words matter

I’ve been thinking a lot about words. Of course I always am, but lately I’ve been thinking about how devalued words are these days, how ignored and slighted and spat-upon. And I’ve decided that it’s a problem of acute market disequilibrium.

See, I took (and almost failed) exactly one economics course in college, and I remember exactly one significant concept: supply and demand! Yes! I learned that! The more stuff there is around to sell, THE LESS PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT. And if you really start to flood the market with the stuff? They’ll be willing to pay even less. They will laugh in your face at its wretched undesirability.  They will decide to buy little piles of beaver dung wrapped up as party favors instead. In other words, THEY WILL TOTALLY STOP GIVING A SHIT ABOUT YOUR STUFF. plunger

This is where we are with words. There’s a glut. They’re everywhere all around us all the time, and we bat at them like gnats. No one takes them seriously any longer in this post-truth, post-knowledge, post-learning, post-evidence, post-reality age. We are living in a new and strange dimension where facts are dismissed as beside the fact, where tweets blat and rage, where fake news gets shared reflexively while real news struggles for a hearing. Truths are now transient. Challenged, they shimmer into nothingness. They and the words that express them no longer matter as they once did.

This is what I have to say about that: Words matter. Words are real. Words have weight. Words spring from the mind, enter the world and linger there, changing us. Spoken, they alter the speaker and listener both. Written, they bridge miles of earth and understanding between writer and reader, building fortresses of imagination no less tangible for lacking mass. Words create and destroy. Words spark love, sow hate, stir resentment, inspire hope, instill fear. Words hold power, bearing the authority and currency of poets and prophets and God. In the beginning was the Word, yes? I read that somewhere. But what about the end? Where will words be then?

Words build nations. Sway nations. Fell them.

It’s words that got us into this crazy mess, and words will get us out. But ONLY IF WE TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY.  Only if we value them. Only if we stop treating them like some party-size bag of cheapo tortilla chips that we bought at Wal-Mart that day and then stuffed into The Cabinet of Neglect (which every kitchen has) and never thought of again, much less ate.

Just to prevent the punsters among us from going there first, no, I’m not suggesting that we eat our words. But I am suggesting that we treat them with a little more respect. Listen to them. Weigh them. Hold them for a moment in our palm and consider their heft. If they’re hollow and shallow and convey only lies, we discard them. If they bear truths – even unwanted truths, even the hardest and most painful to grasp – we must tighten our grip and carry them to safety. We owe it to them, and to ourselves.

we’re not dead yet

sunset-taconic-pic

Last night, stricken and and sickened by the election results, I stayed up into the wee hours texting and emailing people I love. I just wanted to tell them that they matter to me, that I’m grateful for them, that I’m glad they’re in my life and I love them, I love them, I love them. I blasted off of a few more of these little missives in the morning. Probably I missed a few people, as I was groggy and hurried. If so, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re in my life. And I love you, I love you, I love you.

Saying this was all that mattered last night and this morning. It’s all that matters any night or morning. But it matters especially in the aftermath of loss, and the events of yesterday surely mark a big one for those of us longing and planning for a different outcome. When I snapped open my eyes today and remembered, I felt cuffed hard by the unreality of it, the injury to the universe and upheaval to the laws that govern it. Oh, shit, I thought. How did this happen? How will we move on?  And as I did, I recalled a similar cosmic bafflement — a sense of a world suddenly re-ordered — each time I woke after the death of a loved one.

Grief isn’t about the distant past. It’s about the absent future, the timeline disrupted, the dreams unrealized and memories not made. To bury a loved one is to bury your hopes and plans and visions. Your relationship. Your own sense of self. Your idea of life, its possibilities, its narrative. And this what 60,000,000 Americans are mourning today: our idea of a country that renounces fear and hatred in one fell swoop on one swell night, then moves boldly on.

That never happened. That future is gone. But we will move on, after a fashion. Another future will take its place, and we can’t stop trying to make it better and bend each sunset into sunrise. Life is hope and hope is work and work means getting up out of bed in the morning, not curling up under the covers and reliving our pain.

As my dad told me the day my husband died, “You’re life isn’t over.” He was right. It wasn’t. But my life had changed irrevocably, and I had to change along with it: I’m not dead yet, I told myself, quoting Monty Python. Neither is this beautiful, resilient, powerfully misguided and deeply divided country of ours. We’re not dead yet. Our life isn’t over. We’ll figure this out. But in the meantime, let’s hold other close and say I love you, I love you, I love you.

