Category Archives: Self-questioning

Life: Some Practice Sessions

*

You inherit a chunk of money. You fritter it away because you feel you don’t deserve it and its association with death makes you sad. You find yourself relating to Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting when she dramatically breaks down and says something to the effect of, “You think I wouldn’t give all of this up to have my father back??” Except instead of being at Harvard studying organic chemistry, you’re in Miami drinking margaritas at a tiki bar.

*

You entertain the idea that you’re either bipolar II or an empath. You can’t decide which one is worse. Either way, you should probably get yourself some mood crystals.

*

You take a short break from enforcing a new policy around the condo. The new policy stipulates that you are invisible and your boyfriend is invisible, but it says nothing about palm trees, and there is a palm tree on fire in the parking lot. When you tap on the glass of the hurricane door, your boyfriend joins you on the balcony and together you watch the palm tree burn to the ground. The fire seems energizing, unlike everything else in your world of late. Perhaps the tree sensed that you were emotionally depleted so it spontaneously combusted as a personal favor. It knew that those few smoky moments of peace might diffuse the negative charge in your general atmosphere. Or perhaps an island arsonist is at large in Miami. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and goes from beach to beach burning down palm trees and lifeguard stands. He rides a Vespa scooter in his flip flops. He drinks from flaming coconuts because he likes the taste of toasted milk. Could the island arsonist be your boyfriend? You wouldn’t know because your boyfriend is invisible today, per the new policy, and he’s vanished again behind the hurricane door.

*

You FaceTime with your nephew and right away he requests that you sing him a song about trucks. Before you hang up he tells you—after prompts from someone off-camera—that he loves you. Twice he falls over during the phone call and you have to talk to the floor for a while. You wonder why all human conversations can’t be like this.

*

You don’t know how to live. You constantly pursue the question of how you’re supposed to live. It may be that you have too much time on your hands. Or should you continue to give the question your full attention even if that seems to preclude gainful employment?

*

This next one is about paddleboarding. You’re out paddleboarding with your boyfriend. You didn’t rent the waterproof speakers that were offered with the paddleboards for fear of scaring away the fish. But now that your boyfriend has paddleboarded you for at least a mile down a murky, Evergladian canal where you must lie flat on your stomach to pass safely under the thickets of mangrove trees spanning the water and you haven’t seen humans or sunlight for two hours and you might as well be in Apocalypse Now, you sort of wish you had some music to ward off the alligators. Eventually you start humming a song to yourself.

*

You spy on professional beach people. An old man walks down the boardwalk wearing a t-shirt that reads “Baller for Life.” A young man leans over the railing of his hotel balcony and tells a pretty woman below that she dropped something. When she anxiously turns to inspect the bricks behind her, he clarifies what she’s dropped: his jaw. A man in board shorts who might be homeless spends a full 30 minutes lathering himself in soap under a public beach shower. Salty children wait in line for him to finish bathing.

*

You’re starting to fear that there are too many books in the world. It’s impossible to make room for them all, and their numbers are beginning to annoy you. You wish you liked James Patterson novels because then you’d just read those exclusively. The fact that you assume most books are pointless anyway makes you wonder why you wrote one. Why write a book when you’re still learning how to live? Maybe you’ve become a nihilist or a philistine during your extended beach vacation. Maybe you’ve given up on art altogether. Maybe you’d rather learn how to sail a boat.

*

He calls you shortly after he leaves the condo. He needs a hair elastic for his ponytail. Says he’ll drive around the building and idle below the fifth-story balcony if you could please throw one down to him. You stand on the balcony and wait for his car to appear. Because of the wind, you decide in advance that the best way to deliver the hair elastic to him accurately will be to shoot it like a rubber band. Then you remember the games you used to play, when you’d look up from your computer and he’d be pointing a hair elastic at you, ready to fire, and you’d squeal and cover your face with your hands, and then he’d do it again, and you could never return comfortably to your work because you could still sense his weapon aiming at your nose. Maybe it wasn’t so much a game as a torment, but it was still something lively that you did together. While you remember this you look down at the sun-bleached parking lot and try to decide whether you’d aim for clear pavement or for the roof of a car if you were to throw yourself off the balcony. Of course you choose pavement because who are you to dent a stranger’s vehicle? His car finally arrives and he gets out and looks up at you impatiently. You almost don’t shoot your missile because you’re afraid he’s going to interpret that as another act of hostility, but you also don’t want the wind to carry the elastic into a bush or onto a lower balcony and be lost forever, so you launch it towards him anyway. And there’s no playfulness in its trajectory. And your heart aches from the contrast. Then you and he exchange small, somber waves from a great distance and you go back inside, where you can take your hands off your face for the first time since the morning’s troubles began.

