Category Archives: Uncomfortable Thoughts

An addendum to my roster of embarrassments

Because I always start out trying to be inspirational and end up being discouraging and overly ironic, I thought I would add a little something to my last post and not be so evasive this time.

For a long time I didn’t do my blog. I was embarrassed. I felt ashamed of what I’d already written and of what I might write. Strangers could see me in all my unbearable colors (i.e., earth tones). Worse still, friends and acquaintances could find me and scrutinize me through the aquarium glass of the Internet like I was some scaly, immobile thing in the Reptile House and they had to figure out if I was dead or not.

But that is all in the past. I no longer care what goes up and whether my visitors think I’m such a poor specimen that the snake handlers have forgotten to feed and water me. I am committed to busting loose. Here is what happened:

  • My friend A started an art project. Every day she forced herself to post one item of work online. One picture per day. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re sad or cranky or down on yourself, it’s everything. And now she has this badass portfolio that no one would ever guess she created with a gun to her head.
  • My friend X has kept a LiveJournal since 2006. She doesn’t publicize it, but it’s there and it’s wonderful. She’s been published in lots of prestigious journals, but writing something secret online every day makes her feel less lonely in her art. Right now I find her quiet URL to be the most powerful place on the Internet.
  • I read the book Show Your Work which basically told me to get over myself.
  • I let go of projected opinions. That snobby old writing professor is not looking over my shoulder, judging me for my attempt at online relatability. David Remnick is not sitting in his corner office at Conde Nast thinking, “I’d give her the fiction centerfold in the next issue if she weren’t such a blogger.” Nobody gives a shit. Besides, my mom’s opinion is the only one that matters.
  • I finally found my visitor stats, which indicated that no one was reading my website anyway.
  • Unemployment.
  • My therapist started working with me on being more assertive. Being assertive is not only about saying, “Hey buddy, it’s not okay that you’re stepping on my toes.” It’s also about saying, “Hey buddy, here are my toes tra-la-la-la-la and when I wiggle them the sparkle nail polish catches the light and yes I might have a mild case of athlete’s foot but only angels are immune to fungus.”
  • I realized how unhappy I was not participating in the world, even in a little, whispery way.
  • I’ve changed my mind about so many people. On too many occasions I’ve judged as I’m petrified of being judged myself. And yet I’ve often found my judgments to be wrong—or at least pliable. A writer I thought was a talentless hack eventually wins me over by her unapologetic hackiness. A novelist’s second novel makes me go back and read his first with new eyes. Someone on Facebook whose feeds I once found obnoxious starts posting about whales or something and I’m like, “Hey, this guy’s actually pretty cool.” So even if I annoy the shit out of someone one or one hundred times, there’s always a chance I can redeem myself later. If Gawker.com can eventually come around to Lena Dunham, a handful of people can eventually come around to me. (Gawker hasn’t done this yet but I imagine that one day maybe they will under duress from their advertisers.) The important thing is to keep making people sniff your fungus until they finally realize that they’d miss it if it disappeared. Never stop itching. Never buy the Tinactin.
  • Whatever I put online does not affect the sanctity of my work in progress, which will not see the light of day until it’s absolutely ready. In my novel I can indulge the perfectionism that would make blogging unthinkable. Whether I have a complete mental breakdown if that novel is ever published remains to be seen.

Finally, the only person I hurt when I’m in my hidey hole of embarrassment is myself. I like to write. I like to throw various foods on the wall—Twinkies, spaghetti, whole cabbages—to see what sticks. And in my limited time on this earth I’d like to be the party guest who tries to add to the conversation rather than run to the bathroom where I pretend to wash my hands for an hour. In the long run, being embarrassed is more embarrassing than doing embarrassing things.

Now if I could only stop crapping my pants.

A fresh roster of embarrassments

Yesterday a woman called to offer me two free tickets on a Caribbean cruise if I would just answer a few of her questions. At the time of the call I was sitting in a crowded coffee shop so naturally I hung up on her. It’s always been my dream to set sail on a Caribbean cruise ship, but the idea of random people overhearing my conversation was just too embarrassing. What if the woman asked me something deeply personal like “How do you feel about buffets?” My cheeks were already hot because my phone had vibrated three times on the cafe table before I’d answered it. I could not endure any more public humiliation.

