Saturday, December 13, 2008


I'm reading Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke right now, about 5o pages in. I'm not sure what to think.

Has anyone out there read it? What's it about? Where's it going? Who's it for? I find it hard to pay attention while I'm reading and don't know the source of that ADD. The characters are reasonably vivid and well drawn. Perhaps there are too many of them to keep track? In some of the drinking/dialogue scenes, I feel as confused as I do when I (foolishly) attend Happy Hours on Fridays at the local bar.

Since some of the novel is set in the Philippine jungles, I'm intrigued. Lizzie and I may be spending June-October of 2009 in Manila (the chances are about 90% right now, actually).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hurry Down Sunshine

I just finished reading a memoir by Michael Greenberg, Hurry Down Sunshine. His 15 year old daughter, in the summer before her sophomore year in high school, literally loses her mind, tumbling down a manic rabbit hole and ending up in the psychiatric ward.

The book is an examination of mental illness, particularly how it changes not only the patient but her entire family, unraveling the links between each member, making each question who he or she is, what reality means, or normal, and who's responsible for the unbearable state of affairs they all find themselves in. The writing is eloquent, searching, and bald (where it needs to be). Greenberg doesn't make any apologies for his blindness, for the cruelty that is--briefly--unleashed in him as the grieving father. After all, he's lost the daughter he thought he knew, and she's been replaced with an unstable model. Again and again, he describes the girl looking back at him in the hospital, and then at home afterward, as an alien.

The book both fascinates and horrifies me. More than anything, it scares the shit out of me. As soon as I closed the book, I had to come here and write this, as if to vomit it all out of me. Otherwise, I'm afraid I won't be able to go to sleep tonight. I'll lie in bed and my thoughts will swirl around the inside of my skull.

I'm frightened because I've got an aunt who's schizophrenic--and her grandmother was, it turns out, not dead as everyone in the family thought but, instead, institutionalized for decades with unspecified "psychosis." I'm frightened because Dave's mother is bipolar. I'm frightened because my grandfather killed himself. I'm out of the woods, and so is Dave. We've made it this far with nothing more than the usual seasonal blues, the dips in the road of middle age, the grinding depressions of daily life as adults in the social machine. But what about our darling girl?

She's never been a phlegmatic child. She's always been a bit dramatic, a girl given to swings of enthusiasm and flights of fancy about herself. Her visions of her own prowess are not grandiose but I wouldn't call them realistic, either. "My goal is to do gymnastics in the Olympics," she announced, after a few years of lackluster YWCA courses on the balance beam, the shabby horse. Later, "Maybe I'll be President," she said. "Or a veterinarian. I can't decide." Is this the normal range of motion for a somewhat precocious only child with indulgent academic parents?

Her room is an ungodly mess. When I bothered to clean it, she'd come home and go ballistic, screaming under her breath, muttering, and flinging things. She refused to throw a single thing away. "I need that," she'd say, piling on top of another piece of flotsam: wrappers from Halloween candies, pieces of paper with a few scribbles, bits of broken plastic.

"This is not normal," I said, one day. "I worry about you."

And that brought her up short. She was about six, I think, and her cheeks flushed as she looked back at me. "What do you mean?" she wondered.

"I mean that it's not normal to want to keep everything," I said, "or to get so upset about throwing anything away. There are people who are sick, who can't throw a single thing away. And I guess that I worry that you might be sick like that."

"I'm not sick," she said, hands on her hips. "I just know what I like. And I like my room the way it is."

After reading Greenberg's book, I'm a little heartened. Lizzie, if anything, is a neurotic like her parents, more intent on keeping control of her domain (and keeping us out of it) than attached to the flotsam of her rambunctious experience or her rough and tumble imagination. She's no longer attached to the idea of the Olympics. Her dreams seem more realistic and manageable. She's not convinced that children are natural geniuses or that she's got the divine news we all need to hear--news we'll lock her up to deny.

What I did learn from Greenberg is pretty simple--as parents, we have to endure whatever our children (and life) throw us, day to day. And we have to be kind to them, to love them as they are, in each moment. Further, we have to love ourselves in the same way.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Trifecta

I'm reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, and it's making me think a lot about gender roles, Islamism, other modes of living/being, war, family, marriage, motherhood, and love. It's quite well written--vivid, evocative, sometimes painfully so.

I know that I bring distrust, anger and pre-judgment to this novelist's world because I assume that the society he writes about denigrates the female, that its violence is often leveled against the woman, and that its religion is suffocating. I assume these things, however, because of my ignorance. I know very little about Afghanistan, its history, its culture, its religion.

Of course, Hosseini writes his novel to expose the injustices (for men and women) in this world; his point of view, in other words, is my point of view. In that way, I trust his narrative eye, am appalled where I need to be appalled, and hopeful where he allows me to be.

