Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Who'll be my role model, now that my role model is gone, gone?

Princess Leia was the first Halloween costume I chose myself, and the first that was a character rather than a simple noun: tiger, witch, clown, pumpkin-headed ghost thing my mother slapped together at the last minute after I balked at railroad engineer (striped overalls). My grandma whipped me up a gown out of an old bedsheet, and I set to wrapping strips of tinfoil around a discarded belt.

Like thousands of other 70s kids, though, I had the standard Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, my head round as that of a Fisher-Price peg person. What to do? I have no idea how much effort my mother put into coiling and gluing whorls of yarn onto two discs of cereal-box cardboard, which I guess she planned to bobby-pin to the sides of my head. If memory serves, they probably looked pretty good. I can remember her presenting them to me in our tiny, avocado-green kitchen.

But. The yarn she’d used was black. Black! And I was a fairly mellow kid, master of the passive tantrum, where I’d just lie on the floor or the ground or under the bed when I’d had enough, getting my Gandhi on. But over those yarn bun blobs, I had a complete and utter meltdown. No! NO, WRONG! Princess Leia’s hair was BROWN! Brown like MY hair! Brown like YOUR hair, Mama, WHAT THE HELL? No, no, forget it, HALLOWEEN WAS RUINED, THROW EVERYTHING AWAY.

I posted the resulting photo on Instagram this Halloween: me as The Sullenest Clown, wearing another hand-sewn-by-Grammy costume for the second year in a row, inconsolable. Or only moderately consolable, by a pillowcase full of candy. I kept the dress, though, stuffed into the back of my closet unworn.
Jerry Lewis in The Day the Clown Whined and Sulked

Sis and I had a smattering of action figures, too. Characters our parents had grabbed at random, not the whole main cast, so maybe that was why we didn’t play with them much. I had a Greedo with his lumpy green head (Han shot first) and a Darth Vader; one of us had a hammer-headed alien from the cantina bar. But someone was smart enough to get us each a Leia, obviating several years of fights-to-the-death.

I coveted the TIE fighters and other accoutrements, too, especially the Death Star playset with its working trash compactor filled with chunks of foam garbage, but it was not to be. My figures lived instead in a floral-patterned box that had once held an Avon bath set. I didn’t play with them narratively, but I liked to take them out and look at them, line them up, especially Leia with her little vinyl cape. A tiny teenage princess, the only girl in space, bossing the boys around. A brunette heroine you could fit in your pocket.
* * * * *

I first got contact lenses in the sixth grade. "Rigid gas-permeable" lenses, newly introduced as the intermediary between hard and soft lenses; it was thought that an eleven-year-old would be less likely to rip one of these in half. I still wear this type. They're smaller than a soft lens, sitting only over the iris.

The originals came very lightly tinted--not the lurid, exotic shades you can buy for beauty purposes or Halloween, these days: just blue, green, a hazel-y gold, and brown, natural eye colors. The idea was that the tint would also help you find one if you dropped it on the floor. My eyes are green...but when I got those first contacts, I chose brown. It was 1981: our carpets and virtually every other surface in our home was brown, so brown contacts were no help there, but I insisted. I don't remember ever explaining myself about this, but my reason was simple: Princess Leia was why. Carrie Fisher was why. I wanted big, deep, dark brown eyes, anime eyes, eyes like my primary icon at the time. Maybe, with brown eyes, I could approach and approximate the brave, fierce, snarky princess movie star I idolized. Maybe I could captivate a charming, roguish scoundrel of my very own, in the halls of Washington Middle School. Maybe brown eyes would make me that kind of pretty.

Photos from those days show me looking a little wide-eyed and blinky, still flinching at sticking little plastic disks into my eyeballs every morning. You can't discern the color. I suspect it was muddy and indistinct at best. But I saw what I wanted to in the mirror, and that was enough.
This absurd pile of hair was also an affectation of the period. Deprived of yarn buns, I grew my own.

(Let’s backtrack for a minute: this article made the rounds during Pussygate, a couple months ago [note: not the David Wong I know and grew up with]. And I am woke, indeed, to rape culture, and recognize how I’ve been steeped in it for nearly half a century. “Consent” is a mountain we’ll all be climbing for generations. But the first example Wong cites, the kiss in The Empire Strikes Back? DEVASTATED me, in this context. I hit puberty precisely when that movie came out. I may have hit puberty the exact moment I watched a clip of that scene, in an interview with Carrie Fisher on Good Morning America. It was romantic. It was a premonition of “sexy,” before I understood that word as anything but giggle-inducing. To look at it through the lens—haha—of consent, nearly 40 years later…and to know that Harrison Ford [and I still would, whew—remember, pubertal imprinting) was in fact screwing a barely-20s Fisher, who’d dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College to shoot the second film, ahem—was I wrong, to base my first understanding of LOOOooooOOOOOVE on that moment? How am I supposed to feel, now? 2016, ladies and gentlemen, ruining every little fucking thing, even backwards through time.)

Anyway. I was in college when I first heard "She Moves On," its reference to "her cold coffee eyes," and who else could it possibly be about? The quote "maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be" was a gift from Fisher to Paul Simon, I am certain, one genius poet to another.

 * * * * *

As an adult, I love Fisher’s books, her wordplay and punning and obvious love of language. I found her public persona intimidating: she was such a brash and brassy broad, which I intend as an honorific. A broad’s broad, so smart and so funny. I’ve known a few friends—and writers—like that: the kind of funny you hope to stay on the good side of, knowing that they could slash you to ribbons with that wit if they chose. Though, from everything I’ve heard this week, Carrie Fisher didn’t have a mean bone in her body, would cheerfully shred herself rather than turn on anyone else.

