I’m mostly over at Tumblr these days.
“When you develop inner peace, it means no matter what sort of environment you are in, your mind is calm.”
I took my daughter to see the Dalai Lama speak at WCSU today. (An unexpected bonus: Richard Gere introduced him. Richard Gere is a lot shorter than I thought he would be. I seem to say that about celebrities a lot.)
My daughter is twelve. She’s always been the kind of kid who can sit still and pay attention — I really do think much of that is nature, rather than nurture. Anyway, today was no exception.
3500 people in a gymnasium on a rainy day would have gone ugly in any other situation. But we were all there to see the foremost champion of compassion on the planet. Before the talk, my daughter and I went down to the front of the stage so that she could see what everything looked like (new glasses coming soon, but not soon enough). Several people offered to take our picture on my phone. She declined, which didn’t surprise me, but it was kind of them to offer. It was that kind of vibe, in general.
We had numbered bleacher seats. Bleacher seats are a tough seating situation after a while. I bumped the people in front of us once or twice, and apologized profusely. Personal space was just…weird, and it wasn’t like a basketball game where you’re up and down and not paying tons of attention. It was cramped, and it was quiet. There was a lot of fidgeting.
Shortly before the talk began, one of the volunteer staff (her shirt identified her as one) decided to take the seat behind me. I don’t know if she paid for it, or if she just decided to sit there. After a few minutes, unapologetically, in an environment that was otherwise quite apologetic, she dug her knees into my back. “I can’t get comfortable,” she said to me.
“Neither can I,” I said. I smiled.
The only person sitting among us who knew what that smile actually meant was my daughter. I nodded to her, trying to reassure her that no, I was not going to follow that smile with a zinger or an obscene gesture, and the talk began.
The Dalai Lama’s English is very good, but it’s also accented and sometimes imprecise — and he operates in a realm where precise language is important. He keeps a translator at his elbow to help smooth out the rough edges. Even aside from the actual talk, it was fascinating to watch how that worked, between them.
But it also required a lot of focus from the audience, and the woman behind me wasn’t having any of it. She agreed out loud, or announced that she “already knew that.” She laughed too hard and loud at things — the kind of laugh where you know it’s not genuine. She occasionally said “I CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE IS SAYING.” All at conversational tones and levels. She was the second person this week who made me realize that some people who don’t have social media, really need it — even if no one follows them.
She also sighed a lot, dug her knees into my back some more, and plopped her wet coat on the empty seat next to mine. While I couldn’t see it myself, she also apparently spent a fair amount of time staring at my daughter. (I assume she was trying to figure out why I brought her, and not wondering how someone forty years her junior could keep still better than she could.)
Personal space is a tough one for me. Nothing gets me fightier than people cranking back their airplane seats or deciding their genitals need lots of non-crushed room, or talking loudly and using my back as a legrest. I’ve never figured out exactly why — there’s nothing at all in my past that would make the hairtrigger obvious. I suspect it just has to do with overconsidering the needs of others, and not receiving the same courtesy.
But, the Dalai Lama, once in a lifetime opportunity, and so on.
And, I realized as I desperately tried to pay attention, my daughter. My daughter knows I have a temper. She knows I am a large and sometimes plainspoken woman. Most of the time, I am unapologetic for that. But today, I didn’t want her to sit there worrying that I was going to turn around and tell the woman to shut up and get her knees out of my kidneys. I wanted her to be able to pay attention to the reason we were there, too. I kept quiet, and tried to concentrate.
Then, I straightened up without thinking about it, into sitting upright rather than hunched over…right into the woman’s kneecaps. Accidentally, I swear. But hard. My daughter told me later that the woman had her knees out so far that they were nearly on my shoulders.
Every other time I bumped into someone today, I was profusely apologetic. Except for that time. I stayed sitting up. I couldn’t hunch over again. I wasn’t taking more space than was mine, and I knew it. My butt wasn’t hanging off the bleacher in the back — if anything, it was too far forward. I didn’t let up. I just sat, and kept trying to pay attention.
And it was apparently enough of a problem for the woman that she gave up. She stood up, announced to no one in particular that she was going to find another seat, and left.
The relief in the section was silent, but palpable.
On the way home, my daughter told me that she had thought about saying something to the woman herself — especially because she had a much better view of what was actually going on. But she’d had some of the same thoughts I had. We weren’t there to be bothered by an annoying woman, we were there to listen to the Dalai Lama. She said “I thought about what advice he would give us,” and I told her that I had, too.