*

You sit on the beach watching two men in wetsuits try to out-parasail each other. It’s a windy day and their parasails whip around the sky in unpredictable currents, sometimes launching the men several feet above the water. A helicopter approaches from the north. It flies low, dangerously close to the parasails. If the wind changes direction even slightly, the helicopter will get tangled up in the parasail lines. The lines and the colorful swaths of canvas will then spin around the propellers until the men are sucked up into the machinery and the whole craft goes down in flames on a nearby dune. For the rest of your time on the beach, you cannot get this image out of your head. You thought the beach was supposed to be relaxing.

*

You place a rubber dolphin under the sheet on your boyfriend’s side of the bed for April Fool’s Day. That night he jumps into bed without looking under the sheet and he lands directly on the dolphin. It squeaks wildly into your boyfriend’s butt. It is hilarious. In your wildest dreams you never imagined that your prank would be so successful.

*

When reckoning with the needs of other people, is it normal to forget that you are also a person? Other things that you could be: a squeaky toy, a burning palm tree, a baby sea lion.

*

You’ve been stealing your boyfriend’s medications. But he’s stolen yours in the past, so you call it even.

*

You practice putting out positive energy rather than taking in negative energy. The first person you practice on is a naked woman on the beach. She seems oblivious to your energy emissions because she’s already been burned by the sun today. Plus she’s busy playing volleyball. The second person you practice on is a little girl on the boardwalk who smiles back at you with sheer delight, then runs straight to a water fountain as if you’ve just made her incredibly thirsty. The third person you practice on is a cat.

*

Your boyfriend goes jet skiing with his buddy. You stay home to write and do laundry. You used to wish you had exciting hobbies, but now you understand that for some people, doing nothing is an exciting hobby. It can also be a full-time job.

Cooking with Butter

“Who are the real writers?” asks the author of Cooking with Butter (unpublished 2012, 2013). What are they cooking with? What superior foods lubricate their baking dishes and frying pans? How do they manage to flavor without butter, my accent ingredient?

Is it wrong to obsess about the cookbooks of other authors? What makes them so great? Maybe it’s better to stir fry with sunflower oil. Or with bacon fat. But aren’t we all driving for the same result, the same sensual pleasure? Do we even need multiple flavors in the kitchen? Our cakes will crumble like the Tower of Babel. Eventually all tastes congeal into the same sordid substance. We rarely die with a book in our hands or food on our lips.

Do I honestly think that I can churn out butter like no one before me? Is it inherently selfish to want people to handle my recipes? To desire cravenly that my dishes find a wider audience? Does my cookbook by definition make me an egomaniac? Should I just execute these recipes for my own consumption instead of writing them down and sharing them with the world? Does butter need to be at-large? Should I skip the writing process altogether and just eat this dairy product in its purest form, congealed, with a spoon, from a bowl, in the dark? After all, recipes are always one remove from real food. My cookbook is not butter. You cannot eat it. The only nourishment it may provide is in culinary translation.

I should blog more frequently about butter. I should use social media to hype this essential ingredient. I’m going to start tweeting about my recipes. They’re edible, which means they should be publicized. Butter deserves a full-time hustler. Everyone needs to see how I put food together. Everyone needs to know the taste in my mouth.

Strike that. Sadly, no one is living or dying by my pompous butter recipes. Plus, what if my readers try them out and the butter malfunctions, like the fat operates differently in their personal skillets? And then I’d have to deal with the shame, the remainders.

Oh butter, maybe it’s better we pretend you don’t exist in my refrigerator. I cannot cook you so you’re righteous and savory with every meal. Only sometimes in the dead of night, or when I’m driving alone for long stretches, becoming one with my laden arteries, do I feel that I’m doing something right in the kitchen.

