in no order, with parallelism problems. (reference: I’m an unwilling participant in this)

  • When I have to walk, only taking steps of a couple inches.
  • Watching movies about genocide to keep it all in perspective.
  • Rubbing different things on my feet/hands. So far: moisturizing lotion, tea tree oil, hydrogen peroxide, anti-fungal cream, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, pistachio nut oil lotion.
  • Plunking my feet into a basin filled with: hot water, cold water, white vinegar, white vinegar and hot water, white vinegar and water that is now cold.
  • Here are some ideas I’ve had for an advice column or essay about it. Coxsackie Chronicles. Hand, Foot, and Me. I Only Call It Sheep Pox. Coxsackie My Ass (Not Yet!). First It Comes for the Foot. Vinegar, Probably. This Rash Called My Sole.
  • I’ve managed to prioritize fascination and attention. No spots on my mouth at 9 pm. Three on the inside of my lower lip by 11. Top of my mouth soon after. 25 at 2. Look forward to the next count.
  • Counting, my foot propped up on the couch just so, one to one hundred, four times through until the pain and itch transforms from a feeling to a thing–a gritty toothed animal with sand for fur–I can watch with time.
  • Freecell, but only easy games with aces near the top of the stack.
  • Drinking pitchers and pitchers of water, room temperature, each sip and swallow delicious and sufficient.
  • When it’s time for ibuprofen (the only medicine there is), a couple spoons of ice cream straight from the carton. It tastes so good, better than ice cream usually tastes even, but then the sugar hits the raw spots and it burns. Just enough for pills, then more perfect water.
  • It’s hard to take detailed pictures of your own soles.
  • Trying to tally up who I may have infected (I was asymptomatic for three days and have been to the store since the initial fever) and how to avoid exposing others short of quarantining myself for five days. How it would be to quarantine myself.
  • I’m not even trying to sleep yet. The animal would keep me up.
  • At 2:30 I suddenly feel terrible that I’m using Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan as a distraction for my medical issues. As a measure of how little my suffering is.
  • My landlord/housemate handled this well: “so I’ve been careful since I figured out what it is, but I know I’ve touched things in the last couple days, so if you come down with a sudden fever . . . “
  • Every couple hours I change my socks. I don’t need to, but it feels proactive.
  • Infinite Jest stuff.
  • Gratitude: I don’t have Wednesday’s fever. My throat was substantially worse yesterday. No congestion, no headache, stomach and sinuses and so many other systems working normally.
  • In three minutes I will: hobble to the mirror, count what’s new in my mouth and hands; pause The Devil Came on Horseback; refill my water bottle; eat three spoons of stinging sweet ice cream and chase it with my new water; swallow pills; pick new socks, probably the bamboo ones, worn and fuzzy; think of all the things I forgot to put on this list but not edit it; and come back to this couch to prop up a foot and count, and wait.

Ur Hoard

The earliest documented evidence of collecting comes from excavations of the Persian tombs at Ur in what is now Iraq. A collection of eleven hundred seal impressions on lumps of clay found there date to the fifth century B.C.E.

–from Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

a certain acquaintance famous for his collections: I’d love to see an episode of Hoarders of Ur
me: “now, Ub, do you need all 1100 of these seal lumps? or could we agree to let some go?”
him: no, he needs all of them
me: “look, this one has mouse droppings on it.”
him: “what about this seal…it looks rain-damaged”
me: “Ub, you can’t clean clay. it’s CONTAMINATED.”
him: “Yes I can! That’s the num-shub of Enki! It’s worth a lot!”
me: “what about this one? you’ve never even taken it out of the straw!”
him: this makes me wish Mr. Show was still on

(I spoil the drape runners out of the movie and television series Twin Peaks here (and manage to throw in an Infinite Jest spoiler while I’m at it). Also, I’m assuming an almost complete familiarity with the universe and plot of both. In addition to that, I go on and on and on.)

1. getting the movie review part over with

After running through the entire series of Twin Peaks again recently, I netflixed Lynch’s Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk With Me. Despite a now-decades-long fixation on the show, I’d avoided the movie. And, I know now, for good reason: it’s terrible.

The first half hour or so is a mess that doesn’t connect in any substantial way to the rest of the movie. Chris Isaak could have been the best actor of 1992 and I’d still only see him as a man-prop for a sand-flecked Danish supermodel. Kiefer Sutherland does what he can with an unnecessary character. I wanted to airlift poor David Bowie out of his one disjointed scene. There was no need to spend that much time in the trailer park, or Teresa’s trailer, no matter how good Harry Dean Stanton is. The scenes with the local police have none of the qualities (lightness, absurdity, sincerity) that Lynch managed with Truman, Andy, and Lucy in the series.

The movie jumps forward a year, to the days before Laura’s murder. The glaring plot and character inconsistencies might be irritating only to superdork fans, but really, if you are going to make a movie from a cult show, it makes sense to think of those folks. I could fill several pages with examples here, but I’ll skip it. (I can’t help myself: Bobby as fawning lovelorn puppy when he’s been off with Shelly for weeks by this point? And then kills a guy? Donna topless on roofies whoring it up with Laura and never mentions it after, not even to James? I’ll stop.)

A bit of balance: there were a few parts that worked. When Laura wakes into a dream by pulling her own wrist up and finds bloodied Annie next to her in bed, I was spooked and delighted. I appreciated the clarification of how Laura and Ronette went from being with Jacques and Leo to the train car with Leland (I’d always been confused about the sequence of events there). The scene with BOB assaulting Laura in her bed, her hands around his face as she sees for the first time that it’s Leland, was series-worthy. So there’s that.

2. a romance

The show started in 1990 during a years-long hard drought in the area where I lived. There were dead yellow lawns and water restrictions, and when it did rain, it seemed to start and stop while I was asleep or stuck in class. I lived in a suburb (of a town that’s a suburb itself) with no old trees or water features other than a mostly dry ponding basin, fenced off, a few blocks down from my parents’ house.