She was brave, battling addiction and mental health crises, and didn’t give two shits about saying so. She spoke her truth, blared it; she stood in her truth, and sometimes waded through it neck-deep. Not so unlike that trash compactor. Feeling trapped? Blow a hole in the wall, jump through. You might have to flounder through a fetid swamp of garbage, for 15 minutes or a year (or a Presidential administration), but you can grapple and claw your way to the top of it eventually. Friends you’ve just met will love you despite your- and themselves, will help push and shove and drag you out.

As a child, I thought Leia was my role model. Now, it needs to be Carrie Fisher: kinda fat, kinda furious, hopefully hilarious, brutally honest. To live up to her is my new year’s resolution. So I’ve got one more truth to lay on you, if you’re still reading.  To explain it, though, I have to duck back into adolescence again for a moment.

My middle and high schools were served by the same school bus route, so I rode with many of the same kids from ages 11-18. There was one girl, older, who’d get on a few stops after mine and often sat next to me, perhaps because I was shy and silent in a way that passed for “friendly.” I remember her name, but I won’t out her here; suffice to say that she was a geek, an awkward, nerdy kid, much more visibly than I was. It came off her like an aura—something about her haircuts, her thick greenish glasses, the paperbacks she carried around emblazoned with dragons and lasers: geek.

I was, absolutely, also a nerd. I was also also consumed with self-consciousness, with fitting in and staying beneath the radar. Mostly, I prayed not to be noticed, or to have any obvious flaw that could be made fun of. Hence the contact lenses, for example. I dressed plainly; I read a little sci-fi and fantasy, but wouldn’t have been caught dead toting a dorky novel where someone might see it. On the other hand, when the Star Wars movies cropped up on HBO (in one of the flush periods where we could afford cable), I had mastered the art of faking sick. I had thus committed the trilogy to memory, privately—plus had all three novelizations worn flimsy and spine-cracked in my bookshelf.

One gray, pre-dawn winter morning, Geek Girl got on the bus clutching a typed and stapled manuscript. She shuffled down the aisle still reading and sat beside me with a half-shrug “hi,” eyes never leaving the page, avid.

It looked like a term paper. Nosy, wondering what so completely captured her attention, I craned my eyeballs left hard enough to hurt, trying to get a glimpse of the page in the grimy light. What I finally read, a snatch of a paragraph, astonished me: it was a story about Star Wars. It was, in fact, a description of Han and Leia’s wedding. Flowers, candles. Probably some Ewok ringbearers.

I gaped at it, seizing on sentences here and there. Where the hell had she gotten such a thing? I wondered, followed in an instant by Oh my god, people actually wrote this shit down? Because I had thought it, at least, before. I’d made up backstories and missing scenes and denouements for these characters, just in my head. Dreamily, falling asleep. I’d imagined this very wedding, and—sshhhh—The Sex that I knew should occur afterwards, within the sacred bonds of galactic matrimony blah blah. I’d never heard of fanfic, and had no word for this bizarre and amazing document in Geek Girl’s hands. (Ironically, I had always hated the language-arts exercises in this same vein: what do YOU think should have happened to Susan? Now write the story from Tommy’s perspective instead! Who gave a crap what happened to dumb Susan and Tommy in the bland, dull textbook? But STAR WARS! Holy shit!)

And it is touching to me, now, a little, to imagine how Geek Girl had worked to get hold of this thing, so carefully typed and Xeroxed, probably at great cost to someone, five or ten cents a page at the Copy Mart. Maybe she went to a convention, or ordered it out of the back of a fan club ‘zine. Paying for the SASE and the privilege. That somebody had done this, that somebody could do this, just start making shit up about someone else’s imagined world, and write it down, was a revelation to me.

But I was too embarrassed to expose my own geekery. I stared holes in the pages from the window seat, and never never asked Geek Girl about it, afraid that she’d rub off on me, dork-by-association. I said nothing, and she clomped off the bus at the high school, and that was the end of that.

Fifteen years passed. Al Gore invented the Internet. I was a grown-ass woman (though still comically young to my now-self), working a real job, with a laptop I got to take home. I had my MFA in creative writing, but because I also enjoyed both food and shelter, the authorial life I’d envisioned had been subsumed by the need to work for The Man. I’d also been recently dumped. I soothed myself by developing an obsession with the X-Files reruns playing, in order, nightly on cable. And at some point, I installed AOL dial-up on that company laptop, so I could Internet from home, and went poking around online for reviews and analysis and plain old gossip about my favorite show. A rabbit-hole montage of links later, I hit the motherlode, and learned the vocabulary to go with it: Fanfic. Shipper. OTP. A no-infringement-intended universe being born.

I…dabbled, let’s say. I roughed out Mulder and Scully moments that never saw the light of day, even with an avatar to hide behind. I read a metric ton of other people's stories. And yes, there are hordes of semi-literate, erotically…uh, naïve…twelve-year-old auteurs to sift through, to find the good stuff…but it’s there. I found authors I admired, strangers toiling away in anonymity, writers so good I envied them. “I hope you write in Real Life,” I told more than one. “Please, please do.” I watched certain writers evolve, getting better in real time, fascinating and humbling to witness.

It still took me another decade to realize that I could try it, too—that this was a way to keep a hand in, when my original fiction stuttered and stalled and went nowhere. I could hang a story on someone else’s scaffolding, as practice. I knew, incidentally, that between her novels and memoirs Carrie Fisher worked as a script doctor, but only this week did I realize what a lot of gold she spun out of somebody else's shit-caked straw indeed. How do YOU think the story should have ended?  