 

the queen’s (fabulous) new weapon


Art draws joy from the unlikeliest sources, doesn’t it? For all the highfalutin things we say about it, for all the heady postmodern theorizing coughed up on its behalf, the thrill and meaning of art boil down to just this: it mines beauty from the everyday grunge of human existence.

Consider this glorious drawing by Sylvie Kantorovitz, an Albany artist and children’s author/illustrator. Sylvie, an old friend, lives just a couple blocks from me in this homey and humble neighborhood packed with friends. The bunch of us have now spent a couple of decades watching our children get older and wiser while we, curiously, do not. (And yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve ALWAYS been gray.)

Sylvie reads my blog, bless her. She saw my post the other day on plungers, plunger-related tchotchkes and my new, exciting role as Shit Lady. Much to my shock and delight, she responded to it with a plunger-themed drawing on her own blog, where she posts an artwork a day.

This one, “New Weapon,” features one of Sylvie’s recurring characters — a lanky regal sort attended by birds — as she toes up to some unseen onslaught with her plunger at the ready. “Life deals a lot of s*** cards. The Queen attacks and moves on,” says the caption.

I love this. How can I NOT love this? I would love it even if Sylvie weren’t a friend of mine, even if she hadn’t drawn it in response to my blog post, even if I hadn’t written a book with a plunger on the cover, even if I’d never discovered my mid-to-late-life calling as a discombobulated shit-prophet with her head in the stuff. You needn’t be stricken with early widowhood to realize that life will find a way to dump a steaming pile in your path some time or other, be it illness or the pain of divorce or a howling plague of lice and gnats upon the land.

Personally, I have never had to deal with lice. Neither on my land nor on the heads of my progeny; that shit has avoided me so far. (Gnats are another story.)

But Sylvie’s drawing got me thinking, again, about the gift of creation — and the creative urge itself. What better way to cope with the shit we’re given than to make something of it? Something beautiful, affirming, infectious, hilarious, inspiring? Something just a little bit less smelly and repulsive? Anyone who sings the blues knows that shit sounds damn good with flattened thirds. And it should. It’s our most abundant medium, the unrefined ore from which we craft our lives — so we may as well make it interesting. We may as well make it art.

freaks and geeks and pierre and natasha

Lately my 13-year-old son and I have been bingeing on “Freaks and Geeks,” the brilliantly crafted, deeply human high-school comedy-drama — I HATE HATE HATE the word “dramedy” — that’s set in 1980 and ran one whole season on NBC in 1999-2000. Its 18 episodes stream on Netflix. We are, as I write this, 19 minutes shy from being finished.

He keeps wanting to watch those 19 minutes; I keep procrastinating. I don’t want the show to be over. Its characters are too real, its scenarios too familiar, its emotions too nuanced and thorny and true. Some of its cast members became big deals on the big screen — James Franco as a sweet, dimwitted burnout, Seth Rogen as a joker with a heart of mush, Jason Segel as a scary-obsessive romantic — but the work they did on this show is as fine and affecting as anything they’ve done since. And the rest of the cast is just as memorable: Samm Levine, as a nerd in a sweater vest, looks, talks, cracks wise and comports himself like a minikin 40-year-old Borscht Belt comic. I love that kid. I love ’em all.

I’m sad just thinking about it. And I’m reminded of the gloom that began to set in as I approached the last 200 pages or so the first time I read “War and Peace” back in, jeez, what was it? The late 1990s? My late husband had been pressing me to read it from just about the day we met in 1990: “It’s like walking into a room,” he’d say, and I remember thinking, “What? A room? What kind of room? Isn’t it filled with ornately decorated tsarist furniture? And aren’t they all speaking Russian and have painfully long names?”

Actually, they’re all speaking French and have painfully long names. Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with them all, or the plot, or a detailed re-hashing of the Battle of Borodino, or even the moment when a plastered central character almost teeters out a window to his death — although I’m tempted. I am, however, going to point you to my friend Donna Liquori McGuire’s spot-on mash note to Tolstoy’s masterwork that ran recently in the TU and describes perfectly the hypnotic spell cast by that dense book, its breathtaking scope, minutely realized characters and gorgeous flushes of authentic, timeless emotion.

Once you get into it, you want it to go on forever. And at 1,250 pages, it does, in fact, go on forever. But those last 200! You don’t want them to end! I wanted Pierre, dear, awkward, decent Pierre, to fumble his way around Russia. I wanted ebullient Natasha to spark with sudden love. I wanted Nikolai to dally with hearts, and go off to war, and be a boy trying hard to be a man.