Which got me thinking about embarrassment. I am embarrassed about how many things I’m embarrassed about. And it’s not the stuff you might expect. FOR INSTANCE.

1) When I got all dolled up one night to drive to the Chevrolet sales lot because I’d trusted a newspaper insert saying that I’d won a new car and I thought that when I put the key in the door for the first time someone from Chevy might want to take my picture for promotional reasons, I was not embarrassed.

2) When I got an F in Physics because two weeks into my freshman year of college I simply forgot I was enrolled in Physics and consequently neglected to attend class, do the homework, take the tests, etc., I was not embarrassed.

3) When I blew a snot rocket at the park a couple days ago and it touched down on my sneaker in plain view of all the other joggers stretching their quads, I was not embarrassed.

And that is because I am a grown woman who has read a lot of pop psychology online and who contains enough inner reserves of strength and self-confidence to weather any social mortification. But a few things still manage to get to me. They’ve gotten to me for a long time, but only recently have I identified and tried to come to terms with them. So in the therapeutic interest of revisiting “humiliations past” as World of Psychology recommends, I give you three of the fundamental embarrassments that are currently shaping my life.

1)  I didn’t write all the books.

This one comes up a lot because I am a writer of books, and yet all the books on bookstore and library shelves seem to be written by other people. People like Shakespeare and Thomas Pynchon and Virginia Woolf and Jesus. Even if I had written just a few of the books I’ve recently enjoyed—Beloved, Dog of the South, Awakenings—it wouldn’t be enough. That’s not all the books. And my guess is that tomorrow more books will be published and I won’t have written those either. Frankly it makes me want to be a shut-in.

2) I was a particularly ugly child.

Even if I could excuse the grotesque fat rolls that plagued me as a baby and gave me the same tan lines as Jabba the Hutt, I cannot accept the unappealing little girl whom that infant morphed into sometime in the 1980s. There’s a good reason I’ve never had the habit of showing new boyfriends my family’s photo albums. If one of them saw a picture of the five-year-old, gap-toothed Medusa who still lives somewhere inside of me, characterized by her ill-fitting red snowsuit and her herpetic lip blown open like a hotdog in a microwave, he would most likely not want to come anywhere near my reproductive equipment ever again. The shame lives on.

(Is this still healthy? This no longer seems healthy.)

3) I’ve messed up bad and I don’t know the first thing about time travel.

I’m less embarrassed about the messing up bad part and more embarrassed about my failure to do even a fraction of what Bill and Ted can do. I’m told that everyone makes mistakes. Terrific. Those people can accept and learn from their errors. But I am a special case and my mistakes have been egregious and I would much prefer just to get into my time machine and redo some stupid shit I’m still paying for, rather than be seen as someone who only gets to live her life once because she’s too much of an unexceptional dingbat to travel back in time. But here I am, a woman without the phone booth that would render her first kiss a little less awkward. Please just look away.

I could go on. I pick my nose when I’m not turning it into a rocket launcher. I’ve never been to MOMA. I’m not a movie star. I’ve never been the democratically elected president of even the smallest nation. They say that embarrassment is a product of perfectionism. As if being perfect is a bad thing. As if my dream of being an exquisite kindergartner sunning herself on a Royal Caribbean deck while autographing copies of The Divine Comedy and Ulysses is unattainable. I only want to live in harmony with the universe, and the universe wants me to be tan and rich and glorious like the love child of Angelina Jolie and Sir Isaac Newton. The universe will accept nothing less than an A-plus-plus and if I don’t perform to the universe’s exacting standards I’ll have to cower blushing in the corner for another three decades.

There’s no enlightened, elegant, nonironic way to wrap this up. Unless. UNLESS. I accidentally pooped my pants. Goodnight.

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.