That’s the confession I’m inspired to today, that I’ve found some joy in writing, again, by pushing other people’s chess pieces around the board. It’s embarrassing, but at this age what isn’t, and who cares? I’ve published a handful of stories to fanfic sites on the web, for Fringe and The Killing fandoms. (Apparently, petite, feisty, powerful women bicker-bantering with their hot male partners are forever my JAM…that and whatever they’re pumping into the atmosphere in Vancouver, B.C.) I’m still not quite ready to own up to my pseudonym, though folks who know me well could suss it out, I bet.
* * * * *

When I started this piece, Debbie Reynolds was still alive to grieve. I can’t begin to think what hell Billie Lourd is going through tonight, and I have no tidy way to wrap this up. How DO you think the story should have ended? Well, Christ, not like this.

But here are a couple lessons, morals, pithy reminders to take forward, should you want to, that I’ll try to: I am, at heart, the girl I’ve always been. We all are whoever we are. Keep being you, and do what you love—on weekends, on buses, in line at the bank, wherever whenever you can. Quit wasting time, don’t fuck around. Even the longest hours and days and lifetimes are just so goddamn short.

And 2016, get the fuck out of here, seriously. I will burn you to the ground.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Treat yo'self

I've written before about my great love of the annual Hallowen trick-or-treat event sponsored by my neighborhood's business district. It's such a joy to me, to grab a window seat at Herkimer Coffee and get a look at the kiddos in daylight, when they're not running shrieking from porch to porch in the dark (like they will Monday night). Poor birthday girl Mom has a cold, ugh, and poor Sis is working a Saturday it was just me, nursing a coffee and trying to live-tweet and text my favorites to them. Eventually I gave up and just started jotting in a notebook, for later. I'm trying to write more, trying to psych myself up for NaNo after too many long months of neglect...thus, this post.

It was dumping rain when I arrived, and the coffee shop was crowded and steamy, but there was one stool left at the window. Better still was the little kid in line with his parents, dressed as a donut--complete with a carton-of-milk hat. "Look at you, you're a donut!" I said to him. "YEEEAAAAAHHH!" he replied. Extra points for enthusiasm, my man!

Candy at Herkimer is traditionally distributed by a gorilla. I am not sure whether the same person takes on gorilla duties every year, but someone puts on the costume and hoots and scratches and brandishes a banana or two, seated in the recessed doorway to their roasting room and wholesale arm. I was lucky enough to get the seat next to the gorilla area, and my all-time favorite Halloween thing each year is watching kids react to the gorilla, oh lord, I shouldn't laugh that hard but it is THE BEST. Little princesses and ladybugs and firefighters amble down the block, grinning around a mouthful of lollipop, and then THEY FREEZE. Their little HOLY SHIT A GORILLA expressions are just amazing. The gorilla has softened its antics over time; for the most paralyzed kids, the gorilla will just toss candy in their general direction, and that often unsticks them. (The gorilla also pelts unsuspecting adults with Twizzlers in the slow moments. I approve.) The older kids mouth "oh my God" and queue up gladly. A lion and a kangaroo waved happily to their wild-animal compatriot. I only saw two criers this year: a something-or-other in arms and a weeping Pop-Tart who gave the gorilla a wide berth. I did also very much enjoy a bumblebee who walked away backwards, keeping eyes on the gorilla AT ALL TIMES. Hermione Granger, on the other hand, was completely unfazed.

(Another ritual: kitty-corner across the street, Frankenstein does the handing-out over at the 74th Street Ale House. This year, he had two patio umbrellas at his disposal in the downpour.)

I counted five Reys, in the two hours or so I sat there. One was accompanied by the whole multi-generational fam-damily: Vader, Leia, and Queen Amidala, the latter two stopping in for coffee. I saw a "Return of the Jedi"-era Leia in camouflage poncho ensemble, braids wound over the top of her head...and what I think was another old-school Leia, clutching her skirt and her plastic treat pumpkin in both hands. Her hair was down, and covered with a straw hat in the rain, so I'm not completely confident in my costume identification skills, there. For what it's worth, a Kylo Ren and the lone Donald Trump I saw walked by together, which seemed about right. A dad went by, carrying the papier-mâché segments of a marvelous BB-8 suit that I hope were not dissolving completely; his kid soldiered on in a BB-8 patterned storebought onesie. And finally came another dad with a huge cardboard X-wing perched on his shoulders. His baby, in a backpack, stuck his head out of the droid's seat behind the cockpit. Several people in the window row stood up and applauded, at that guy.

What else? Harley Quinn, her makeup suitably smeary in the pounding rain. A kid dressed as a pack of Glide dental floss. (A moment later I saw his older sibling--a tube of Crest--and his infant sibling, in a Snugli decorated to be one huge tooth.) A centurion led Calvin down the block, clutching his stuffed Hobbes. Grumpy Cat. Robinson Cano, wearing golden Mardi-Gras-bead bling and a drawn-on beard. ZOMBIE RICHARD SHERMAN! Marty McFly, in a red puffy vest and headphones. Hey, mom: Hulk cannot see where Hulk going, can you please rotate Hulk's eyeholes. A beautiful suffragette went past in a long dark gown and coat, with an elegant hat and a VOTES FOR WOMEN sash and picket sign. (Her sister was a unicorn; her parents, Cubbies.)

