Hurricane Laura

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Donkey wizards, plastic chips, endangered caterpillars, and me

I’ve always had really strange, vivid dreams, but pregnancy has kicked that into high gear.  Jon enjoys this particularly, since we have a long-standing tradition of my staggering out to the living room and describing the dreams to him, while he laughs delightedly.  Before 2012 and my two pregnancies (altogether, when I finally do give birth in April, I will have spent TWELVE months, not nine, either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy hormones), this would happen probably once or twice a month.  Now it happens every few days. 

The dreams really are stressful – I’m having those typical dreams about protecting small animals or babies from a cruel, uncaring world that many pregnant women have – and I wake up feeling like I’ve spent my entire night running around doing errands on a busy Saturday afternoon.  I feel like I need a nap after those dreams.  But last night’s dream had a different component to it – it included a very vivid experience of intense physical pain.

I dreamed I had traveled to a village that was ruled by donkeys.  Donkeys who were also wizards, naturally.  And this village had a curiously Swiss Alpine look to it, albeit in sort of a touristy, exaggerated way.  Somehow I angered the donkeys – I’m still not clear on how I did this, although it involved rescuing a 3 year old from being locked in a car, although why the donkeys would want a child to smother to death in a car, I don’t know – and so the donkeys decided to curse me.  The curse was particularly effective – what happened is that I kept finding, over and over, pieces of sharp plastic packaging in my mouth, close to sensitive flesh like my gums or the inside of my cheek.  I would pull each piece out before it cut me, but then a few seconds later, I’d find another.  Over and over again.  For what felt like hours. 

The plastic was very similar to that heavily molded plastic that you get when you buy a gadget, like a really good pair of headphones or a new phone, where you have to get a very sharp pair of scissors to cut the gadget out, and sometimes you might almost scratch yourself on the plastic and it really hurts.  Imagine that, but in little triangle-shaped pieces that you suddenly find between your teeth, just before you bite down.  And then imagine that happening repeatedly for a very long period of time.  It was just enough to make you crazy but not enough to be full-on torture. 

The dream was so vivid that I had to get up and rinse out my mouth to convince myself that this wasn’t really happening to me.  I knew I wasn’t quite coherent enough to tell Jon about it, but I recognized he’d laugh about it in the morning, so I told myself I had to try and remember it.  The poor man has had a wife who’s been puking and miserable for the last 8-9 months, so he deserves a little amusement now and then, you know? 

I’ve also had a lot of dreams featuring a nearly-extinct species of caterpillar.  In every dream, it is impressed upon me that I am being entrusted with one of the very last members of this species and I must keep it alive at all costs.  The caterpillar is about the size of a poodle, and strangely emotional, capable of little warbling sounds that are similar to infant cooing.  I usually spend most of the dream fretting over it, trying to figure out what to feed it, pushing it around in a stroller, hoping I don’t inadvertently kill it. I always wake up from this dream thinking about how this is my brain’s way of processing both the loss that I’ve already had, and my fear that I will lose the next baby. 

I honestly don’t know how the human species manages to survive – seriously, pregnancy just seems like such a fragile, bizarre, difficult process that I am amazed that any new human beings actually result from it.  I feel like I’ve morphed into a changed version of myself – I’m losing my words (my memory is totally shot), I’m clumsy, I move slowly and I constantly doubt my own ability to get through the simplest things.  On Tuesday, I got dressed and ready for school, put on my coat, went out to my car and then pulled up my sleeve to look at my watch, only to discover my arm covered in blood.  I’d scratched myself but never noticed it, and I would have showed up to school like that if I hadn’t stopped to check the time.  I mean, forget the bowling ball in my abdomen that I’m carrying around – the real danger to my safety and health right now is my hormone-addled brain. 