This is what I love about stories: When they work, they live. The characters quicken and stir. They walk around, they breathe within us, they speak. Finishing a great story, be it a thick Russian novel or a short-lived retro TV series, feels like saying goodbye. A kind of grief sets in. Those people and those places, once so real and alive, have settled into a hibernation — not quite a death — and can only be roused when someone new comes along and prods them all awake.

You can re-read and re-watch, but the second time feels less real than the first. We know what’s coming down the pike, for everyone. They’re all a little less there.

So, no. I don’t ever wanna watch the last 19 minutes of “Freaks and Geeks.” But my son is waiting downstairs for me — and off I go.

princess schroeder golightly

leia

Like many other people, I took the “Star Wars” personality test floating around Facebook recently. And lo, it appears that I’m Princess Leia.

I find this result beautifully affirming (I am bold and unwavering! I have a sharp, diplomatic mind!) when I’m not grabbing my ears to reach for the baked goods (I have sticky buns attached to my head!). Who doesn’t want to be told she’s the heroine of an archetypal if badly written space saga?

Then I recalled that I had also taken the Peanuts personality test and learned that I’m Schroeder: artsy and aloof. This plunged me into a flurry of self-doubt — good God! Am I coldly analytical and standoffish, hunched over a piano in a quest for perfection?! — until I remembered I don’t actually play the piano.

And then I recalled that I had also taken Book Week Scotland’s personality quiz, which, ta da!, informed me that I am, in fact, Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” No shit. Finally! Affirmation from the wise forces of Facebook that I am bubbly, gamine, party-animalistic and a just little bit tragic, especially when you take into account my long and pathetic string of sugar daddies. I’m not sure who they are, or where I’ve hidden them all these years, and whether they’re still interested in me now that I’m 50.

But what I really want to know is: Wouldn’t Princess Leia kick Holly’s ass? And Schroeder’s? I think so. Both of them at once, while simultaneously whipping all the men in the galaxy, and most of the ewoks, into shape. She didn’t need a sugar daddy. Okay, so she wanted Han pretty badly, and he was sort of a jerk about it, but you always knew she could and would kick his ass, too.

In other news, the Myers-Briggs test says I’m an ENFJ (extraversion, intuition, feeling, judgment). Some other test I can’t remember told me I’m an “ambivert,” i.e., some hybrid creature between an introvert and an extrovert, but to me that sounds like a sexual preference or an abstruse geometric concept rather than a personality type.

If Princess Leia took that test, she’d be slotted as an extrovert. So would Holly. As for Schroeder, he’d be an introvert. He’d never stoop so low to take the “Star Wars” test, but if he did, he’d be Obi-Wan; if he took the literary quiz, he’d be Sherlock Holmes (or, if he’s in a dour mood, Raskolnikov); if Princess Leia took the book quiz, she’d be Jane Eyre; if she took the Peanuts test, she’d be Lucy; if Holly took the Peanuts test, she’d be Sally; if she took the “Star Wars” test, she’d be Luke. And Leia would still kick her ass.

i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

on foresight and flying: a rant

I HATE not knowing things. Hate it. Hatehatehatehate. And yet I know I can’t know more than I already know, or I’d lose my mind, and I know that can’t happen, because I gotta hang on to that thing no matter what.

This is what I can’t stand about not knowing: NOT KNOWING. “More will be revealed,” say folks in A.A., but to me this aphorism begs the question: about what, exactly? YOU WANT TO GET SPECIFIC, PEOPLE? I find myself repeating the line myself, over and over and over, barking out a truism designed to drive everyone nuts. And yet, on hearing it, we all cross our arms and nod not-knowingly, saying, AHHHH, YESSSSS, THAT’S SO WIZZZZZZE. And it is indeed WIZZZZZZZE. I am so so super-glad I never knew most of the shit that’s happened to me before it happened, especially the really bad shit; and the worse the shit, the more relieved I’ve been about not-knowing it.

That said, I’ve always been impatient. I’ve always wanted to grab exclusive sneak-peaks into the future, especially any future involving exam results, Christmas gift contents and cute boys. Although, if I had my pick of godly Marvel superpowers, I’d probably choose flying over foresight. It’s what I do when I find myself in a dream: I realize, Hey! Yay! Excellent! I’m not awake, so I can fly! and then I just flip open a window and bomb around the sky in my pajamas. Flying PLUS foresight would be really cool, because then I’d know exactly which direction to head in for the most exciting Christmas gifts and cutest boys. Whenever I have another lucid dream, I’ll have to give that a whirl.