There was a rat terrier sporting bat wings, and a pug dressed as Wonder Woman. A ninja took a very un-ninja-like header in front of the coffee house, ouch. Twin chocolate-chip cookies, and a beautiful owl with real feathers on her mask and cardboard wings, and a Holstein a top hat. Red Riding Hood was accompanied by the very patient and obliging family dog, who had on Grandma's floral nightgown and ruffled sleeping cap. I counted three Ghostbusters, of disparate genders, but what I was truly waiting for was the one who was plainly, gloriously Holtzman, one set of goggles perched atop her head and another over her eyes. YAAASS. And finally I got up, stiff from sitting and out of coffee, and walked down to Ken's Market to put a couple cans of soup in the Hunger Goblin food-drive barrel. Happy Halloween, all you sodden and sugared-up wonderful little humans. Don't dream it, be it, etc.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

One in four women


I am nine years old, maybe—ten at the most—so Sis is six or seven. It’s the 1970s, so we are free to rove around unsupervised, but all our destinations fall within a four-block radius of home anyway: the playground at the local elementary school; the tiny neighborhood grocery across the street from it; the park, one street over; the even tinier grocery on its edge. On this particular day, we’ve been to the school playground, or the little store, or both. (Our most devious behavior, to date, is to take our weekly dollar allowance to the store, buy four 25-cent candy bars, scarf three on the way home, and feign innocence and appetite at dinner.) But it’s started to rain, sprinkling a little, and so we’re walking home. We’re half a block away when a car pulls to the curb beside us, window rolled down, and the driver beckons to us, asking something I can’t quite catch.

I’m a polite kid, so I step closer to the car, Sis on my heels. I’m prepared to help this person, provide directions. This is when we see that the man behind the wheel is nude from the waist down. He has on a brown sweater, blue button-down shirt, even a burgundy tie if memory serves, but his bare thighs are on the vinyl car seat, his bare blunt Thing exposed in his naked lap. Sis and I freeze. The man is still talking.

“What’s the name of that school up there?” he asks, pointing up the block, toward the playground where we’ve just been. We’re mute, standing there gaping in the drizzle. We’re not close enough to the car to grab, unless he gets out. He doesn’t get out. He asks us a couple more questions, but we stay silent. It can’t even be a full minute before he loses patience and peels out, and we break and sprint the other direction, pounding home to tell our mother what’s happened. I try to remember the license plate: there was a D or an O, I think, maybe a zero? I know that Mama calls the police and relates our manic tale, but I don’t recall anyone coming to take a statement or otherwise follow up, ever after. Nothing happens, and we continue walking to the park and the store and the school because what else can you do? Mama can’t follow us every waking minute.

I tell my friends, and the story gets funnier with each retelling. I recognize the general menace of a Dangerous Stranger, but the other implicit threat of this guy driving around with his dick in his hand is so beyond my comprehension that it reads to me as a bizarre, hilarious oversight—as if pants were something he just forgot. The Man With No Pants. “The Man With No Pants!” my classmates and I shriek at each other, laughing and laughing. What a nut! What a weirdo! Nearly 40 years later, this is in fact how I ask Sis about it: Do you remember The Man With No Pants? She does, of course.


I’m in sixth grade. The transition to middle school hasn’t been smooth, but there are positives. For one, I meet Holly, in Mr. Zukowski’s homeroom. (Our friendship will persist through decades and across continents, prom dates, graduate degrees, weddings, babies. Last month, I went with her whole family to Disneyland. Her oldest, Kai, is the same age we were when we met.) For another, I have identified a preteen crush object in the same homeroom, a boy I’ll call Daniel. He is shorter than I am, with big brown eyes and a shaggy brown bowl cut, cute in a Davy Jones sort of way. I am dying for him to Notice me. I’m eleven years old. So is he.

On chilly fall mornings, the cool kids perch on the radiator covers along the windowsill before the bell. Daniel and his buddies are bragging and shoving each other around there on the day I sidle onto the edge of the group, all nonchalance. I’m not a part of the conversation; I don’t know what the boys are talking about, but then Daniel leans over and mutters conspiratorially in my ear:

“I’m going to cut off your tit and lick it.”

It is the worst thing—the weirdest, the most violent and overtly sexual, the most incomprehensible thing—that anyone’s ever said to me. I say nothing; I slide off the windowsill and go back to my desk, appalled in a way I have no words for. Holly must see my expression; she asks what’s wrong and I can’t explain, can’t repeat this terrifying, filthy, casual remark. “He’s crazy. He’s, like, an insane psychopath,” is all I can come up with. Holly’s got my back, though. She bestows the nickname “Psycho” on Daniel, and we refer to him this way for years, in notes and yearbook entries. (Neither of us spells it correctly, for a number of those years.) I begin keeping a regular journal at about this same time, and even there I don’t transcribe what this kid said to me. I never tell Holly, or anyone. I never wrote it down until this moment.

To complicate matters, Daniel remains cute, and I am conflicted. We don’t ever have a conversation, but on Field Day in the spring I sneak a photo of him with my mother’s precious Instamatic and tuck it into the frame of my mirror at home. When he transfers out of the district, later, I pine a little, in absolute secrecy.

I just looked for him on Facebook, curious. His real name is fairly common, and none of the bearded, middle-aged Daniels I found looked familiar. None of them appear to be serial killers either, so that’s something.


I’m still in middle school, maybe 12 or 13. I’m walking down the hall when a boy walking the other direction, a boy I don’t know, abruptly shoves his hand between my legs, claws at the zipper of my jeans. It happens in a few seconds; I stumble and jerk away, and he’s already gone in the tumult of passing period, kids whooping and guffawing and slamming locker doors. I am mortified and upset, but it doesn’t occur to me to tell anyone—a teacher, my mother, whomever. What difference would it make? Could I even point out the boy? More than anything, I am humiliated, hoping nobody saw. I say nothing; I’m a little tenser in the hallways afterwards, but eventually I forget all about it. Until last week.

(Incidentally, it’s middle school: the other, more “benign” bra-snappings and butt-slappings my girlfriends and I endure are a blur, innumerable. I don’t remember telling anyone. I don’t remember anyone telling.)