About ten weeks left to go.  I typed that and it looked totally unbelievable to me.  Sometimes I wonder if I’ll just be the only human woman in history to just be pregnant forever, that I’ll just get stuck like this.  The baby will be like a goldfish that decides to use my uterus as its fishbowl, swimming around in there, bumping into the glass, happy not to be disturbed.  I’ll dream about donkey wizards and plastic chips in my teeth for the rest of my life.  The idea that this has an end point is just…hard to really grasp right now.  It sounds wonderful, for some change to happen and a little human boy to actually be here with us, but I’m not used to things going so well, so I can’t really rely on it.  I can’t trust the idea, and I think that’s what’s behind these dreams – I’m wandering up and down the hallways of my worries, looking at all the distortions they’ve caused, because I’ve still got a few months left to go and that’s all my brain can come up with to do.  So donkey wizards it is, I guess…for now.


My people are the down and out people

Today a good friend called – she got a job.  This in and of itself was cause for celebration, but her story is harder than most, and so I was brought to tears by this good news.  She’s recently widowed and was struggling with a part-time job last year to cover the bills for herself and her daughter, when the news came that she was being let go right before Christmas.  What was really crushing about this is that she was actually beloved at work – I know because I used to work with her.  She was one of those people who made you happy to be there, who always had a fresh and genuine happiness about her that she gladly shared with you.  I was pretty upset that she was laid off, both because of her situation and also selfishly, because I don’t like work as much without her there.

Since then, she’s had a hard time – she and her daughter have struggled to keep it together and stay in their home, but there have been a lot of sacrifices and many nights of worrying.  A few times, I’ve taken her out for lunch, just to take her mind off this situation, and I’ve contributed whatever I could to her, including money a few times.  I can’t give her much, but I try to give her some, because I know she’d do the same if she were in my shoes.  It isn’t about pity for me – it is really about solidarity.  I could easily end up in the same situation and if I did, I’d like to think someone would look after me a bit as well.  And she’s just a great person – even with all this going on, she’s comforted me and given me encouragement when so many other people just couldn’t be bothered.

But now she’s got a job and I am so hopeful that the tide is turning for her.  I suppose my thinking goes like this – if the tide can turn for her, maybe it can turn for me, too.  Maybe a little good news attracts more good news.  It isn’t logical, but it is what I want to believe today.

At the same time, I had to write an email to a former friend, informing her that I just wouldn’t be putting up with her crap any longer.  This friend has mostly abandoned me since I started having infertility problems and she got pregnant, and while I’m sure she’s got a long list of reasons why she’s just been too busy to see me, we both know the reason:  I’m having hard times, and she doesn’t want to be around it.  You’d think that going through a miscarriage after a year of infertility would arouse the compassion of your friends, but you know what?  Sometimes, the opposite happens.  Sometimes people leave you at the moment you need them the most.  This is the hardest truth, the one that we don’t want to talk about very often, but it is happening to me, and I find being silent about it is just no longer an option.

I’ve also had this problem with family – both my and my husband’s family wanted to just pretend the miscarriage hasn’t happened, and they wanted us to stop talking about it a few days later, and go on like everything was the same.  And we just couldn’t do that.  After a year of trying to slowly get them to understand how serious this was to us, I just lost my patience for their avoidance and their lack of support.  My husband was devastated by it – he’s never been through anything like this before, and to find that his family had nothing to say to him was just crushing.  But we can’t really live as if everything is the same as it was before – we’re in a new place now, and people who can’t handle that really can’t be around us right now.  People who can’t find compassion, who can’t understand our sense of loss and what it is going to take to rebuild our lives again – we have to let go of these people, maybe not permanently, but at least for now.  We need a support system that actually provides support, not one that drains us and makes us feel even worse.  And the hard truth – the one that it is almost taboo to say out loud – is that your family is sometimes not composed of people who will help you in times of trouble.

Of course, there are people out there who have wonderful families, full of loving and supportive people.  There are people out there who have children easily, who find the right person to marry at a young age, or have an easy, fluid employment history and no nasty breakups in their past.  But these are not my people – I have not much to say to them and very little about them is comprehensible to me.  Dare I say it – I don’t even really like people like this.  I find them boring.  My people are the down and out people, the people for whom shit has blown up in their faces, the people whose wedding days were rained out or who found themselves screaming in the street at an old lover.  I’d like to declare my allegiance to those people right now, and tell them all that I’m rooting for them.  And when the tide turns for them, as it hopefully will, I’m going to enjoy the relief they feel as if it might rub off a little on me, too.  Because I could sure use a break myself, but I’ll vicariously take one if it comes that way.