Twin Peaks takes place over a few days in February, with nearly the entire show happening under threat of rain—there’s almost no direct sunlight for the whole of the first season, and Lynch loves the greenery that results from that sort of climate. Big trees, loamy forest soil to bury necklaces in, moss and fog, all pushed into the hills around a wide river and a roaring snow-bordered waterfall. It looked like a heaven of water. Though I liked the quirkiness and mystery from the start, it was the setting that hooked me.

There was no way, years after the series filmed, for Lynch to exactly recreate the town when making “Fire Walk with Me.” The different bedrooms, streets, and houses are pardonable. I can’t get over the sun: it’s the wrong season in FWWM. Laura walks around the late-spring foliage in a warm yellow light, blue skies overhead without a hint of rain.

3. the wrong Laura

The other part of the romance, slower to develop, was about the autonomy of teenagers. I didn’t have a car until I was 18, and there was nowhere to walk or bike to from my house, no parks or stores and certainly not biker bars with Julee Cruise at the mic.

The kids in Twin Peaks had a tremendous amount of mobility and involvement in the affairs of the adult world. Most of my handful of friends didn’t date or work, and all but one had a curfew they obeyed. Laura not only pulled down good grades and the homecoming queen crown, she worked at a department store (and briefly a brothel in Canada, so there’s a commute), had two boyfriends, tutored Josie and Audrey’s autistic brother, volunteered as a meals-on-wheels driver, and managed to be a beloved friend and daughter to the community. I was grounded and read a lot.

So: the sneaky teenagers, the water, and all the reasons that everyone loves it (the visuals, the malevolence of objects, the humor and absurdity and tense plotting): that would have been enough for me to be a fan. It’s Laura and BOB that have pulled me through half a dozen whole-series re-viewings (including the awful run of episodes between Leland’s death and the finale), often with others I’ve harassed into watching with me.

Laura, despite the fact that she’s dead, wrapped in plastic, is the major force in the story. She’s touched every character (most of them literally) and there’s nowhere they can go that she hasn’t been. Unlike many of the other female characters, Laura is strong (broad-shouldered and sleek-muscled), assertive socially and sexually, unafraid. Where Shelly is dandelion-thin and tossed around like a bag of groceries by Bobby and Leo, Laura is a panther. Even at her death, she goes down snarling, enraged (more about that in a minute).

All of which makes it more disappointing that Lynch turned the Laura of FWWM into an older, more harried version of Shelly. Lynch loves Shelly’s character—he hadn’t planned on her returning after the first episode but brought her back and made her a primary. On the show, I like Shelly too and think she’s necessary. That fragility in the face of plain evil (Leo is not BOB-possessed, he’s just a dick), her inability to save herself, ever, all play nicely against the strength of the other characters. Shelly is the only person Gordon (played by Lynch) can hear sans hearing aide, and he kisses her. Lynch loves his victims, and he has a great one in Shelly.

FWWM Laura is no longer the outgoing, vibrant, aggressive young woman of Twin Peaks. She huddles from place to place, worried, ready to sink in terror or helplessness. She seems much older, like she has a stressful desk job and an ex-husband who won’t leave her alone. One of the moments of torment that Lynch puts her through is identical to one Shelly experienced: Leland pinches her left cheek while scolding her about the cleanliness of her hands (in the show, Leo pinches Shelly’s left cheek after growling about laundry).

4. “Sometimes, my arms bend back.”

By the time I saw the first episode of Twin Peaks, I’d been having Great Evil dreams for at least ten years, probably more like twelve. It wouldn’t matter the dream to start with: I would get a feeling that the Great Evil was there and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The GE wasn’t a person, but a feeling, a specific force, and it would come in the shape of strangers, people I knew, animals, sometimes things (it rose out of the floor once, a man-shaped mass of carpet). It would show up a couple times a week at least, and it would assault and mutilate and kill me and the other people in my dreams. I’d wake up gasping with adrenaline, all my senses tearing around in the dark to figure out where it was going to get me from. There’d be nothing there, and eventually I’d fall back asleep and hope it wouldn’t find me again.

As I got older I tried everything I could think of to deal with it: I learned how to have lucid dreams (GE loved that, that I knew I was dreaming and it could still disembowel me while it was wearing my favorite teacher’s body), I tried to sleep as little as possible for stretches (nothing like exhaustion to not help with night terrors, lemme tell ya), I slept in different places in my room (between the mattress and box spring, in the closet, on the floor). It would jump into the people I was trying to save from it and kill me again, slowly.

It stopped in my early 20s (a not very long story I nevertheless won’t tell here), with only half a dozen nightmares close to as awful since. The final official Great Evil dream involved me delivering myself up to it, putting myself naked on its front porch as soon as I felt that foreboding start to hover around my dream. Even through the fear, I was sick and bone-tired of the hopeless attempts to escape from something that would inevitably get me. Fine, let’s skip the rest of the dream: get me. The GE came to the door, was flummoxed and unprepared, and opted to back away from me.

I don’t remember when I noticed the parallels, if it was during the tv run or during one of the marathon sessions with a stack of VHS tapes. BOB owling around the woods, in and out of his hosts, that shape-shifting glee, his presence in the corners at night. Laura knowing he’s coming, knowing how impossible it is to escape. And in the end, delivering herself to BOB/Leland and her death to prevent BOB from having her as a host.

In her last moments, which we get through Ronette’s dream (if you are for some reason I cannot comprehend reading this even though you haven’t seen the show, be warned that that is a violent and scary clip), Laura screams, teeth bared, like a demon while BOB bludgeons her to death. She’s scared and suffering, but she’s also furious, a terrifying and powerful animal. A single screen shot of BOB’s face after she’s dead shows that he is devastated—the only moment in the series I can recall where he looks sad (on the video linked above, it flashes in a fraction of second around 1:07). Then he roars in sorrow. He’s lost her forever; she’s won. That is the Laura I want.