I’m 18, at a screening of Rocky Horror with my friends, some of whom are in the shadow cast. It’s a good night, crowded; we run down to the front of the theatre to do the Time Warp, everybody bumbling and laughing in the dark. At the line “Put your hands on your hips,” we all throw our arms up, to shimmy and jazz-hands them into place. The guy behind me, though, a stranger, sings “Put your hands on your tits! Or somebody else’s!” and grabs both my breasts, a quick honk. And I laugh, I keep dancing—because it’s clever and naughty, because it’s Rocky, because it’s all about breaking down boundaries. I have, to wit, been given a Terrible Thrill. “I just got felt up,” I hiss to Gwyn when we scramble back to our seats, still laughing. I found it funny. I still do; I have always looked back at this moment with bemused fondness. But now I feel strange about that, a little guilty. Is it okay, if it made me laugh? What am I complicit in?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Absolute beginner

In the spring of 1989, my First-Year Studies professor, Bella Brodzki, organized an outing for our class to go see Maxine Hong Kingston read at the 92nd Street Y. It was the first time I’d been there; the first time I’d been to a reading not on campus; the first time I shelled out precious dollars for a hardcover copy of her new novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, for the purpose of getting it signed.

We’d read The Woman Warrior in class, a book that for whatever reason had resonated so deeply with me that it unlocked the quintessential Sarah Lawrence experience, the quintessential Bella experience. I’ve told this bit of the story at prospective-student events for two decades now: how I read my little mass-market paperback to shreds, the pages warped with highlighter ink and held together with rubber bands. (Yes, I still have it.) Bella assigned a 10-page paper, and I wrote and wrote and wrote in a fever and hit something like the 12-page mark with maybe a third of my ideas still lodged in my brain. What to do? In one of our conferences, I asked Bella this, on the verge of panic.
First, bless her, Bella laughed. Then, she said the most transformative sentence I’d ever heard, and perhaps that I’ve heard since: “I’m not going to tell you to do less work, Kim.”

It was a lightbulb moment—the realization that I was entitled to have an opinion; the thought that someone else, an adult, an intellectual, a woman of letters that I respected and admired and was a bit worshipful of/intimidated by, wanted to hear it. Keep going. Keep thinking. I had friends who’d gone on to huge universities, who’d been told outright that their professors and overworked TAs would stop reading at the prescribed limit, mid-sentence if it came to that. Your idea should fit within designated dimensions.

I don’t remember just how I wound that paper down—15 pages, 17? Bella praised it lavishly. I’m sure it’s still in a drawer in my home office, and I know I drew upon it on through my graduate degree. But the experience, that door blown wide open for me at 19, has never left me.

Back to our trip to the 92nd Street Y. Bella had checked out a campus van to drive us to the city. That image is hilarious to me now: petite, birdy Bella piloting a hulking 15-passenger van down the Cross County Parkway. (She forever claimed to be 5’3”, a lie I indulged because at 5’1” I loomed over her, even in my Chucks.) At the reading, someone distributed copies of several of MHK’s typed manuscript pages, with scribbles and strikethroughs and notes in the margins. As an aspiring writer, I was taken by these: here was another adult who inspired and awed me, and whose scrawled and typo-ed drafts were not so unlike my own! I blithered something to this effect to poor Ms. Kingston in the autograph line, later…and mentioned the raggedy, rubber-banded The Woman Warrior I’d left at home, afraid it would fall apart in her hands. She let me ramble and signed my book. My first signed book. (She did not personalize it, heh.) Her use of the Chinese character for her maiden name impressed me then. The blue ballpoint amuses me today.

Back in the van. It was night, dark and chilly in early-spring New York City; we first-years swayed and dozed in the stuffy blasts from the heat vents as Bella drove us home, like a mom, like all of our moms. She had the radio on, and somewhere during the ride they played David Bowie.

My Bowie horizons were expanding that year, too. I’d had Let’s Dance and Tonight on vinyl, in high school. (I was fascinated by the short-film video for Blue Jean, with its finger-snapping club audience, too cool to applaud.) But my roommate had arrived with both an Apple Macintosh and a stereo system complete with CD player, two signifiers of unimaginable wealth to scholarship-dependent me. Elizabeth allowed me occasional music privileges, and from her collection I’d made cassette copies for my own sad little single-deck boom box: Elvis Costello and the Attractions.* Talking Heads, Naked and Little Creatures. The Rolling Stones, Hot Licks. And a David Bowie greatest-hits collection.

I came back and back to that one. At one point I had the track list memorized, the exact order I’d copied down in block print on the cramped Maxell label, its particular sequence of Changes to Starman, Fame to Fashion to DJ to TVC 15. When I replaced that tape with a Best of Bowie two-disc set, years and years later, I noticed where it differed. (Now, I can look it up—can look anything up. My roomie’s album might have been the Fame and Fashion compilation, and I’ve scrambled the order in my head. It doesn’t matter. I knew it by heart once, sang along word for word and knew what was coming next.)
So. Driving at night, listening to Bowie. I vividly remember hearing it, that click of recognition, thinking, “Ohh, I love this song!”…but if I'm being honest, I can’t remember which song, now. One of the gentler ones. For the purposes of this story, this memory, it ought to be Changes. Me at 19, in New York City, visiting a cultural and literary landmark, learning to write, meeting a Real Writer. Feeling, for a moment, like somebody’s child still, lulled in the back seat even as all my horizons were vanishing at once, so so fast, so many doors opening onto infinite possibilities.

But I can’t be sure. Maybe it was Space Oddity, Major Tom stepping out into those very different stars. Maybe it was Ashes to Ashes.
I’m happy, hope you're happy too.
*Advance notice: If and when Mr. Declan McManus shuffles off this mortal coil, I am going to need a couple days off work. Stay well, Elvis!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Beside the golden door

I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother a lot, this week. She was born in rural North Dakota in 1922, to immigrant Norwegian parents...but lost her mother at three, and from that point much of her childhood was scarred by tragedy, deprivation, and outright violence, abuse, and neglect. By the eighth grade, she'd exhausted the limits of the local one-room schoolhouse for farm kids. To continue her education--and it must have been largely her own idea, because certainly no one was championing her talents at home-- she'd need to move to town, Williston, to attend the high school.