In a week or so, we'll begin to discuss the novel in my senior level creative writing seminar, and I'm looking forward to the students' input. At the same time, I have no idea what they'll say about the quality of the writing, the point of view, or the themes the novel takes up. One of the students--a young man who distinguishes himself for his love of magical realism and his somewhat effete demeanor during class discussions--has already announced that he "hated" The Kite Runner (a novel I loved). Gee, I thought, when he dropped that little tidbit into the middle of a discussion, and here I assumed you'd like a novel that comes from a place other than the boring kitchen-sink American realism you've been excoriating for most of the semester.


I'm in the middle of a book of poems by Philip Schultz, Failure, and I'm a bit miffed with it so far. The poems are certainly accessible, and most of them deal with the title theme, but I don't know why the book was awarded a National Book Award. Though the poems are well written, they are curiously flat, and devoid (at least for me) of any real insight into the nature of depression, failure, grief, or the lack of human connection the poet seems to find in poem after poem. Perhaps what I'm noticing is a self fulfilling prophecy, or something like the imitative fallacy: write about failure, and your work is ultimately just that, a failure.


In the spirit of multi-tasking, I'm also reading a self-help offering: The Mindful Way Through Depression (Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn). I chose the book for its last author; Jon Kabat-Zinn helped me to get through the worst years in Michigan, when I was on the job market for three years, a new mother, and all three of us were shoved into a booger-box 2-bedroom apartment with two very hairy cats. Now that the winter months in Green Bay are nearly pressing down on us again, I thought I'd try to get a leg-up on the depression and remind myself how to live more mindfully.

So far, I've learned that depression becomes a habit of mind. In other words, after suffering a depression (usually in response to some external event), we--or our minds--become more habituated to depression. Negative thoughts, small irritants, lead us down familiar pathways, spiraling inward (or downward) into more serious depression. We begin to fret, we feel the old depression coming on, and we tell ourselves Stop that, make yourself better, which itself is a negative thought. So, the authors tell me, we need to figure out how to interrupt that pattern, how to get our minds off the fretting circle it makes between past and future, and back to the present moment. We need to do less "doing" and more "being."

Funny, and ironic: as I read these ideas, I think with one part of my brain that, yes, this makes sense, and with another part of my brain, shit, this is all your fault again, isn't it? I will try to meditate, I know I will, and I also know that I'll beat myself up over it (mentally) for a while,
"doing" it wrong.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Odd

I just got a response on something I wrote last year. It's like a voice coming from the past, making me revisit, reread what I wrote, which is funny because what I wrote had to do with The Time Traveler's Wife.

While I was reading, and thinking, it occurred to me that I liked the blue background of my blogspot set up. So why did I stop writing here?

It might have had something to do with the split attention--writing here, writing in Livejournal is my default, I guess. Plus, I can lock it (heh) when I want to say something incendiary.

Wait. I'm always blowing things up. In fact, (at least in the past), to blow things up is one of my prime motivations.

So that can't be the real reason.

I said when I made the split--the split between the nitty gritty details of my personal life, such as they are, and the somewhat mundane details of my intellectual life--that I needed to keep spheres separate. Facebook, I declared, for the teaching stuff. Livejournal for the ranting about hemorrhoids, children, pets, husbands, grocery shopping, etcetera. Blogspot for the heady musings about books and written babies (so what if most of them are miscarriages or family planning non-events?).

Maybe I haven't had an intellectual life for the last year and a half. That's a possibility.

I have been reading, though, and rather voraciously. I've become, too, a slattern in my reading habits, picking books up, reading half way, a chapter or two, even to the last 20 pages, and then letting plots, characters, nonfiction investigations, and poets go. I've been reading trash, and high art, and creative nonfiction, and letters, and blogs, and online journals, the New York Times Sunday edition...

So I suppose I have had an intellectual life of some sort--a slutty life, but a life nonetheless.

Maybe the real reason I haven't been here is something I can only explore in the locked environment of Livejournal. Maybe it has something to do with grief, depression, loss, denial.

I'm dipping into a variety of books right now--sort of the Old Country buffet of reading. Yesterday, I slipped for a twenty minute block into Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story, in preparation for teaching a creative nonfiction workshop. She says she had to create a persona for herself in order to write personal nonfiction (something approaching memoir but not there yet). She says she's discovered that it's crucial to find this person, this self, the "who" talking in the essay or book, in order to tackle a subject with focus and detail and oomph. "I longed each day to meet up again with her," Gornick writes, "this other one telling the story that I alone--in my everyday person--would not have been able to tell."

Yeah. Maybe I've lost that person, the one who used to write this blog with such aplomb, the one who loves to drop bombs for the sheer sake of hearing the weeeeee-thump and then seeing the pieces rain down.

Or it could be that I'm just lazy.