FWWM Laura screams too, but it’s all terror. She runs from BOB instead of at him, and he catches her and takes her down and revels in it. There’s no self-sacrifice, no choice, no agency on her end: she sinks to the ground and the hammer hits her like Leo’s soap-in-sock hit Shelly. An angel shows up and scared little Laura is bathed in white and removed from the situation by an unspecified saving force which is most definitely not her strong brave self. That’s just not how it’s supposed to go.

5. the perils of prequels

Stories complicated enough to attract a long-term cult following have unexplained elements. There’s a lot you are taking on the word of the creator, but if you like the story enough, it’s easy to make the leap. And if you’re a superfan nerd geek about the imagined world, you come up with explanations that work for the gaps. (I think Hal saw some of The Entertainment but was able to stop watching before it completely destroyed him, and I don’t care how many compelling alternative explanations about mold or toothbrushes I read.) As long as the creators stick with sequels, it can all work.

Prequels don’t work. Are there any prequels that work? I poked around for a while and couldn’t find an example of a good necessary one. Even when the prequel isn’t a craven attempt to suck cash out of existing fans, it doesn’t add anything to the imagined world but grief and nonsense.

The conflict: you love the world and therefore the creator of it for giving it to you. You figure out why the world is the way it is on your own. Then the creator makes a prequel and tells you that you are wrong, The Force is actually a blood-borne pathogen and Laura was a tired timid prey item, and you realize that this place that you thought you shared is just yours, and only if you can shut out the voice that made it in the first place.

In this case, I’m happy to lock Lynch out in the cold. My Laura is a bloody-mouthed hellion ready to rip the throat out of BOB, should he show up in a body that doesn’t also house an innocent and unknowing bystander. He should be terrified of her because his primary weapons, fear and the willingness to kill, aren’t enough to keep her from taking things he wants from him anymore. She makes brutal decisions, understanding the costs, and in doing so becomes the most powerful thing in the woods.

Even fear should be afraid of this.

my year in memoir, 2010

Reading back through my notes, I notice that I was hard on these books: this is a fabulous crop of memoirs, and my nitpicking is more about noticing the things that I’m watching for in my own writing than big faults in theirs. I would recommend any of them to a reader interested in the subject despite all my criticism. There are multiple spoilers/reveals mentioned below, so skip my notes if you mean to read the book and don’t want to know how it all turns out.

Lit by Mary Karr
I love Mary Karr. I want to make her dinner or take her to dinner. I want to listen to podcasts of her speaking and swearing all day long. I want to go back in time and talk to her editor because this book is 6% off of perfect and that kills me. Every thirty pages there is an off metaphor, the book is a few dozen pages too long, and she needs to commit to her passion without caring about me as a reader in the last third. Okay, done with that. I love Mary Karr.

Somehow, she’s kept her drunk wreck of a mother in her life, and despite all her anger and introspection, is on the slick path toward being the same mess with her own son, Dev. After meeting her dashing but constrained husband Warren in grad school (she had a bumpy but mentor-blessed road through college, studded with lucky run-ins the caliber of which makes me want to bite my desk in envy), she tries to fit in with his productive blue-blood academic life. His family is a rich-folk horrorshow. She falls into a medium-bad case of alcoholism, peaking when her kid is still little, and finally cops to the disaster of her life when she nearly wrecks the car. In the course of AA and a stint in the McLean mental hospital (hospital to the literary stars of crazy), she gets around to god, and settles on Catholicism and literal knees-on-tile prayer. Along the way, she doesn’t write, then does, as she gets better, and more of that combo of mentors and luck and incredible skill get her into print and awards and jobs. Along with the alcohol, Warren gets left behind (as does DFW, who only shows up for a few scenes, but it’s him, it’s him, just like you could have guessed he’d be). She’s so compelling on religion that I started to feel bad for not having any. I love her. What does she have left to write memoirs about? I can’t wait to find out.

“For all the schisms in my upbringing, the most savage scars didn’t come from pain. Pain has belief in it. Pain is required, Patti likes to say; suffering is optional. What used to hurt was the vast and wondering doubt that could spread inside me like a desert, the niggling suspicion that none of the hard parts even happened. So the characters that so vividly inhabited me where phantasms, any residual hurt my own warped concoction.”

Secret Life by Michael Ryan
This was mentioned in Susan Cheever’s Desire (coming up in one of the nonfiction entries), and then days after I started it, it was mentioned in a recently released audio interview with DFW. I adore book coincidences like that. A very promising and deeply honest starting chapter, but then Ryan spends far too much time on parts of his childhood. Those sections (sports, Catholic school, friends and loss of them) are well written and interesting, but I’m in the book for a reason: I want to know about Ryan as a sex addict, what it drove him to do, how he extricated himself. He’s aces on the backstory of how he got there, but then flies at hyper-speed through the adult part. To the point, actually, that I wondered while reading if it wasn’t too soon for him to be tackling a memoir—too fresh, the shame still there in a way he didn’t want to write about, and him still fighting like mad to stay “clean.” Again again, the Steve Almond thing: slow down where it hurts, and while Ryan did a great job of that in the early years, he rushes over the more recent, and more relevant, later activities. It’s too long for a follow-up, but I hope there is one anyway, when he’s old, a layer of insight about where he was when he wrote this book over what he learned afterward. A warning to my sensitive reader friends: some bad things happen to animals.

“Yet since my appetite was infinite, I wasn’t nearly powerful enough either. I never got what I really wanted, and I hated myself for that, and hated life, and hated myself again for caring about sex more than anything or anybody, including the people I loved. Then I hated myself for loving so badly. It was like living inside a spin dryer. Finally, what I cared about was me, and not even me but the addict-me, this no-I driving me to be with no one, to be no one.”