I've been to Williston, both as a small child and more recently, as the oil boom has rendered it utterly unrecognizable. In the late 1930s, I don't know that there was any such thing as an emancipated minor, so my grandma had to find room and board with a series of townie families. One of these was a Syrian family.

I'm *almost* more curious about their story, now--how on earth a Syrian family landed in Depression-era bumf*ck North Dakota in the first place. Grammy didn't talk about her childhood much, understandably, and so I don't know these people's names, their faith (though I suppose they might have been part of the Syrian Christian minority, because how exponentially more difficult would it have been to be Muslim in the rural frozen north?), how they'd come west, or when.

But the fragments of fact I know are these: that a family of Syrian immigrants, whose own lives couldn't have been easy, took in a malnourished wretch of a 14-year-old and fed her. Put a roof over her head. Introduced her to pita bread, which she spoke of with great fondness (and probably to garlic and garbanzo beans, too). Taught her that dandelion greens were edible (like Katniss, you guys!). Taught her to cook (...after a fashion). Let her work it off with babysitting, and claw her way to a diploma and a future.

There were other families, I know. Other jobs, before she wrote her sister in Seattle and pleaded a toothache (a lie), begged her to wire money for a dentist, and promptly cashed it in for a train ticket the hell out of Dodge. Probably, many or most of the same things would have happened to her. The same dominoes toppling, the same butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon to lead her to Seattle, to her husband, her daughters, me. But somewhere back down the line, I owe a debt to some Syrian refugees I'll never know. They took a hungry, desperate, terrorized child into their home, and helped save her life. The only response I can live with is to pay it forward.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

All the fun we had last year

My BFF in elementary school was the coolest person I knew, a wry sophisticate permitted to use the oven by herself. She also had a finger on the pulse of comedy and culture in the wee small hours—or Army-crawled into the den to watch Late Night on the sly—and so she was the person who introduced me to David Letterman.
I couldn’t stay awake. I was famous for conking out at another girl’s slumber party at 9:30 PM, on the hostess’s mom’s bed (perhaps the only reason I didn’t wake up to my hand in warm water or my training bra in the freezer). But I gleaned some of what I was missing from BFF’s recaps: the Velcro and Alka-Seltzer suits, a guy living—living?—under the seats, someone pelting the audience with frozen peas.

It was BFF’s idea to start an epistolary campaign, appealing to Dave on a weekly basis to put us on the show. Viewer Mail! I remember the plan, though I don’t think we ever put pen to paper. Maybe it would have worked. In someone else’s retrospective this week, I witnessed a blasé thirteen-year-old playing her nose as a Stupid Human Trick. So maybe they’d have booked a pair of idiot sixth-graders from the far coast, based on their sheer, dogged persistence. Which, it turned out, we did not possess.

I’ve kept a longhand journal/diary/scrapbook of some kind since I could write in sentences. Cut from a magazine and pasted into a volume circa February 1994, unattributed, is this:

On the set one night, during a commercial break in the middle of the show, the band was playing so loudly that it was impossible for Teri Garr, one of the show’s favorite guests, to converse with Dave. When she all but shouted at him: “How are you doing?” Letterman grabbed a pad on his desk and scribbled a note that he passed back to her. The note read: “I hate myself.” When Garr tried to reassure him that he was, in fact, a wonderful guy and talented star, he grabbed the note back, underlined “I hate myself” twice, and shoved it back at her.

That hit me SO HARD, spoke to me SO LOUDLY, that I kept it. Memorized it, nearly—enough that 21 years later I could track it to its source: an excerpt from Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, about the early-90s late night wars. (I remembered that the anecdote featured Teri Garr, and looked her up in the index: score, a direct hit.)
I was 24, scrabbling at the edge of the cliff-drop to Adulthood: about to finish graduate school, about to move in with my Serious Boyfriend. I needed a real job. I owed Sallie Mae thousands upon thousands of dollars to be parceled out over a decade, an unfathomable length of time. Together, Serious Boyfriend and I had watched Letterman’s departure from NBC and his triumphant ascension on CBS. I admired Letterman, relished his twisting a thumb in the eye of the boss, the network, that had forsaken him. I found him attractive in a way I couldn’t explain to myself: so gap-toothed and goofy looking, so irritable, this smart-funny-angry man, almost as old as my father, good lord, what was I thinking? Thus, more perplexing still was the idea that I had anything in common with a Successful Celebrity Grown-up Person. Letterman was the newly anointed king. He ruled late night, from beneath the colossal marquee at the Ed Sullivan Theater—maybe someday your name will be in lights. What excuse could he have, to not want to get out of bed in the morning? Here’s part of what I wrote, under that clipping: “What can I learn from this? Other than the fact…that [at $14 million a year] David Letterman can afford a lot more and better therapy than I can.”
(Another thing we had in common, at the time: Neither I nor Letterman had started a course of antidepressants yet.)
Here’s another journal entry, September 22, 2001. I was housesitting for friends whose honeymoon trip to Paris had been canceled, ruined; they drove down the coast instead, in the first glimmer of fall, and I lay awake in their strange bed (with the flattest pillows I’d ever seen, like a pair of two manila envelopes against the headboard, how did you guys ever sleep?? and would I ever sleep again, did it matter?) and watched their television.
Monday, Letterman returned to the air, with what I still feel is one of the finest, most riveting and wrenching hours of television ever, period. He spoke honestly, with grief and rage and pride, saying he wouldn’t have come back if not for Giuliani’s urging all New Yorkers to return to work if at all possible….It was stunning, perhaps the only honest thing I’d seen on TV all week.  
His first guest, Dan Rather, crumpled into tears twice—this, after being in his anchor chair some 15 hours a day for a week. More heartbreakingly, he apologized for it: “I’m paid not to do this,” he sobbed. And twice, Dave took his hand to console him. “You’re a professional…but good Christ, you’re a human being.”  
And then, his second guest: Regis. God bless Regis, who was grating and typical and borderline tasteless, and very needed after the anguish of the first half-hour.