The only way to cope with that last post was to get drunk afterwards

After I wrote the last post, I went over to my neighbor’s house, on the pretext of giving them some cut-comb honey (sidenote – I keep bees in my backyard, and today I had to cut some comb as a part of swarm prevention).  But I knew when I went over there that they’d give me wine, and my neighbor S. would get into a big talk with me and distract me with a dozen topics she knew would keep me away from the topic of the miscarriage.  The neighbors have been fantastic – they’re a big, happy Irish Catholic family with a deep reservoir of compassion.  There are five daughters in that family, and three of them have had fertility issues, so the matriarch totally gets it and she’s like a surrogate mother to me the last two weeks.  And I think they sensed it, that I just needed to get a little drunk.  They kept my glass filled and kept me talking about anything other than babies.  The youngest daughter is only 23 (close to the average age of many of my students) and having some career issues, so I found myself doing a little educational counseling, which is one part of my job that I really love.  I always feel better when I can take my experiences and help someone else feel better, help them feel less alone and more understood.  I don’t know if they all knew I needed that and were just playing along, or if I really helped my neighbor’s daughter, but frankly, I don’t care.  I’m just grateful that someone kept my glass full and kept me away from the topic I’m sick to death of thinking about, for one blessed night.

And then I came home to Jon, who was a little freaked out but understanding, and a fussy basset hound who finally forgave me when I let him fall asleep in my lap.  This is my little family right now, and we’re all a little battered but we’re doing the best we can.  I’m pretty thankful for that, and for the people who’ve reached out to me since the last post, because I deeply appreciate that compassion.  It is almost too much for me to handle, but I’m handling it as best I can.  It is pretty good that no one has to see me right now, because I look like a crazy person – I spent my afternoon sweating in a beekeeper suit, my evening drinking white wine, and late into the night, I’m just tearful and pathetic.  Be glad you’re not seeing this live.

In the two weeks since the miscarriage, I’ve been slowly getting better – at first, I could barely get out of bed.  I just holed up in bed and watched episodes of “The Killing” for hours at a time.  (How perverse is it that the only thing I could tolerate was a crime drama about a dead teenager?  Something is wrong with me.)  Last week, I started to consider the idea that I needed to get up from time to time and accomplish something.  This week, I’ve actually started to do that and I try to get a few functional things done every day – laundry, bills, groceries, etc.  Once I’ve done something productive, I give myself permission to cry and feel like crap the rest of the day.  Next week, I’m hoping that I can get a little more done and limit the crying to just 2 hours or less, but we’ll see.  I don’t get cocky with my plans right now – the wind is so completely knocked out of me that I know better.  I feel like I’m doing pretty well just to get the bills paid and the dishes done, you know?

The other humbling factor are the number of women I know who’ve been through this before, or who have been through more and worse.  Whoever you are, if you are reading this, I want you to know:  I read your stories, and I cry for you.  I get it, I really do, the horrible things that you went through in the hospital and after, the silent suffering, the way you stifle your rage and your despair and slap on a functional get-through-it face that nobody even bothers to notice is completely false.  Those of you who’ve done this more than once, or who went even further in your pregnancies before they ended, or who went through months and years of treatment cycles and gritting your teeth and trying not to let it take over your life (even as it takes over your life), I just want you to know that I read what you write me privately, or I read what you posted anonymously online.  I’m the person who stays up all night these days, reading those messages in bottles.  Sometimes the only comfort I can take in all of this is that I’m not the only one – that is a weird, grim sort of comfort, which hinges rather unfortunately on the fact that you suffer just as much as I do.  But there it is, we’re all having this shitty moment together.  Oh well!  At least we also live in an age where you can buy wine for $6 at the grocery store.  Trade-offs!