When she told me about the staring, I told her that a good way to handle that kind of thing is to smile and say as unsarcastically as possible, “Is there something I can help you with?” I told her that sometimes people don’t realize they are staring, and that’s an indirect way to let them know.
Then we talked about how the very last thing the Dalai Lama had done before he left the stage was to walk back to the table next to his chair, and replace the cap on his water bottle.
And finally, based on science, we calculated the number of farts that were probably in the gymnasium when it was over. Answer: About 5,000.
I have a story about Theodore Roosevelt in this Presidential anthology. New installments every Tuesday through Election Day! Having read everything so far, and a few that are coming up — including the finale — you definitely want to check this out.
Fun facts about this story:
– It’s as historically accurate as I could make it. Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice really did bury a doll in the White House lawn. I spent way too much time figuring out where, and when. Check out 1903!
– A few months after Alice buried the doll, Nellie Taft did indeed have a stroke. Success! One thing I wasn’t able to pin down: What, if anything, did the Tafts do to piss Alice off so much? It’d take a fair amount of motivation for me to bury a doll in my yard, just saying.
– If you think that’s wild, you should have a look at this, and know that just about everything cool you know about Theodore Roosevelt happened after that did.
– The deadline for getting this in to our excellent editor was not long after AWP ended. Talking to other people working on their stories was a lot of fun. It was like we all had the same social studies teacher.
Here’s a confession: In my zeal and anticipation, I sometimes pre-order twice. But my consumer dysfunction is your gain!
Up for grabs: Amber Sparks’ new collection May We Shed These Human Bodies. And just for fun, I will also throw in a copy of Shut Up/Look Pretty, which includes her chapbook A Great Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World. Both are must-haves if you are an Amber Sparks fan…and really, who isn’t?
How to play: In the comments section of this post, list and link your favorite Amber Sparks story. If someone’s already chosen your favorite, link it again. No link, no contest entry. Don’t panic if it doesn’t show up right away — I moderate comments just to keep out the spambots.
I’ll do a random drawing from the entries. Be sure to provide a valid email address so that I can contact you when you win this awesome prize! Also, before anyone asks…since I’m feeling generous, I will ship to anywhere on the planet.
Contest closes: 11PM EST on Saturday, October 6. Good luck!
I’ve got a new story at matchbook! I *love* how matchbook does things — the measured frequency, the simple design, the critical thoughts. I even love their emails. I’m so happy to be a part of it.
The story is short, and so is the fun fact: There are not many lies in Plan for Wellness, and usually anything I write is full of them. In this case, the two biggest lies are the morning lemon water and the working out together.
I went to Rochester this past weekend. When I came home, autumn had started like someone flipped a switch. This is the first autumn in a while where I have been only really busy, instead of insanely busy. I’m looking forward to hay fever from crumbling leaves and maybe getting some cider from the mill down the street and drives to the grocery store that are really pretty and figuring out where the hell my sweaters are and most of all, that Hallowe’en candy smell.
This is the first fall semester in a couple of years that I’m not one of you. While it was by choice, I’m still a little wistful about it. I read your updates and your blog entries and I think about how much magic can happen in a writing class, and it makes me happy to reflect, to remember.
But there’s something I see on occasion that doesn’t make me happy. Even though I believe professors need autonomy, even though I wouldn’t dream of writing your syllabus, and even though I feel your sometimes-frustration in so many ways?
Please don’t kick “genre” fiction out of your classroom.
When I was eighteen years old, I was a good kid who had been promised good things if I kept doing what was right. I’m sure you have many of then-me in your class. In a universe where laundry and drugs are equally new and exciting and mysterious, you are the one who tells those kids if what they’re doing is right. And you have definitely forgotten what it’s like to be eighteen and not know a damn thing about anything, while having to act like you do.
What I’ve never forgotten: I spent entire semesters, even years, trying to be what I inferred to be right. Sometimes it was Funny Female Writer. Sometimes it was Recovered Catholic Memoirist. Since this was Back in the Day, sometimes it was Raymond Carver or Alice Munro. I don’t think they were horrible talk-show-worthy experiences, trying to cram myself into molds that weren’t me. All writers do this at some point. But I wish I had realized what the hell I was doing while I was doing it. I wish I had understood that my failures weren’t necessarily failures. I wish I’d been able to bring some of the stuff I secretly wrote at 2am to class. Hell, I wish I’d even thought to do it in the first place. But dystopian scifi wasn’t right, back then. End result: In grad school, I got called a dilettante when I’d been writing since I was five. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. (And clearly, that made me quit writing entirely.)