I already owned and loved a copy of Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You,” before the man went kookoo-bananas. I’ve grieved a couple breakups to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” that Serious Boyfriend from graduate school among them. It’s not an anti-Christmas carol, exactly, but it turns the usual sentiment inside-out somehow. It is beautiful, that Wall of Sound orchestration: it rings like a cathedral bell. And it describes that marshmallow world from Love’s other song on the record: Holidayland, awash in sleighbells and twinkle lights and falling snow. Celebratory crowds hustle down the sidewalk rosy-cheeked and bemittened; everybody is having the best time ever…except you. Trapped in the memory of happier times. It’s a song about holiday depression.
Letterman calls it the only Christmas song worth a damn, legendary crank and depressive that he is. And that suited how I felt, the first couple years alone, watching Darlene Love belt out regret while they made it snow in the Ed Sullivan. Always the last episode before Christmas proper, the Darlene Love show periodically aired on my birthday, which added another layer of personalization to it in my head, a ritual exchanged just between us. At first I commiserated. I wept. But. Over the years, I’ve memorized the Christmas episode, a liturgy I know by heart:
  • Paul impersonates Cher singing “O Holy Night” (This year, I shouted at the TV: under a Victorian lamppost, Paul! Paul! You forgot the lamppost!)
  • Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story (They’ll believe ME, citizen!), and then participates in the Holiday Quarterback Challenge to knock the meatball off the top of the Christmas tree
  • Some other hapless guest…is a good sport, basically
  • Darlene comes out and blows the doors off
Somehow the show became a purification ritual, for me. I laughed at the familiar beats, could recite it along with the television. How would they introduce Aaron Heick with that big bari sax this time—fly him in on a wire? Have him strut down the center aisle? At some point, I put seeing that episode, live, on my bucket list.

Last December, I was still jobless. I’d taken the month off from the job search; I knew that hiring managers were all on vacation themselves, and I wanted to stretch my unemployment benefits into the new year. I had a couple free hotel nights and a ridiculous amount of airline miles about to expire. I was about to turn 45. Back at the office, I’d had a different magazine clipping taped to my monitor for months, this one a quote from Amy Poehler: “I will tell you that the good news is, both personally and professionally, I have a large case of the fuck its right now.”
So I got on a plane, and I queued up outside the theater at 9:20 on a Monday morning to hand in my request for the ticket lottery. They were taping two shows that Thursday afternoon, and I’d done my research, knew one had to be the Christmas episode. Eventually they let us into the lobby (heated) and then, one by one, behind a panel to talk to the audience coordinator in the (ice-cold) foyer. (I was delighted to confirm that tiny truth myself, that Letterman keeps the joint like a meat locker.) I hinted and winked and underscored Thursday on my application, and now can’t help kicking myself just a little, woulda coulda shoulda been more blunt—because my friend David and I got Thursday tickets…for the first taping.
It was still worth it. “My” David wasn’t overinvested steeped in the traditions of the show like I am; he enjoyed himself well enough, I think, but I was on high-alert, thrilling-detail overload: How could the set be so small? How could this tiny space contain the Beatles? There’s the Christmas tree! There’s the meatball! Speared on a cheapo Empire State Building souvenir! Which pierces a pizza from next door! There’s Alan Kalter, come to warm us up! There’s Pat Farmer, sans Oprah transcript! There’s Biff Henderson! There’s a person whose job apparently is to swap Paul’s empty mug with a full one during the act break!
They led us out past the next audience, clumped in the lobby waiting for the Christmas episode. I wanted to squeeze some stranger’s arm and call them a lucky bastard, wanted to hang around somewhere between Rupert’s Hello Deli and the dumpster, see if I could hear anything. But it was colder outside than in, and I was working on what turned into a nasty sinus infection, and I didn’t want my traveling companion to think I’d lost my entire mind. I’d had my Christmas, with my extended, estranged, adopted TV family. And if it didn’t go exactly as planned? If I didn’t get everything I’d wanted? It was still pretty goddamn great. Isn’t that the point?
I don’t have a proper conclusion for this. I’m not sure who it’s, I don’t expect David Letterman to pick my blog post out of the sea of media tributes and accolades he’s racked up this month.
Another thing that’s bugging me: today, May 20, is the anniversary of my father’s death. I don’t keep track of such things, I try not to—but Mom was quick to remind me, this week. I know it’s pure coincidence. I certainly don’t equate Letterman with My Absent, Remote Father Figure. And then you put the sexual attraction factor in there and EWWW, GAAHH, WHAT IS EVEN WRONG WITH YOU. But I will admit that I am having some muddled, confusing farewell feels, tonight.
“Your whole personality has changed!” Mom told me recently—after leaving my last job, she meant. “You’re SO much happier, and more relaxed, and pleasant to be around!” I was glad that she thought so, glad that she’d noticed…and then there was a tiny part of me going “um, thanks?” It was a little left-handed, that assessment. Tell me how you really feel! How do you like me now?
But she wasn’t wrong. I have changed. I don’t, can’t know Letterman…but I feel a bit like I grew up with him. I identify with him. I too am weird, and intelligent, furious, hilarious. Moody. Fallible, and terrified of it. And, eventually, redeemed. Mellowed. A work in progress. And he was there, on the periphery of the living room, for an awful damn lot of it. Letterman’s had a profound influence on broadcasting and comedy for a generation. Maybe it sounds silly, and sentimental, to attribute my personal growth to him as well. He has also influenced a random ding-dong in the Pacific Northwest! But as Norm MacDonald noted on the show last week, the truth is not sentimental. And my truth is that I am sincerely grateful to a man I’ll never meet, who doesn’t know me from Adam, who will never scream at me via bullhorn from a sixth-story window (though a girl can dream). It has been one hell of a long, complicated, fucking funny ride, sir.
Thanks, Dave.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Conscious nonlaboring

"You need to blog the shit out of this," my friend Tortilla told me, twice in as many days. The same exact words, urgent, intense. And, well, that I can do! I am now MADE of time.