The One Page

I feel like I have too many internet sites to log into and update — Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogger, Gmail, etc. There needs to be some sort of merged site with all these features — I think Facebook is trying to achieve that, but who knows how long that one will be viable. Will we just become internet nomads, roaming from social networking site to social networking site, as popularity rates rise and fall? Is any of this productive or just useless chatter, filling up space in the void and really going nowhere?

If I’m going to be an internet gypsy, I’m going to do it Stevie Nicks-style — leaving draped shawls and dove feathers in my wake, ya’ll. I’m singing a song that sounds like I’m singing, ooh baby, ooh, I said ooooooh. (Sorry, brief seizure/Edge of Seventeen moment.)

For bookish people, the internet is now a reality, and day by day, more and more of us realize we have to make peace with it and learn to use it. This video from Dennis Cass pretty much sums up how many of us are feeling right now — I gotta do what? Seriously? Ok, ok. I’ll frickin’ Twitter, man. I’m going to be all up in yo’ Twitter grillz.

The Art of Getting Into Trouble

I’ve been having such a tough time this past spring semester — I’ve been sick basically since mid-March, and it has affected my work, my writing and my personal life in ways I never even thought possible.  Wonderful, good things have also happened, and I’m trying to remember that and not let the bad define everything.  In pursuit of that, I dug up this commencement speech that a friend of mine passed on to me 10 years ago, when I was just a wee young speechwriter for a politician in Tennessee.  I find this helps me focus my energy right now:

The Art of Getting Into Trouble

(Delivered by N. Hobbs, May 1968, as a commencement address at the Peabody Demonstration School, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN)

Life is highly problematic and what you become will rest in no small measure on the kinds of problem situations you get yourself into and have to work yourself out of. It is exceedingly difficult for a person to take thought and alter the quality of character and direction in his life. However, he can choose the direction he would like his life to take and then put himself deliberately in situations that will require the evolution of himself toward the kind of person he would like to become.

It is deep in the nature of man to make problems for himself. Man has often been called the problem-solver, but he is even more the problem-maker. Every noble achievement of men — in government, art, architecture, literature, and above all, in service — represents a new synthesis of the human experience, deepening our understanding and enriching our spirit. But each solid noble achievement creates new problems, often of unexpected dimension, and man moves eagerly on to face these new perplexities and to impose his order upon them. And so it will be, world without end. To know a person, it is useful to know what he has done, another way of defining what problems he has solved. It is even more informative, however, to know what problems he is working on now. For these will define the growing edge of his being.

We sometimes think of the well-adjusted person as having very few problems while, in fact, just the opposite is true. When a person is ill or injured or crushed with grief or deeply frightened, the range of his concerns become sharply constructed; his problems diminish in scope and quality and complexity.

By contrast, the healthy in body and mind and spirit, is a person faced with many difficulties. He has a lot of problems, many of which he has deliberately chosen with the sure knowledge that in working towards their solution, he will become the person he would like to be.

Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they’re too hard, life is self-defeating. The trick is to move oneself in the direction of what he would like to become at a level of difficulty close to the edge of his competence. When one achieves this fine tuning of his life, he will know zest and joy and deep fulfillment.

Getting back on the horse

Life has made book-blogging a little untenable the last few months. I’ve just started my MFA at the New School, as well as a new job, and there is hardly any time to stop and reflect on the reading I’m doing.

But I’d like to try and record some thoughts about my fall reading list. I’m in a literature seminar called “War, Politics and the Modern Novel”, and I’m already three novels in and considering topics for my first critical essay for the class. The first two novels we discussed were Dostoevsky’s Demons (or, to some, The Possessed) and then Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. I wasn’t able to finish the Dostoevsky because it was summer reading, and I’m a first-year student, although I hope to go back and get into it. (I read the first one hundred pages, and like any casual reading of Dostoevsky, found it puzzling and wonderful.) I did get the Conrad completed, and we’re in the midst of discussing that in class.