“What Am I Thinking of?

My little brother recently came home from eight months in Australia with a new game. It’s called “What Am I Thinking of?” and it seems poised on the brink of bridging the tragic divide between human skulls. With this game you can finally penetrate the consciousness of your fellow man. It’s the most exhilarating science I’ve seen in years. The game goes like this:

Player 1: What am I thinking of?

Player 2: Seahorses.

Player 1: No, Roman columns.

Player 2: Shit.

Normally I hate games, but I had fun with this one because it was so easy to sabotage. “What Am I Thinking of?” is the sort of game that breaks down when you can’t trust your partner to tell you honestly what he’s thinking of. It also thrives on creativity and randomness, which is why the following exchanges were so enjoyable:

Me: What am I thinking of? (eating bacon)

Brother: Genghis Khan.

Me: No, bacon.

&

Me: What am I thinking of? (holding my brother’s face in my hands)

Brother: All Quiet on the Western Front.

Me: No, your face.

Brother: You suck at this game.

Keep in mind that we played “What am I thinking of?” en famille on Christmas morning, so what I was actually thinking was “I am so goddamn lonely” and “My entire life is an exercise in shame and futility.” But joke’s on them because I’m also a cheater!

My brother says the closest he’s ever come to winning this game is when he guessed “London” when his friend was thinking “Dublin.” Evidently some sort of Jungian collective unconscious was in play here. Or the boys were simultaneously reading a map of the United Kingdom. In any case I’m encouraged that two people can read each other’s minds even to this dyslexic degree. They were trying to know each other, and it’s the effort—not the science—that counts.

Me: What am I thinking of? (porn porn Roy Orbison porn dogs champagne)

You: How dark and inaccessible you are.

Me: Congratulations, you win. Game over.

Housekeeping animism

I’ve been cleaning around the same objects at our house for almost four years, and just the other day I realized that every time I vacuum or mop around the red chairs at our kitchen table, I subconsciously think that they’re snobby. I’m trying to help them, keep them free of cobwebs, brownie crumbs, etc., and yet they always treat me like I’m some kind of fool. They have this condescending way of standing there while I work around them, like they think I’m weird and inferior. It doesn’t help that I always save the dining area until last because I dread those bitchy chairs; by the time I get to them I’m all sweaty and pungent from my cleaning efforts and the chairs just ostracize me more. I hate them, and yet I keep going back to them, like those popular girls in high school.

I am now failing to think of any piece of furniture in my house that does like me. I’ve never sensed much animosity coming from the downstairs toilet, but the linoleum surrounding it is extremely hard to please. I mop the tiles quickly because I know they just want me out of the bathroom. The wall-to-wall carpet tends toward nonjudgmental, but it also lacks personality. It doesn’t have an opinion about being dirty and I think that creates a certain distance between us. I always feel comfortable with myself when I’m working in the kitchen sink. We have a good relationship. Perhaps it’s something cathartic about the drain. It’s so accepting of all my dirty water. I feel like I’m betraying the sink when I let Darren do the dishes. This feeling is a huge inconvenience after a big dinner.

Sometimes I want to lie under the couch cushions until someone vacuums me up. I am a very thorough housekeeper, but perhaps too sensitive for the job.

Sickness. Couch. Links. Confusion.

I am a creature of routine occupying a body of convention living a life of habit. So when I got exciting news this week that seems to portend my world changing drastically this summer (holy crap I was admitted to an MFA program!), I immediately got the flu. It was my body’s way of saying, “Don’t go changing on me.” And not only am I receiving conflicting signals from my ambitious brain and my curmudgeonly immune system, I am further confused by the rejection letters slowly piling up from other MFA programs. Maybe I got into the one program that didn’t read my application. Oh well – sucks for them. I’m still going. A green light is a green light even when you can see a collision on the horizon. Thank you, dear benefactors!

In other news:

I give you the Halloween costume of the future! (The future being 2009.)

Tom Perotta talks Tracy Flick: “Especially with Palin, I don’t feel as if Tracy Flick was the best comparison. I just think people are made uncomfortable by ambitious women.”

Romantic comedies might be as harmful to the developing psyche as violent video games and cheese from a can.