Love Junkie by Rachel Resnick
This was the lightest memoir I read last year, the one that felt the most like there could have been another draft or another few years of experience before writing. However, I tore through it in a day and was more emotionally invested than I thought I would be. The problems are the same ones that I have with many addiction memoirs: not enough space from the behavior yet (so the regret doesn’t seem quite sincere enough—I feel more upset about some things than the writing suggests she is), glamorizing some of the worst incidents (I don’t mind the glamor, but it works against the claim of the regret), and the sense that the parts of her that are the most upsetting to other people are not to her—and she doesn’t recognize it. Resnick was a mess in relationships, the sort of crazy girlfriend it’s good for others to have so you can hear their stories and feel grateful. She’d write literally dozens of emails a day (clingy, whoa), all flowery and overwrought, be thrown into a tailspin by small relationship dramas, and picked horrific men to be with. It’s one of the accomplishments of the book that despite all that, I found myself pulling for her and understanding her hurt and helplessness. At the end she’s with a woman, and not only does it sound a bit too sedate, it sounds like Resnick isn’t attracted to her at all, as though that is the flip side of her crazy interactions with men. After an incredibly fucked-up and tough early life, I don’t know that there is an accessible calm space for her, but I was left hoping she will be able to find a way to embrace her crazy without all the attendant destructiveness.

The Addict by Michael Stein
Another fast compelling read—Stein, a doctor, lets us follow along as he treats an opiate addict for a year. At the same time, he reflects on treatment options, other addicts he’s worked with, and what is happening in his head and life while he does this work. It raised some interesting questions: if someone feels the same (depressed/desperate/anxious/etc.) even if her external circumstances have changed for what others consider the better, is the change a success? How far into talk therapy methods (hour-long history-intense sessions) can a medical doctor (who requires the talking to prescribe the addiction-breaking drugs) successfully go? Given that the drugs he gives do work for a good number of patients, where does that leave the traditional willpower models of sobriety? Despite being a quick read, it was a little long for itself, and I had some issues along the way. I think the patient he picked to highlight was problematic (even if typical). Frequently I felt irritation about a significant self-congratulatory doctor-god vibe coming from him, even if he does temper it by being self-aware, non-condemnatory, and invested in his patients.

“Addiction is the disease of wanting more. More is always better; more becomes necessary. The ‘more’ disease is about impending deprivation. It combines a fear of being without with the sense of never having enough.”

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
A gift from Ian. The chapters covering her travels to conferences and the study-abroad in Samarkand are fabulous, hilarious, ridiculous. I was a teenager when I had my phase with big Russian novels, but having forgotten most of the details was not a hindrance to enjoying this book. Many reviews have noted that it’s uneven, and I agree, but it’s not so uneven to be a problem. It took me a while to get into the book, and a while after that to figure out why: in the beginning, I didn’t trust Batuman’s writing about herself, which meant that I didn’t trust her about others (and others—people and places—come in for constant criticism). She’s very hard on herself early on, painting a picture of someone indecisive and unmotivated and possibly not very bright. Then she settles (settles!) for grad school at Stanford, and has in the few years since published this book along with many mean and clever essays in all the best places. I understand the need to set herself up as not-an-insider in order to have believable distance to mock the establishment she’s firmly ensconced in, but it came off like a supermodel complaining about her enormous ass. That tone fades over the first few chapters and isn’t worth ditching the book over. I have no idea why this is the only quote I copied out of the book (must have been a rough week):

“In the 1960s, Girard introduced his widely influential theory of mimetic desire, formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfillment. According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves.”

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
It’s so nice to have a few more hours with David Foster Wallace’s voice, to really miss the person I never knew, even if only in this slightly off book. The offness comes from Lipsky trying too hard, I think, but I can’t identify what he’s trying too hard to do: to make himself look worse as a young over-eager too-pushy interviewer (and not then, but now, in the editing of his question and bracketed asides)? to make those small added details seem more significant or more full of gravity? or to make himself seem both more flawed and more chummy? I don’t entirely trust his representation of himself, which makes for discomfort if I want to trust his picture of DFW. All that aside, I did appreciate the essays in the front (and read the afterword last, as though there could be any spoilers at this point), particularly the quotes and remembrances from his friends. It was good timing to read this so soon before Franzen’s Freedom: I had both DFW’s voice (some of which Franzen has absorbed) and Franzen’s commitment to David (as a friend and fellow artist) still running around in my head. The best part of the book is the little details: DFW’s terrible taste in music (Bush), his strange crushes (Thatcher, Morrissette), his interactions with his bad dogs Jeeves and Drone. Much sadness in how frequently he uses suicide imagery and phrases. He lies about the chemical basis of his depression, and pushes back, after honesty, on Lipsky’s questions about his drug history. I was unsure about reading this but ended up liking it enough that I’ll buy a copy at some point.

“What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit—to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves so excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time. And it’s not a question of the writer having more capacity than the average person. It’s that the writer is willing I think to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop . . . and just, and think really hard. Which not everybody has the luxury to do.

But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
Reread: as good as the first time. It feels like the perfect thing to read this book in order to procrastinate on writing projects. You could make a gift basket out of that idea: a copy of this, a set of index cards with reminders of mundane distracting things (“hey, shouldn’t you clean the kitchen before you start that paragraph?”), a few DVDs of the author’s favorite series, and a sleep mask for that desperately needed power-nap right before cracking down on the next round of edits, I swear.

“I resign myself to things: this is my own warped version of amor fati: regretting everything but resigning myself to this regret. However things turn out I am bound to wish they had turned out differently. I am resigned to that.

Take this book which is intermittently about Lawrence. Right now I profoundly regret ever having started it. I wish I hadn’t bothered. But if I hadn’t started it I would have regretted not having done so. I knew this and so I got on with it and now that I have got on with it I regret that I got on with it in the way I did. I regret that it will not turn out to be the sober, academic study of Lawrence that I had hoped to write but I accept this because I know that, in the future, when it is finished, I won’t want it to be any different. I’ll be glad that this little book turned out how it did because I will see that what was intended to be a sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence had to become a case history. Not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down became a means of continuing. Anyone can have a breakdown, anyone. The trick is to have a breakdown and take it in one’s stride. Ideally one would get to the stage where one had a total nervous breakdown and didn’t even notice.”