This not knowing: It makes me feel like a kid again, a dizzy one wearing a blindfold whose purported caring friends and purported loving parents have spun her around and around and around and then pointed her in the wrong direction, saying, “Go ahead and pin the tail! Ha ha ha! There’s the donkey! Ha ha ha!” knowing damn well the poor wee thing will never find the donkey in that state. Ignorance is such an essential part of the human condition that we make a game out of it at our children’s birthday parties. At least we used to in the 70s. But we were so much more sadistic then.

So I’m in the dark. You’re in the dark. Everyone’s in the dark. We wander around in the pitch black, blind as bats without the aid of echolocation, following each other’s voices, bumping into each other’s butts, chasing after pin-pricks of light in the distance. And somehow we get from point A to point B and point B to point C, although we have no idea how far up the alphabet we’re supposed to progress. And which alphabet? What if I’ve been using the wrong one? What if it’s, like, cyrillic?

I guess that’s why they call it faith. I guess that’s why we’re here. So I guess I’ll just have to keep groping blindly along, crashing into whatever butts I meet en route to wherever I’m going. A girl can hope.

my missive from graham greene

photo (19)

Shatner never wrote back. The poop.

In the summer of ’89, I was living in Somerville, Mass., that unfairly maligned suburb of Boston. For three years, my sister Lucy and I shared the bottom third of a triple-decker house with a third roommate, and if I were numerologically inclined, I might extrapolate some woozy mystical import from all those threes. Hmm. Weird. But I’m not big on numbers. Words are my bag, and have been since I decided at a stupidly young age that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I had no idea what this meant. I knew that my dad, Louis, was a writer, because I’d seen his name on the spine of quite a few books lining our shelves, and because he periodically retreated behind closed doors and made violent pounding noises interrupted by dings. He brutalized typewriters. I do more or less the same with computer keyboards, or so I’m told by colleagues too often forced to pick the shrapnel from their sad and bloodied faces.

In fifth grade, I think it was, I volunteered to help write the script for some school play or other, and I remember nothing about the process other than it yielded utter crap. A year or two later, a venturesome English teacher broke her class into small groups for a similar exercise in playwriting, and once again, I found myself writing utter crap. But at least I remember it; memorable crap always preferable to the bland, nameless and neglected sort that squats in the cobwebs of some dingy corner of the brain.

No, this second attempt at writerly writing was well worth remembering: It was a soap opera. The story began with my character spouting some drippy dialogue before heading offstage to get hit by a car, only to return in a wheelchair — that is, a molded plastic school chair pushed by a classmate. I even bent my legs underneath me to simulate amputation. I’m not shitting you. It was that bad.

From this propitious beginning, my writing career progressed to the woolly English essays and groovy abstract poetry I wrote in my teens. Around then I decided on journalism, and thank God I did, or I might still be writing blank-verse meditations on life and swirling blobs of color. In college I discovered William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, whose dark/light depictions of God, Catholicism and our combative human nature spoke to my own noirish inclinations and budding spiritual life.

In my mid-20s I was living with Lucy — watching her light spirit fight against the dark of suicidality — and gobbling up the last of Greene’s gripping, unsentimental novels, with their screwed-up protagonists and grayscale overlaps of good and evil. I’d read somewhere that he lived in Antibes, and that he responded to every letter he received. These two pieces of information emboldened me to fire one off. Into one page I crammed my appreciation for all that he gave me, all that I learned, all that I hoped for with my own young ambitions.

I addressed it “Graham Greene, Antibes, France,” and it got there. He wrote back. Finding that envelop in the mailbox outside my apartment remains one of the great postal triumphs of my life, ranking between my acceptance to Hamilton College (which had both a great English department AND a freshly minted women’s varsity soccer team, thank you, Title IX) and that autographed glossy from Gene Kelly (the hottest man ever to dance in high waters). He responded to my fan letter, too. William Shatner didn’t. But I don’t hold that against him. Much.

I cherish my missive from Graham Greene. Whether it pushed and punted me down the road to being a better writer, I don’t know. But over the years I’ve turned to it at moments high and low, focusing intensely on that one line: “I wish you every success with your writing.” Every success. Not just worldly. Not just money in the bank and eyeballs on the page. He also meant creative success, the quiet victory of simply putting a decent sentence together — and then two decent sentences, and then a few decent paragraphs, and then an article, a play, a book.

Because it isn’t so simple; it isn’t so small. The threat of utter crap looms always and everywhere, held at bay by the thrashing of keyboards. And somehow, I still want to be a writer when I grow up.