Are poets held to lower standards today?

What war on drugs? I don’t remember fighting a war on drugs.

I’m the last person to be wrapped up in the WTF Blanket.

A new book asks why women get short shrift when it comes to writing the next Great American Novel. (Thanks to DD for the link.)

[Elaine Showalter] has insisted that themes central to women’s lives — marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations — constitute subject matter as “serious” and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel. Yet she rejects the preference of many feminist literary scholars for emphasizing “culture importance rather than aesthetic distinction” . . .

This website is to sociologists what PhotoshopDisasters is to designers.

Judith Warner writes about the pitfalls of mindfulness and Anna Fricke writes about not getting the baby drunk (both from NY Times blogs).

My alma mater is looking for a new mascot. Remember that artichokes, banana slugs, and “The Fighting Quaker” have already been done.

Jonathan Ames is taking on TV and James Franco is taking on books. And I live on the moon and moon rocks live on my couch!

I’m waiting for a quiet, sad moment to read this New Yorker piece about David Foster Wallace and his unfinished novel.

[Wallace’s] goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.”

Garrison Keillor learns a lesson from an unread writer.

And thanks to Edward Upward, I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write “Moby Dick” or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret.

I’m just happy more good looking people seem to be choosing the literary profession over acting, modeling, or working at Hooters. Makes readings feel more like the talent portion of a beauty contest. Vive les letters!

On second thought, maybe some of these blog drafts should stay dead

DOA posts from the back end:

Hot tips for teen moms [This one recommended that pregnant teenagers move to France or Germany where the government would pay for their babies. In retrospect, not very good advice.]

Reading on the treadmill [Challenging, but worth it, like walking on a tightrope.]

Invite me to your next party so I can determine if you’d go Nazi [Failed post was based on this bizarre 1941 Harper’s article.]

Why are women so gay? [I have no idea where this one was headed.]

India [Again, that’s all I had so far.]

Planning a wedding is no big deal

I wish you could get married on the internet

Shopping for a wedding dress on Craigslist [You can see where my mind was when I wrote these last three. They were good for venting but then they struck me as a bit self-absorbed. Unlike all my other posts.]

On being a late bloomer [I might actually try this one again if no one objects.]

Mom, I’m a porn actress [I’m not actually, but do you see now how hard I work to come up with posts for you guys? And how much of my mother’s well-being I sacrifice in the name of Internetainment? ™]

On being a writer and being in trouble

It turns out that if you want to be a published writer, you have to steel yourself for being in trouble all the time. You want everything you write to be true and good and universally loved, but sometimes what you write is false and bad and makes people hate you.

The sense of having done something wrong in public is especially hard to grapple with when you’re used to writing for a benevolent audience made up of your parents, your close friends, and boys who find you attractive. When you graduate into the “real” world of print, suddenly every opinionated stranger is privy to your mistakes. Yet each day journalists, newspaper editors, and other prolific writers – especially nonfiction writers – expose themselves to that kind of public scrutiny. Occasionally they offend, they overlook, they eff up, but they don’t stop writing. They don’t have the luxury of hiding in the bathtub until the storm blows over because the next issue is due at the printer’s at 5 o’clock and the ink is not sympathetic to their insecurity.

These people are my heroes. Meanwhile I’m in CVS buying canned soup and I’m paranoid that everyone thinks I’m a shoplifter so I buy extra stuff in hopes that the cashier will stop accusing me with her eyes. I perpetually feel like I’m in trouble. Compound that with actually being in trouble from time to time and I’m basically someone who murders people with her words. If a woman I admire wants to take me to lunch I wonder what I’ve done wrong and then I stop eating lunch for a while because lunch reminds me of being bad. (Probably too much information.)

But the best writers learn from their mistakes, even the big mistakes. And sometimes writers have to do a little ego stroking so their pens won’t freeze up forever. If I spell a word wrong, it’s probably because it wasn’t spelled correctly in the dictionary to begin with. And if I accidentally call Dr. X a pedophile when he is really a podiatrist, maybe my artistic subconscious is tuned into some larger reality where disordered feet prance around in Winnie-the-Pooh socks and drink wine coolers and beg to have their toes painted on a merry-go-round.