Mentor by Tom Grimes
Grimes’s memoir about his life as a writer, and more specifically, his life as a writer in the orbit of Frank Conroy, who moved from being an idol to a teacher to a friend to a father figure. Reading it in a couple of days highlighted the problems: unnecessary repetitions, forced or too blatant connections/echoes, a certain thudding rhythm to the language in parts. And the end, which is a reprint of Grimes’s eulogy for Conroy, didn’t entirely work for me. But, all that accounted for, I was so into this—the inside scoop, the tales of back-breaking labor (20 hours a week, even if only a sentence came out of each hour) and self-hatred and anxiety at the desk, Grimes’s wound-up paranoia, the tension and disaster of publishing attempts. Reading it wasn’t a grand love affair, everything perfection and awe, but more like kicking it with a good, flawed friend after a long absence. It knew what I needed.

“I am uncomfortable writing, and I know a number of writers (although I won’t mention them) who feel the same way. The isolation, self-doubt, perfectionism and other idiosyncratic impediments to action—some completely irrational, almost like superstitions—mix in various ways in various people to create something close to dread at the sinister urgency of the blank page. For myself, once I’m up and moving, if not running, through the lines, I zip back and forth between feeling okay and feeling terrified. Once in a while I am exhilarated, but more often it is as if my inner self, my sense of myself, is at risk. Something like the tension one might feel watching the ivory ball circumnavigate the roulette wheel after having made a large, foolish, impulsive bet.” –Frank Conroy

Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Strauss, at 17, accidentally killed a girl he vaguely knew from high school. He was in his car, she was on her bike, and she swerved into traffic immediately in front of him. While everyone from the police to the parents of the girl rushed to assure him that it wasn’t his fault, Strauss spent years waiting for someone to see that even if the accident wasn’t on him, his reactions made him a bad person, worthy of blame. He tore at himself for his selfish thoughts, his lack of approved grief reactions, his clumsy attempts to do the right thing with her parents (who later sued him, throwing his life into an extended waiting nightmare of litigation). This is a beautifully designed book with a clever half jacket, but it’s really an extended essay on grief and chance and the acceptance of self-interest and self-forgiveness. It was great as an essay in that way, but a little flat as an entire book (a few more threads would have fleshed it out). Lots of telling, but it worked.

“I think we all build superstructures in our heads, catwalks and trestles that lead us from the acceptance of our own responsibility to the cool mechanics of the factory, where things are an interlocking mess, where everybody’s pretty much unaccountable. To be alive is to find a way to blame someone else.”

Final Analysis by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
(Note: Masson was one of the coincidence-thick threads that ran through my reading last year. I started 2010 having no idea who he is, and I’ve now read books about, by, and possibly inspired by him. He just kept showing up, not only in books but in anecdotes—a story about Berkeley, a bunny, and a pack of dogs that I’m sure I’ll share in the next few weeks. I’m both fascinated and appalled by him.)

Man oh man do I wish I had taken notes on this when I finished it, not a month and three weeks later. Masson is at full Masson here, blazing a light on all the incredibly fucked-up things analysts did during his own analysis and training. As always, he’s the innocent wide-eyed reporter, constantly shocked and confused when his dramatic efforts to upset the apple cart are received as such. It’s a good read, however, because there were batshit analysts out there, and Masson ends up being supervised and surrounded by them. They are also constantly dazzled and enamored of him, of course. The age of the book works against it: those type of analysts just aren’t around much anymore, and some of the things he had major problems with have been addressed. I wish he’d write a whole-life memoir—I’d read that big conceited song and dance in a sitting, with pleasure.

“But it did not really sink in to me, when I first read it, that Freud really meant what he said: Misery is unbearable, misfortune is bearable. Misery is self-created, the misfortune comes from without. Freud is not offering to help a person by altering external circumstances, but only be getting that person to reconsider his or her life. It is the essence of psychotherapy: Look inward. Freud is asking us to shift the direction of our attention, from the external to the internal.”

“Every patient whose memory of abuse was treated as nothing more than wishful thinking will have to be recalled.” (oh hello, little quote that may have been the seed of Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch, which will show up during the fiction round-up. It was a delight to run across this sentence after reading the novel.)

Darkness Visible by William Styron
I’d meant to read this forever but kept putting it off because when I think Styron I think density, and when I think depression memoir I think grim. Grim density. Watch me avoid that for a decade. What a surprise to pick it up and find that it’s an essay, not even 100 pages, and although grim, not dense at all. An elegant, unsentimental, and brisk take on despair.

The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn
A nicely shuffled blend of thought lines: Flynn’s relationships with two women, Anna and Inez; journalistic tracking of torture and Abu Ghraib; more thoughts on his father’s dissolution and mother’s suicide; and his impending fatherhood and the hunt for the men who functioned, even briefly, as his stepfather when he was a child. Even with all that heavy lifting, it sometimes felt slight, a result of very short chapters, a focus on dream sequences, and a delicacy about details that didn’t always work for me. I never had a real sense of Anna, and it didn’t feel like he made a choice there—she left, so the big conflict about choosing between women never rang true. Flynn feels like a gentle soul, and the most fascinating parts, to my surprise, were the little autobiographical details: his swimming, living in a barn or docked boat, having Christmas with friends.

“Whatever else I might say about my time with Anna, when I was with her I felt known, perhaps for the first time. Known? What that meant to me, if I had to define it, was that when we were together it seemed I could drag some part of my shadow into the light, especially the part that was uncertain about the next breath. Those rooms we shared became a space in which to reveal a darkness I carried inside me, a heaviness that needed to be dragged into the light, or it would sink me. Trouble was—maybe—that we shared the same dark impulses (here eros, here thanatos). In the end, maybe, our knowing lacked perspective, so in the end we risked merely sinking each other.”