For me, the first part of that book was excellent — the moral struggle of Razumov over his anger with Haldin, his desire for vengeance, and his qualms about betraying a fellow student. I really felt Conrad created such a believable and moving story, and the ending was so thrilling. However, the rest of the novel failed to recapture that sense of sharp poignancy. Part of it may be a generational issue — a 21st century reader is well acquainted with the tropes of spy thrillers and many of Conrad’s plot features have been exhausted in books, television and movies. I’m sure to his contemporaries, Conrad’s story was far fresher than it feels to me now.

What I really appreciated was Conrad’s use of doubles — a constant in his work apparently. I loved that certain pairs of characters illuminated each other and cast certain qualities in relief, either from similarity or contrast. I might have to check out Lord Jim and consider writing my essay on Conrad, but I’m still not sure what I want to do.

We’re in the middle of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth this week. For some reason, it reminds me a bit of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude — that multi-generational quality, perhaps. But I’m still not far enough into it to have much to say just yet.

When good sci-fi goes bad

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me: I start reading a science fiction book, particularly something supposedly “classic” from the 1940s to the 1960s, and I get so excited about it, because the story and the characters are both interesting, and then…and then, the Big Idea of the book takes over, and the novel goes downhill.

I was halfway through Philip Jose Farmer’s The Unreasoning Mask, when the didactic Big Idea of Farmer’s novel took over, and the characters and the story took a decided (and much regretted) backseat. It is as if the writer somehow feels the story of these characters in this particular time is not enough — that he must supplement it somehow with these grand pronouncements and a “solution” to the nature of the universe or some huge revelation about space/time travel, human nature, or insert-your-own-Big-Idea-here. It culminates in the undoing of a lot of potentially good science fiction novels, and results in a big sigh of disappointments, nearly every time, from me.

Farmer’s novel had a really great opening — a space ship captain, a former Muslim turned atheist, steals an artifact from a planet they’ve visited, and the artifact just happens to be considered the “god” of the people he took it from. In attempting to outrun the pursuing aliens, who want their god back, the captain and his crew also encounter a massive, planet-killing force which seems somehow tied in with the stolen god. Sounds interesting, right? It was, until about two-thirds of the way through, when it gets trippy and explication of the Big Idea takes over for the story. You can tell this happens when dialogue — the main character Explaining The Nature of the Universe — takes over for the actions and details of the plot.

I’ve got maybe fifty pages left, and I don’t even want to finish it. I’m sick of the lecture.

The main thing science fiction genre writers need to learn is that the story itself is sufficient. Place us in the world, show us some of what you’ve got, but you don’t need to explain everything to us. A little mystery is just fine with a reader, even preferred. That moment in science fiction, when the writer seems to say “ok, now, let me tell you how it is” — that moment just induces a groan from the reader.

Ah well, on to the next one.

My Review, and the Week of Potter

First off, my Brooklyn Rail review on The Apocalypse Reader is finally up here. The print edition has one of the best covers for the Rail I’ve ever seen. I’m sending it home — I hope my mother takes that Jesus-crucified-on-a-fighter-plane with her to church services at First Baptist, Memphis. I’d love to see their faces.

(Actually they probably wouldn’t mind — they’re pretty liberal for a Southern Baptist church.)

And thus we come to the Week of Potter. People are freaking out, ya’ll. And yes, I pre-ordered. Didn’t you? Oh c’mon, don’t act like you’re above it.

Having said that, this article in the Washington Post makes some very good points. I don’t think the marketing and popularity of the Potter books is as much to blame as this reviewer seems to think — personally, I think the failure of our public education system is behind this. We’re not creating a well-educated, thoughtful, literate citizenry, and thus, we have airport-novel readers who just want something easy or who want the latest, most buzzed-about thing. The Potter phenomenon is just the mirror reflecting this back to us — and some of us don’t like what we see.

One of the “pet projects” I’ve always dreamed about involves getting great novelists into public schools — to teach, do readings, talk about writing and books. Mostly at the elementary or junior high school level. They don’t have to read their own work — I think it would be extremely cool for someone like, say, Jonathan Lethem to read from the young adult novels that he loved at that age. One of the strong influences I had as a child was the presence of strong, passionate readers — my parents, a few teachers, etc. I have a very fond memory of my fifth grade teacher doing a wonderful reading of “James and the Giant Peach” — that’s the kind of thing that cultivates a desire to read, I think.

