Scenes of my children being at their school. Scenes of being with my children and unable to help them. Hormonally-driven, emotional, scary scenes. I finally took a Benadryl so I could drift into a heavy, dreamless sleep. Twice since Sunday, though, I've woken up in a sweat, an ambiguous feeling of fear startling me awake.

I'm aware this is about understanding myself and my own triggers. I take responsibility for them and I know when I need to be careful. I told E right away Monday morning that I was having a rough time of it, and I made an appointment with my therapist. No sense in just feeling bad or crawling into bed to hide under the covers. I don't mean for a minute to imply that what I was feeling was anything related to those directly affected. Not at all. But it was affecting me. And I don't want to get myself in such a state that the anxiety comes out sideways and I have a panic attack about something unrelated, either. And I'm thankful that there are people in my life who understand my limits enough to warn me about what's out there. K told me early in the week that the news shows had moved on to profiles of the victims, and that I should probably continue to avoid the TV news, if possible.

The thing is, I started to wonder about the news media's motivation for airing these extended victim profiles. Surely no victim's family was getting relief from having a camera thrust in their faces. And I'm sure there are networks that are well-intentioned, as so many people on Facebook, and they want to put energy into memory because it's preferable to hate or speculation or blame. I get that. And I get that when we don't have an answer for something, we search for a way to talk about it and sometimes it doesn't come out right. But the truth of it is also that when the news keeps you watching for days and days, they keep themselves in business. When they interview families and put up pictures of the victims ("grief porn," I heard a local talk radio host call it), they're selling ad time too. I hate to think that someone would sell one more Prius or can of Pepsi because of an ad that runs after a sit-down with a family who just lost their son or daughter.

It's weird, keeping the world at arm's length this past week. I keep wanting to check my news feed or open my regular news sites. Despite my questions, I don't begrudge anyone their decisions, but I do know what's too much for me to handle. For me, it doesn't take a news piece on the life of a little kid to make me feel like that kid was a beautiful, innocent person, just like my kids. And I didn't have to see any of the images to know those kids were taken way too soon through a senseless act. I felt it like a boot kick in my stomach the minute I heard "elementary school."

I wasn't going to post anything about this, just continue on my one-person mission to keep functioning, and return to the news after I was certain this had settled a bit. But today I read an article about the residents of Newtown, and their growing frustration with news organizations occupying their town. How they want the prying eyes to leave so they can mourn their dead. And I felt guilty, because even my reading about it meant someone was there asking, questioning, watching these poor people who had already lost so much.

As somebody who wants to make her life about producing media--writing is creating, after all--this is something I have to think about. About putting things out in the world and not being able to control how people perceive them, or consume them. And it's something I have to think about as a consumer of media, too. Those minutes and page views are votes. What I give my attention to gets noticed, tracked, catalogued. We live in a society where every tidbit gets filed somewhere. Watching, reading, seeing: these things are consent, or at least a nod to the fact that we want more of whatever it is we consume.

There are no answers because this is a terrible thing that defies logic. I suppose all we have is our ability to know what's right for ourselves. More information isn't necessarily better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recent read: The Last Policeman

Here's one thing a nine hour drive is good for: listening to audiobooks.

My latest choice was a good one, too. Not to serious, but a great take on the detective novel.


The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Detective stories are not usually my thing. I like them; I mean, sure. I was into The Big Sleep when I had to read it in college. And I had my round of addiction to cat mysteries from about age 11 to 14. But it's been a while since I indulged (it does feel like indulging, doesn't it?) in a good commercial mystery novel. What I don't always like about these kind of stories anymore is that they sometimes feel too rote, like I've already read them before I've ever cracked the cover. Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo were cool, but each always came with predictable structure, characters, and resolution. Ben Winters' The Last Policeman, though, is a new take on the crime-solving detective novel.

The basic premise of the book is simple: an asteroid, kilometers wide, is headed toward Earth. It's going to make impact within months. And Detective Hank Palace is solving a murder while the world prepares for a cataclysmic event. It's pre-apocalyptic.

This is the kind of story I read, and then I promptly kick myself for not thinking of a premise like that first. The constant, hovering threat of the asteroid's certain impact is enough to change the world of the novel just enough to make everything feel different. It's modern day, but it's modern day with enough of a twist that people don't act like we would expect them to. Doctors and law enforcement officers have abandoned their jobs to go pursue their dreams in what they think might be their final days. Routine investigation is incredibly difficult. Much of the infrastructure of modern living has started to fall apart. Givens like cell phone or internet coverage just aren't givens anymore. That constant, external pressure from the threatening asteroid also allows Winters to show his characters' true colors quite nicely.

In Hank Palace's world, suicides are no longer routinely investigated. There are just too many. But he finds a man hanging in a McDonald's bathroom and something doesn't seem right; he decides he has to investigate, and that staging a suicide in a dying world is the perfect cover for murder.

Yes, there were parts of this book that were predictable, but I enjoyed it more than I expected to. It held my attention all the way though and it felt well-paced. The tropes I've come to expect in this type of book were there, but under this unique premise they seemed to have a little more life. The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy, and I think I'll enjoy reading the next two to see where they go.

My recommendation: Yes! Read this. It'd make a great vacation read.