Dog Years by Mark Doty
Beau and Arden, Doty’s dogs, live their lives and die against the backdrop of Doty losing a partner (Wally), falling in love with the writer Paul Lisicky, traveling all over the place to teach and write, and 9/11. The chapters alternate with all-italics Entr’actes, brief meditations on subjects mostly related to grief and loss. The writing is poetic and slow, the descriptions of the dogs loving and appropriate and self-aware, and the chapter with 9/11 perhaps the best nonfiction writing I’ve read about it—devastatingly present and just good. I teared up several times, my own old dog merrily kicking away at himself on the bed a few feet away.

“The public revelation of grief is unseemly, an embarrassment of self-involvement. Or at least that’s how it seems on the surface. The truth is probably that we want grief to remain invisible because we can’t do anything about it, and because it invariably reminds us of the losses we’ll all suffer someday, the ineluctable approach of sorrow.

For someone grieving for animals, the problem’s compounded.

You can’t tell most people about the death of your dog, not quite; there is an expectation that you shouldn’t overreact, shouldn’t place too much weight on this loss. In the scheme of things, shouldn’t this be a smaller matter? It’s just a dog; get another one.

One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them.”

next time: nonfiction grab-bag, with dramatic lesbians, meth, and her amazingness, Janet Malcolm.

graphic novels
Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell
I’m not a good reader of graphic novels, as I may have mentioned. The ones I really like (Fun Home is always the one that comes to mind) I don’t like as much as novels and wish were novels—I finish them in a sitting and want more, more words, not pictures. The pictures don’t stay with me in the same way that well-turned descriptions do, and the speed of the encounter presses too lightly on my attention. It’s like the difference between the fully recognized complex dreams I have at night and the sweaty frayed ones I have when I am forced to nap.

Still, I try graphic novels a few times a year, recognizing that the problem is mine. (Two that have worked for me just as they are, now that I’m thinking about it: Maus and What It Is. Then I think for a second more and realize that those all, along with Fun Home, are memoir/bio, not novels.) The Millions mentioned this one, and when I saw it displayed at the main library while I was there to pick up fiction one morning, I checked it out. On the way home I swung by Whole Foods and inadvertently read the entire book sitting in the café area eating roasted beets.

The story, about two teenage siblings in a family shot through with mental illness, pulled me right in, and the dark art, murky and full of insects and movement, felt terrifying in the face of mid-winter sunshine, organic vegetables, and clean people with their white Macs open on every other table. I sat with a biodegradable fork in my hand and read the entire unpredictable book. If I could get around my issues with graphic novels, I might love this one. As always, I wished for more words. My favorite graphic novel of the year.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Beautiful lines in the art here—from the furniture to the faces to the clothing (the suits are divine), it’s a big swooping festival of curves. The book is heavy and glossy, like a textbook, and like a textbook, was full of things I knew nothing about.

“From the vantage of two thousand years, the span between 259 B.C. and 210 B.C. may seem negligible to someone living today, but (Asterios could tell you better than I) each of those eighteen thousand days must have been as precious and unpredictable as this one. After all, who knows which day will be his last?

To live (as I understand it) is to exist within a conception of time. But to remember is to vacate the very notion of time.

Every memory, no matter how remote its subject, takes place “now,” at the moment it’s called up in the mind. The more something is recalled, the more the brain has a chance to refine the original experience, because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback.”

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou (art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie DiDonna)
A nice presentation of the history of Logic in philosophy and the sorts of men who were its founders. In short, about those men: mental health issues. I will admit that my eyes unfocused over many of the more hardcore explanations of logic, math, and Greek drama. This is mostly about Bertrand Russell and framed by his lectures, which slipped into flashbacks about his life and history. Outside of that framework, the writers and artists discuss logic and how to tell the story. A nice dog, Manga, who was far more cartoonish than the humans, reminded me of my landlord’s hopelessly dim but amiable dog. I fear I will not remember most of this book, with the deeper fear being that I’m not smart enough for it.

The Painted Bed by Donald Hall
Poems almost entirely to/about his wife, Jane Kenyon, now dead of cancer for years. His house in New Hampshire, the dog Gus, and her final time with him all appear repeatedly, as well as his returning lusts and how impossible it is to satisfy them as an old widower. Several heartbreaking moments.

A Single Hurt Color by Andrew Demcak
One of my regular librarians—the nicest one, the one most prone to cracking a small joke or letting me in on some small detail about library behind-the-scenes drama—turns out to be a poet. While skimming the New Release shelf I picked up a book of poetry, and there was his picture on the back. Of the two collections of his I checked out, this one is my favorite. I appreciated the local notes (there are owls in the tree in my yard too), the imagery, and the ways he played with sound in some poems. It feels good to genuinely like things by nice people. A few lines:

“Counting the restless hours,
coyote thickened.” from California Night #3

“Knives lining a drawer: the first jury in its wooden box.” from Juice

“His hull more float than groan.” from Subtidal Zone (say it out loud—it will make your tongue feel good)

Catching Tigers in Red Weather by Andrew Demcak
The second collection of his I checked out. It’s all in couplets, and I found that hard to concentrate on after the first few poems. There was also something distracting happening with the verbs (too many gerunds?).

Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield
This was not a poetry-heavy year, but even if it had been, I think this would have been one of my favorites. I’ve read Hirshfield before, and every time, I find myself tugged between slowing down and savoring individual lines and rushing to get the next emotional hit. The poems are fairly simple, not overworked or tangled, and the images are accessible but benefit from rereading and thought.

“Fate loosens it grip. The bruises stay.” from Identity

“Under the surface, something that whispers,
‘Anything can be done.’

For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.” from For Horses, Horseflies

and one whole poem (there were many I wanted to copy out in their entirety)


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.”

Next time: memoir, with sex addicts and writers and depression and dogs (sometimes all at the same time!).

2010 year in reading

It’s February of 2011, and a good time to do my 2010 Year in Reading wrap-up. There’s so much pressure in December when I’m still trying to finish a handful of books and bouncing around the internet reading everyone else’s lists. Now there is a pleasant calm: no one cares about 2010, the massive traffic boost that followed my pat-down post has slowed, and I’ve had time to consider last year’s reading as a whole.