Get ’em while they’re young — that’s how you do it, folks.

Prick Flicks

There is a really interesting article by Gloria Steinem here which proposes that, just as we label “women’s media” as chick-lit and chick flicks, perhaps we should group all male-oriented media under the heading “Prick Flicks.” Here’s my favorite quote:

“Think about it: If Anna Karenina had been written by Leah Tolstoy, or The Scarlet Letter by Nancy Hawthorne, or Madame Bovary by Greta Flaubert, or A Doll’s House by Henrietta Ibsen, or The Glass Menagerie by (a female) Tennessee Williams, would they have been hailed as universal? Suppose Shakespeare had really been The Dark Lady some people supposed. I bet most of her plays and all of her sonnets would have been dismissed as some Elizabethan version of ye olde “chick lit,” only to be resurrected centuries later by stubborn feminist scholars.”

That’s it: from now on, I’m calling myself Nancy Hawthorne.


It occurred to me this morning while reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island that part of the novel’s genius is that it doesn’t limit itself to depicting the racism of Britons during World War II — Levy devotes herself, almost equally, to showing how class snobbery still played a role, even when London was under heavy bombing. The middle class still sniffed and complained over the lower classes taking refuge on their respectable streets — even when these people had nowhere else to go! This book really does deserve all the praise it has received — in addition to being extraordinarily well-written, it maintains distinct character voices with a wonderful fluidity, and it covers a very broad range of human experience.

That being said, I’ve got to finish it before Harry Potter arrives, or I’ll have to put it down to read that first. (I’m only slightly kidding.)

I Am Legend/The Whole

My reading weekend was interesting — I polished off John Reed’s The Whole and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in less than forty eight hours, in addition to cleaning, seeing friends and immersing myself (temporarily) in cable television while cat-sitting for a friend. (My rule about cable — 24 hours once a year, and I’m over it and don’t need to watch it again for another year.)

I Am Legend was a fast and interesting read. Originally published in 1954 and set in a fictional, nightmarish version of the 1970s, it tells the story of Robert Neville, last survivor of a bacterial plague that has rendered all of humanity into a vampiric, parasite-plagued species. Neville survives by boarding up his house, constantly working to replenish his supplies and his independent generator, and never going outside after sundown. The book is interesting, not because of the horror of his situation, but because of the small details Matheson bothers to elaborate — the psychology of being the sole human left, the boredom, the use of alcohol as a crutch, and the monotony of working constantly at a bare-bones level of survival. That level of detail draws you into the story — a simple fighting-vampires story would not be enough here, and Matheson knows that.

This is also a more philosophical horror novel. There is a wonderful twist here, which is less about vampires and more about questioning the idea of what we consider “normal”. I won’t give away the ending, but this is worth a read if you like a good vampire story. I’m afraid the upcoming movie version is going to take out the best bits of the book in favor of a Hollywood ending, but hey, what can you do?

I had also started The Whole about mid-week and then finished it on Saturday afternoon. Here’s a caveat — John Reed is my editor at the Brooklyn Rail and my former teacher, so I suppose I’m biased. Also, I am a huge fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Reed’s book is very evocative of that story. There are other reviews out there about this book that give a plot summary and a better analysis than I could, but what I particularly liked about this book was its language. The book satirizes modern-day youth language as much as it does anything else, and there’s a creative playfulness in it that I really enjoyed. That being said, I’m still scratching my head over the ending, which was so ramped up into absurdity that I don’t even know what to make of it.

In other news — I keep meaning to mention that Annie Dillard has a new novel out. I’m pretty excited about that. She granted an interview, which is here, and there’s a review of the novel in the Times, which is here. I have mostly read her nonfiction essays, but the novel sounds like a quick, dazzling read. I’m even tempted to invest in a hardcover version, which is a rare thing for me.

I’m on to Andrea Levy’s Small Island now — I’m reading it for the multi-narrative style, which I’m also using (far less successfully?) in my own work.

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