I think I messed up again. And I’ll probably regret it in the morning. But morning is for apologies and night is for balls of steel and writing is for people brave enough to say they’re sorry over and over again until the sun sets once more and they can spray paint the highway overpass with bad words like they’ve been dying to do all day.

A blog post about why I suck

When it’s been a while since I’ve written or created anything I can be proud of, I start to feel like I’m the most worthless person in the world. I feel like I never want to write again because I suck at it so bad.

Yesterday, for instance, I spent hours writing a miserable essay about David Foster Wallace and John McCain and moral authority and suicide which may or may not have proposed that Sarah Palin killed DFW with a fleet of grizzly bears. The post was live for a few hours when I received a very nice email from a reader saying (basically) “No. No no no.” And I appreciated this email because 1) it showed that someone was reading my blog; 2) it showed that some generous person considered my writing superior to that horrible post; and 3) it convinced me to retract the post (breaking my no-retractions policy for the first time, but for good reason!), which delivered me from a lot of embarrassment. Thank you, wise reader.

But now I’m left with this feeling again, this feeling of being the worst writer in the world. I haven’t been writing much at all in the past few weeks but I keep dreaming about writing: writing epic short stories, writing the great American novel, writing feel-good poems about cats. This morning I wrote something awesome while I was sleeping and my arm jerked out to receive a high-five. I immediately woke up to see my unslapped hand hovering there over the bed. I was mortified that I’d been left hanging, but also that my subconscious writer brain aspires to high-fives instead of Bookers and Pulitzers. Maybe I should have joined a sports team instead of starting a blog.

Slaughterhouse Highway

The road from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Columbus, Georgia, should be renamed Slaughterhouse Highway. Every other vehicle on Route 29 South is a truck carrying livestock to their imminent deaths. Yesterday I saw blonde chickens with breasts pumped so full of water they could hardly stand upright in their cramped metal cages. I saw cattle stomping nervously in trailers with their big brown eyes peering at me through air holes. “Save us,” they said. “Hijack this truck and drive us to Mexico.”

“I’ll never eat meat again,” I thought. “I love you guys.”

Then we stopped at Applebee’s for dinner and I accidentally ate a big pile of microwaved chicken. I am such an asshole.

Bound to be jaded eventually

I’ve now been blogging long enough on the outskirts of the lit-blog circle to know that the same links are passed from blog to blog, we’re all competing to blog first about identical material, and only .0001 percent of us are getting book deals.

I love the immediate gratification of posting – I still get a rush from publishing online instead of in my diary – but I often wonder why exactly I’m in this game. Is it all just an exercise in egoism? Am I after 21st century microfame? It’s funny how you have a blog for five minutes, and suddenly you think you’re a superstar like Tila Tequila. At first the exposure feels validating, and then you wonder what you’re exposing, and why. And then you remind yourself that these are irrelevant questions because only a handful of people read your blog.

But you encounter the same questions whenever you put something into the world. Who needs another rock song? Another short story? Another painting? For the most part, no one. Creative work can be appreciated, but there will never be enough people on Planet Earth to idolize the people who need to be idolized. So why do we produce this crap? Because we’re driven? Compulsive? Inspired? Desperate? Why did I decide to make a blog instead of filling up another wine-sotted composition book?

Because people need people, and art needs people, and blather needs people, and I need my handful of readers to know that I exist in the world, and not just on my couch, even if I’m just telling them what they already know from reading Gawker. But what kind of self-obsessed world is this that we feel we don’t exist without a public presence? It’s the kind of world that thrives on the micro-celebrity of its inhabitants. I have a dialogue in my dumb novel:

“I guess I wanted to be famous,” she said. “I found something I could do well and I wanted recognition for it.”
“Everyone wants to be famous, Jess.”
“Well, I wanted to be famous in my family.”

The world is getting smaller, and the extended families bigger, and we have an inner circle that comprises at least our Facebook and MySpace friends. We need to impress more people now than ever in order to be important. And this post started as a lament on how everyone always scoops my stories, but now it is something else. Now it is me being lonely, looking for answers in the blogosphere, where we have all learned the hard way they can’t be found.

PS Here’s a page of more Deep Thoughts.