It was a strange year. When I look at the list, it seems impossible that I read some of those books in 2010. They feel much more distant, my Janet Malcolm spree at least two years old, Meditations on Violence even further back. All of the nonfiction before April feels far-off and foggy. In April I started taking notes as I read, the first time outside of school I’ve done so, and it’s changed the way nonfiction feels to me.

Despite thinking at the start of last year that I would slow down from the pace of 2009, I read more books than I ever have: I would mention the growing number to reader friends and watch their faces to see if it was out of hand, something I needed to worry about. When I had to call the library to ask about a glitch with my account, the man at my branch recognized my voice (a trip a week, maybe two, a few days I went twice when requests came in). Then I read two books by one of the librarians, the kind one with round glasses.

I let myself indulge my desires for sudden topics and authors: Janet Malcolm and Lionel Shriver, Irvin Yalom and Adam Phillips, addiction memoirs and positive psychology. There was so much that I wanted to know. The stack of books to take notes on, write up my thoughts about, grew until it was two piles, then three. There are still 27 books waiting for me to type up summaries, some of them so far back that all I retain are a few images and characters and my vague emotional feelings about them. I wish I had paused to appreciate them before I lost that initial burst of reaction.

That’s the grim stuff, the balance to the beauty and knowledge and connection that kept leaping up from all those pages. There were a dozen novels that knocked me out of my shoes (with language, tension, terror, laughter, insight); there were even more nonfiction books that made me feel like I knew myself and others differently and better for having read them. Books attached themselves to travel and places (DC, Disneyland, Amtrak to and from Fresno in dread summer). Coincidences—people I’d never heard of showing up in two books simultaneously, information from nonfiction being essential to subplots in consequent novels—gave me that feeling that it is deeply right to follow my reading whims, and by extension, the inner voice I’m prone to doubt. I have some killer quotes to share, sentences I’ve read again and again for their ability to make print meaningful or explain what I hadn’t known was murky.

Here’s the plan, subject to my usual freaking out: I’ve divided up all the books into ten rough chunks, and I’ll give each chunk an entry. That should keep the length manageable (so many quotes) and me from losing it when trying to summon up feelings about 122 books. I’ll link from this page as I post them.

1. Poetry and Graphic Novels
2. Memoir
3. Nonfiction (mostly not psychology)
4. Nonfiction Psychology part 1
5. Nonfiction Psychology part 2
6. Short Stories
7. Novels part 1 (that weren’t really for me)
8. Novels part 2
9. Novels part 3
10. Novels part 4 (the favorites)

All books, in chronological order, are listed without comment here.

Last Wednesday, after a fabulous trip to DC, I flew back to San Francisco through Dulles International Airport and had the opportunity to opt out of a whole-body imaging scan (aka backscatter x-ray, strip-search machine, nude-o-scope). I use “opportunity” here on purpose: shortly before I left for my trip, I did a bunch of research on the then brand-new enhanced screenings and was thoroughly prepared. Knowing, from self-defense classes, how adrenaline or social pressure can short out one’s plans or convictions, I had even practiced saying that I wanted to opt out so that I wouldn’t find myself nervous and hustled into the scanner.

There are now dozens of excellent articles and blogs available on the subject of the scanners and why you might not want to go through them (I’ve added links to a handful of my favorites at the bottom). I’m going to stick to the personal here: here’s exactly what happened to me, in case you were wondering what might happen to you. Unlike many of the stories going around, mine is pretty calm. I don’t feel sexually violated, none of the TSA workers behaved egregiously (though one was incredibly rude), and I was polite and moderate the entire way through because not getting on my plane wasn’t an option, much as I would have loved to spend more time in DC. I’d wager that my experience was average for a woman choosing the pat-down, and I’m putting this up to encourage others (without scaring them) to opt out, and not just on November 24th.

I’d been ready the week before at SFO, but none of the scanners were on. At IAD, however, the agents were feeding a constant stream of passengers through them—the only people going through the magnetic scanner only were those who were cleared to go while someone else was being screened in the backscatter machine. The agent at the head of my line regularly repeated to us that “everything must be out of your pockets and in a bin; nothing can be in your pockets.” I placed my carry-on luggage, separated quart bag of liquids, shoes, wallet, watch, and phone in the bins. I kept my boarding pass, which I didn’t even think of until later.

It looked like I was going to skip the scanner, but the man in front of me had to deal with a trial-sized toothpaste in his carry-on. The agent waved me forward and I said, “I’m opting for the pat-down.”

He looked me up and down, socks to eyes, and asked why. “Because I have the right to.” There was a mighty pause after this.

He said, “you don’t have any jewelry on at all. This could take a while.” I’m not clear why he noted the lack of jewelry. He pointed me to a mat behind a plastic gate on the other side of the two-line security area and told me to wait. He called to another agent, over on the same side as me, that they would need a female for a pat-down. The other agent repeated this, loudly, into a walkie-talkie.

And there I stood, in my socks, for at least ten but not more than fifteen minutes. I can’t say exactly how long it was because my watch, along with my wallet (sitting out uncovered) and shoes and carry-on with medication, was a good twenty feet away, out of my sight and away from the agents running the carry-on x-ray. They called for a female agent three times before one showed up and ushered me to the pat-down area, just inside the scanner gates. She went and fetched my bins of stuff and put them on the chair in front of me.

You know when people say about wild animals that they are more scared of you than you are of them? This also applied to my pat-down agent. I would go so far as to say that she was almost terrified. Incredibly nervous, to the point that I felt bad for her and smiled at her and told her I knew how the search went when she started stammering an explanation. At one point during the search, after I said, “I am okay with you touching me wherever you want,” she replied, “we have to say all of it every time because you never know when it’s a test.” I wonder now if she initially thought I was a TSA plant because so few people, particularly women, opt out of the scanner. My guess is that she hadn’t done many searches.