So: Thursday I got laid off, after just shy of 14 years at NerdCo. (It's not my intention to burn any bridges, plus I'm still amused by my own pseudonyms.) It was swift, not entirely unexpected, and remains a little bit surreal. They called a clump of us into a meeting, one of the larger conference rooms with banked seats; whipped through a series of HR bullet points in a slide deck (with a black background and color scheme, very Goth); and distributed our individual packets of severance and compensation info. I think it took eight minutes flat before I was back in the hallway outside my office, looking for boxes.

I've been through worse. I was laid off once before, from a retail job, and before I left the store weeping I had to submit to a search. So this was altogether more dignified. Then, too, my last period of unemployment--a month, where I actually collected unemployment!--had been just after I'd left grad school, with my oh-so-employable MFA. My student loans had come due; I had made one payment. And so I was dead broke, insurance-free, and had few skills beyond running a cash register and picking up customers' abandoned sodas and Kleenexes off the floor. I had at least abstained from any facial piercings to conform to the Draconian mall-bookstore dress code.

I job-hunted then like that was my job, in a clammy terror the entire time. And a former fellow clerk knew someone who was looking for a writer, someone to craft software training manuals. They took me on as an intern. The first day, I did not even know how to turn on my PC, had only ever mastered my third-hand Apple IIC at home. "Have you set up your email yet?" the woman in charge of onboarding me asked, and I said "No!" brightly, and then watched her like a hawk to find out where the power button was. Nearly 20 years ago, and I owe virtually my entire technical career to that moment, and to a series of lucky accidents and friend-of-a-friends.

With most of those two decades nestled in the bosom of NerdCo, I am pretty well buffered while I contemplate my next steps. I've socked away enough, established sufficient history, that I can remain calm and approach a fresh job search without the same panic I felt at 25. This feeling itself is new, something I need to get used to...but truth be told, I feel worse for my colleagues: for the others who were laid off, who have shorter career trajectories--and in most cases, little shorties to take care of, at home. And I feel for the colleagues who remain, shouldering the work left over when hundreds of us were Raptured outta there. Monday is gonna be rough.

But not for me, not in the same way. That's the trippiest part, the notion that, for a while at least, my time is my own. For two days I packed up my motley assortment of crap (vast 1960s table lamp/ Mariners bobbleheads/editing textbooks/gigantic coffee mug), gave and received hugs, gratefully accepted the immense margarita my team took me out for. My immediate manager was actually out of the US for a conference; he didn't even know what had happened until I sent out a farewell email. He called me Thursday afternoon, shocked and apologetic, and was surprised to catch me still at my desk.

"Well..." I said, looking around at the inflatable garden gnome/throw rug/favorite yo-yo/vast postcard collection I had yet to cram into boxes. "I'm still packing." My boss continued to express regret, empathy, etc. Then he said:

"Okay, well...don't do any more work on [Labyrinthine Project] or [Onerous Task], okay? You can just hand those off to me or Tortilla," he noted, utterly earnest. For a brief moment I thought about hitting the Mute button and laughing hysterically, because OH, OKAY, I WON'T. And he is either the noblest man in the world, or sweetly severely deluded, but if he thought I'd accomplished a single thing besides the packing, hugging, crying, and margarita-drinking since 11:08 AM, he was...misled. Maybe it was jet lag? At any rate, he was gracious and supportive, so I chose to find this remark hilarious, and still do. Not a bad way to go out.

That night, I had a pint of ice cream for dinner and watched three DVRed episodes of Billy on the Street--something about all that screaming was soothing, in a way I can't explain. Yesterday, I went in with Krispy, another RIF-ee, to make our final purchases of every possible thing you could put a NerdCo brand on in the company store, and then turn in our laptops and worn, raggedy corporate IDs. We went out for happy hour beer and nachos.

And then I, a legendary insomniac, came home, took a two-hour nap on the couch, and then rallied enough to move to the bed. I'm not exaggerating at all, to say that I am a terrible, terrible restless sleeper. For weeks, for years, I've lain in bed unable to shut my mind down--that little hamster running on the wheel, planning ahead to the next meeting, the next draft, the next deadline, oh god I have to set up that conference call, who has the blahblah spreadsheet, don't forget to update the database, on and on and on. And come morning, I'd be that person who hits the snooze button three, five, twelve times...or resets the alarm for twenty or thirty minutes, who tosses around sluggish and desperate, and for whom no amount of hot shower or coffee really kicked me into high gear, nine days out of ten.

Last night, I slept like a corpse. Smooth, sweet, dreamless dark, straight through til morning. I only awoke when Frankie decided, at his Swiss-accurate 7:30 on the dot, that just because we were now indigent was no excuse for his being able to see the bottom of his bowl, and could I please make with the kibble immediately, thank yew. I felt like a completely new woman. And oh, I am sure that new stress, different stressors, will surface soon enough. Eventually, I will lie awake grinding my teeth about entirely different professional challenges! But for the moment, in the moment...I am going to be just fine.