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, na├»ve…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.


Anonymous said...

I so want to hug you. Thank you for once again getting it exactly right.

Jenipher Sage-Robison said...

Wonderful! So glad to be riding the bus with you now... : )