The pat-down/search: she had me stand facing the gates and passengers in line with my legs spread and my arms out. Standing behind me, with gloves on, she thoroughly patted down my not-long hair. I mean, ridiculously thoroughly, like she was delaying. She asked me if I was sore anywhere or had any injuries (no). She then felt up and down both of my arms, down my back and sides, and along my waistband, outside my clothes. She talked about what she was doing continuously, even though she frequently misused words (“now I’m going to pat your arms” as she felt my back, for example) out of nervousness. She mentioned a few times that she was using the back or front of her hand, but I couldn’t feel a difference, and she said “oops” a couple of times and flipped her hand over, so I’m not sure if they have rules for where they have to do that.

She patted my butt lightly and not intrusively, and then came around to my front, where she spent a great deal of time feeling my ankles (delaying again?). She ran her hands up my legs, felt my inner thighs, and laid her hand flat against my genitals, which required her to push up on my baggy pants. At this point she remembered to tell me that I could have a privacy screen if I wanted one.

I had worried about the whole getting-felt-up-in-front-of-a-crowd thing, but the passengers coming through the security screening were so busy taking off their shoes and belts and managing their carry-ons and liquids and loose pants that no one was really watching us—except for two male TSA agents off to one side. One of them was looking over occasionally and then back at the line, but the other was by far the most uncomfortable part of the process for me. He was flat-out staring. Usually, when I’m stared at, I find that looking back with a neutral expression will snap the starer right out of it. Nothing doing. He had no problem overtly staring at me while my agent touched me all over.

Since we’d already done the groin-grope part of the search, I turned down the privacy screen (and I guessed it would add yet more time to the whole thing). She stood in front of me and felt along my waist again, and then thoroughly checked out my chest. I’m a busty chick, and I’m guessing the underwire in my bra was the problem: she felt along the edges of my breasts, pushing slightly, between them, and underneath them, lifting each a little with her hand while pushing under against my ribs. It didn’t hurt, and though awkward, probably wouldn’t have bothered me much had it not been for the staring agent.

I was told to stay in place while she went and swabbed her gloves (for explosive material from my awesome sweater-bombs, I’m guessing), which took a couple of minutes. Then I was cleared to put on my shoes and pretend I hadn’t just been felt up in order to board a plane. In total, I’d say opting out added around 25-30 minutes. In that time, *not a single other passenger, in any of the six lines I could see, opted for the pat-down.* A man who went through the backscatter scanner at the same two-line area as me was pulled for an enhanced pat-down after, from what I overheard, he left his boarding pass in his pants pocket. If you really want the full double-screening experience, that’s how to do it.

As reported by other travelers, I did feel pressure to go through the machine by the first agent, and I was delayed by opting out of the scanner. The things that surprised me:
–no other passengers opting out or protesting going through the scanners
–the overt rudeness of the staring agent.
–how long my stuff sat out of sight.
–that if I had followed instructions to the letter (everything out of your pockets), I would have been standing on the other side of the security gates from all of my money, ID, phone, boarding pass, my shoes, my medication, everything. I was really prepared, and even then I felt incredibly vulnerable without access to my basic belongings and identification.
–the nervousness and mistakes of my screener. I was ready to deal with rudeness, with pushy agents, even with a very invasive, groping search—I was not ready to deal with feeling concern for the person doing it.
All that said, I’m glad that I did it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

Why did I do it? Although I think that most of the arguments that I’ve read and heard are valid and worthy (health concerns, that it’s a sham, questions about image storage and handling), for me it comes down to one: being strip-searched by a government agency as a condition of travel within the country violates my Fourth Amendment rights. The enhanced pat-down search on its own comes close to triggering that feeling in me, but the whole-body imaging scans step clearly over the line.

To address a few of the arguments I’ve had since returning: Yes, I feel the scanners are equivalent to a strip-search. The anonymity doesn’t matter to me—I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking my clothes off with a bag over my head in a room with a one-way mirror, either—nor is it the primary point. I have committed no crime, nor given any indication that I am likely to, so a search that renders me in any way naked with my hands held over my head while I hold perfectly still is unjust. It’s not about embarrassment or shame or what a low-level government worker might think about my body. It’s about my rights to my body, and it’s about digging my heels in when I recognize I’m on a slippery slope.

That last part is significant. While they feel great, have some effect, and I’ll continue to go when I feel like it, most of the protests or gatherings I’ve been to are groups of like-minded people in a like-minded city, yelling and waving signs to people who already agree with them (gay marriage protests in SF, anyone?). And honestly, most of my activism takes place on a virtual level: passing around infuriating links and emailing my representatives when I’m moved deeply enough. It’s something, but frequently it doesn’t feel like much of anything. This felt like something, complete with risk and an actual effect (discomforting an agent, slowing the process down, showing others you don’t have to go in). It’s not quite civil disobedience to opt for the pat-down, but it is civil inconvenience.

Regardless of where the enhanced screenings go from here, it’s going to be great to have opted out. If the whole-body scans continue, you can say you opted out in the early days. If they make them mandatory, you can rest assured you actually did something when you could. And if enough people opt out, and write real on-paper letters to the DHS and the airlines and their elected officials, and a more rational and less demeaning system is put in place, you can say that you had a part in it.

Some details on scanners and opting out

Two fabulous—and funny—posts by Jeffrey Goldberg that sparked my interest in the whole thing

Suggestions about how to file complaints from the EFF.

This is fabulous: Matt Kernan decides not to go through the backscatter or the pat-down as a condition of his leaving the airport. Worth reading the whole thing.

An interesting (and satisfyingly science-y) write-up of the potential health concerns.

And just a couple of the horror stories:

Man refuses scan and pat-down, is threatened with arrest and 10k lawsuit
Agent lets other agent know a cute girl is coming his way—in front of her father

A little searching will also give you dozens of stories of people who feel assaulted by the enhanced pat-downs.