Fantastic Mr. Fox spoiler alert

I’m reading The Fantastic Mr. Fox to a four-year-old. She’s covering her face with her hands, trembling, terrified of the guns pointed at the fox burrow, asking me, “Is he going to be okay?” I want to say, “Wait and see! Who knows how the story might unfold?” I’m reluctant to set a bad precedent for giving away the ending, no matter how desperately needed. Instead I see the fear in her eyes and I say, “Oh he’ll be FINE. He’s fantastic, remember? He’s the GOOD guy.” But I was thinking, would I have been such a voracious reader in my youth if someone had always reassured me that everything would be okay? Why read to the ending when there’s nothing at stake? Maybe I should’ve refused to comfort her and instead let her experience the thrill of not knowing what the next page would bring. “No matter what we do,” I could’ve said, “we can’t save the fox.”

Where are all the dead tourists?

When driving along highways and byways in the United States, I often see makeshift crosses or memorials for those who have died in car accidents on the same route. Flowers and painted signs implore drivers to make an example of the dead and to please watch the road.

But as the bbf and I walked along a steep Atlantic coastal road today, sliding through half-hearted fences to sightsee at the edges of the limestone cliffs demarcating our certain deaths, I wondered where all the dead people were. It would be stupidly easy to fall off a cliff and to give up the ghost on the rocky ledges below. I’m not being morbid or trying to worry my family; I’m just being pragmatic. How could travelers not have fallen from these precipitous places? Especially drunk tourists, or cocky teenagers, or naive children? And I found myself wanting to Google the dead on those cliffs, to create memorials in my mind based upon the obituaries I found on the internet. “Child, 7, dead after tragic fall from Cascais cliff when chasing pigeon.” Or “Tourist bicycle careens off cliff, instantly killing Gerald Shoemaker, age 46, English, drunk.” [Nothing noteworthy turned up in my search.]

Maybe everyone is more cliff-savvy in Europe than they are in the States. But I know about rogue waves, veering cars, sudden gusts of wind, slips of the tennis shoe. Accidents happen, and in America, we’re constantly reminded of those accidents. In Cascais today I found myself being more careful on the cliffs because I didn’t know who had died at their feet, and I had only my fatalistic imagination as a barometer.

An old black and white cat weaved through the limestone rocks – she had probably been exploring the cliff ledges for a decade – and in her leaden stare she said, “You might just be the first.”

Screw you, cat. I’m buying Crocs tomorrow. We’ll see who makes it through the month.

This week’s New Yorker is kicking my ass

I want to read every article. I want to read all the “Faith and Doubt” stories, because I basically majored in doubt in college. I want to read the Sex and the City movie review wherein Anthony Lane compares the actresses to thoroughbred horses. I want to read the new Nabokov short story! I want to read the Annie Proulx short story that she awesomely named “Tits-up in a Ditch”! I want to read about how Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami found his road legs and his book-writing arm. I want to read about rapper Lil Wayne nailing his perfect pitch with Auto-Tune. I want to read the funny captions for the photo of an orca in a courtroom.

But here is the problem. And this is embarrassing for a writer to admit. In fact, admitting this will probably destroy my nascent writing career. The New Yorker has too many words. And, as a corollary, I only have one week to read it. And when you consider the pile of half-finished books on my bed-stand and my day job and my television set and my sleeping and my eating and my checking my email 100 times a day, I am actually a very busy girl.

So I’ll get through this exciting issue, but it might not be today, or tomorrow, or even the next time I am early to my therapy appointment. I might have to wait until I am strapped to an ambulance gurney or sent to solitary confinement. But mark my words, I will conquer this New Yorker of June 9 & 16, 2008. Okay, so I honestly just realized it’s a double issue. I feel way better now. Talk to me in two weeks and we can exchange orca lawyer jokes.

Strange coincidence, or the universe telling me I should kill a cheerleader?

I am surprised that my 300th blog post slipped by without anyone sending me chocolates or balloons. But I am equally, if not more, surprised that I unintentionally wrote my 300th blog post (according to my blog stats) about R.L. Stine writing 300 novels. Spooky, huh? What if this whole blog has been the first chapter of a horror novel? It only took us 300 pages to figure out something is hideously wrong.

I actually wasn’t named after the shoot-em-up neighborhood in L.A.

I don’t usually gush over the human interest stories on CNN.com. Living in Virginia, I can’t often relate to being dismembered by alligators or to worshiping seven-legged babies as gods. But today I’m all over the headlining CNN story of “The Homicide Report,” an L.A. Times blog that chronicles the names, faces, and circumstances of murder victims in Los Angeles.

Because two to three people are murdered in L.A. every day, bloggers Jill Leovy and Ruben Vives work a lot harder than your average Gawker employee. They drive through the most violent, forgotten neighborhoods of the city to find their stories. They interview grieving families. They take note of spray-painted eulogies and impromptu memorials on urban street corners. They publish the races and ages of the victims, who are predominately young black and Latino men. And the bloggers keep the comments open so the public can post messages about the murders.

These bloggers are doing their city a great service. Not only are they trying to ensure that people don’t die anonymously, but the blog reads like an anthropological study that might prove useful in preventing future murders. In fact, the blog entries remind me of Jared Diamond’s “Annals of Anthropology” article in this week’s New Yorker (abstract).

Diamond writes about vengeance killings in New Guinea. In a society without formal state government, New Guinea clan members take justice into their own hands. In the Highlands, murder (interpersonal warfare) is an accepted strategy of social checks and balances. Murder seems to maintain order.

The same anthropological phenomenon appears to be taking place in L.A. In neighborhoods like Watts, populated by many impoverished, disenfranchised people (I’ve never been there but I watch a lot of movies from the comfort of my couch), it’s probably hard to feel like your life is actively honored and protected by the government. You might feel like the government at large is absent or even against you. And so, as a gang member especially, your Wild West society is regulated by another set of rules, where drive-by shootings seem far more functional than the court system.

In my own culture, The New Yorker and NPR tell me how to behave. But if I were born in South-Central L.A., I don’t know what rules I’d follow. I am a pretty good shot with a BB gun, so if someone wronged me, I can’t promise that I wouldn’t take it to the streets. But around these parts I am limited to blogging my vengeance on the Virginia Quarterly Review website. My lifestyle is basically Boyz in the Hood, but with hyperlinks and pretentious diction instead of guns and ammo.

Funny hoo-ha

I realize that anybody who is anybody on the internet has already blogged today about the “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?Vanity Fair article, itself a response to the VF article “Why Women Aren’t Funny” by Christopher Hitchens. [Full disclosure: Christopher Hitchens will always be a god to me because he devoted an entire book to putting down Mother Teresa. Who else would have the audacity to do that?] Nevertheless, I want to weigh in on this important debate contrived to sell magazines. Are women funny?

Let me start by saying that all those SNL hotties were ugly in high school. I lack the evidence to back up that statement, but I feel in my gut that it’s true. They were ugly and that’s why they cultivated their personalities. And I have to put that out there because a large portion of the latest Vanity Fair article, supposedly extolling the comedic talents of the fairer sex, is about how pretty these funny ladies are. Alessandra Stanley writes:

It used to be that women were not funny. Then they couldn’t be funny if they were pretty. Now a female comedian has to be pretty—even sexy—to get a laugh.

At least, that’s one way to view the trajectory from Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett to Tina Fey. Some say it’s the natural evolution of the women’s movement; others argue it’s a devolution. But the funniest women on television are youthful, good-looking, and even, in a few cases, close to beautiful—the kind of women who in past decades might have been the butt of a stand-up comic’s jokes.

Of course female comedians are beautiful. Vanity Fair loves to take pictures of beautiful people. Vanity Fair gets to pick and choose who to put on its cover. Vanity Fair gets to slather the funny women in makeup and dress them in revealing “costumes” and Photoshop them into oblivion and then slap rubber chickens in their hands and pretend that their sexuality is not being exploited.

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Cracking nuts

I’ve decided to take the GRE, so there. What are you doing with your life that’s so great? I’m studying basic algebra.

Originally this post was going to be about ballet. This afternoon I introduced a three-year-old girl to The Nutcracker with 1977 vintage Mikhail Baryshnikov (swoon!). Everything was going awesome until she asked me about the bump in the crotch region of his tights. I was honest with her, and she quickly moved on with her life, but for the rest of the ballet I watched Mikhail exclusively from the waist down and worried that I was actually showing her pornography instead of a nostalgic piece of my childhood.