Before you say that as a professor I haven’t seen the worst of what allowing “genre” writing in the classroom has to offer: Oh yes, I have. If anything, I’ve noticed those writers, if they’re open to it, get more out of feedback than litfic writers because they’ve quietly lived alone with their work longer. Learning that your beloved must still undergo transformation to become others’ beloved is a more tender, valuable lesson than submitting character sketch after character sketch, shooting for right. And the ones who hoped for an easy A class and hand in horror? I like to think they learn more about construction by getting commentary on their stories than they would if I handed them back and told them to mimic “Cathedral” instead.
The type of feedback available to writers is the same, no matter the genre. Litfic, science fiction, fantasy, and romance can all be obtuse, inaccessible, confusing, convincing, funny, emotive, or well constructive. There’s nothing wrong with saying the worldbuilding is confusing, or the dashing prince needs a better description, or the old lady detective with sixteen cats is engaging. It can all speak to us as readers.
Right shouldn’t be about genre. It’s about craft. Writers and readers should both learn this sooner, rather than later.
Best wishes for a fantastic semester,
(A reminder: I update much more briefly, much more often, at tumblr. That’s where I note things that will undoubtedly show up in my work somewhere later, talk about stuff like the whole Stop Being Mean thing that ran around in circles this summer, and occasionally other random crap that probably should’ve gone here instead. You can add a tumblr to your feed reader like any other blog, by the way. To date, my entries have had no thirteen year old girls staring blankly into a webcam. Of course now that I’ve said that, watch.)
These last few months will forever be known as The Summer I Should Have Gone To A Conference, Thereby Ditching A Fair Amount of Cynicism. Now that cynicism is Homer Simpson’s sandwich, and also why my commentary on Being Mean ended up on tumblr instead of here.
There are lots of updates in my social media feeds talking about syllabi and meetings and administrative nonsense and brilliant, wonderful students. I miss teaching, I want to get back to it, but right now I don’t ache when I read those updates. Hurray for correct decisions made six months ago.
I’m looking forward to the Junot Diaz collection. Something about his writing clicks with me, in a very specific way that I still can’t fully articulate. It’s like sitting down to read a letter from an old friend, which makes less sense every time I think about it. But that’s still how it feels.
Things I did this summer in lieu of a conference or cynicism removal: Ate a Connecticut style lobster roll. Taught my daughter how to make coffee and drain tofu shirataki so that it’s not stinky or gummy. Abused the ERMAHGERD meme, and Gangnam Style. Watched many, many Gordon Ramsay television shows, visited East Aurora, NY for the first time and bought a teeny tiny harmonica.
Something else I did this summer: I got out my legal pad (where my organizational skills, such as they are, end up) and my USB drive. It turns out I have 54 stories that can be loosely grouped into five categories. Six more stories (or 14 fewer) and I can be Donald Barthelme! Four of the categories have twelve stories each. Category #5? Fanfiction. Yep.
1. I’ve been thinking about this article a lot, because it gets closer to the heart of how I came to dislike Facebook than anything else I’ve read.
2. There are plenty of people who do what Bernstein describes, but on Twitter — sometimes even more obnoxiously. But I find it easier to deal with there, because Twitter is always fleeting. Twitter doesn’t throw the same posts up all day long. It doesn’t show me “likes,” or comments from people I don’t follow. If I want to follow a conversation on Twitter, and sometimes I do, I can. But I don’t have to.
2a. While this is technically true of Facebook, it’s also much more cumbersome.
3. I do the sorts of things the article describes. My last two Facebook posts were pimping an issue of a litmag in which I had some work, and a wedding anniversary photo.
3a. In general, I post things that I like to see from others. I want to know when you have a story or a book or a project out. I like nostalgia photos. I like interesting links. The only reason I don’t post interesting links much anymore is that I follow the same feeds you do, and I assume we see them there at the same time.
3a.1. I really like Spotify. I like to see what music other people listen to.
3b. There are lots of things that I don’t post on Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t post when my mom died, even though she herself was a Facebook user, because likes and comments weren’t what I needed at the time. The biggest non-post this summer was when my husband found a new job. He knew that I probably wouldn’t post it, but he asked me not to anyway.
3b.1.i If you had asked me in 1995 if I considered myself a private person, I would have said no. I do now. I don’t think my level of disclosure is that different.
3b.1.ii The whole notion of story ownership has changed so much in the last decade.
3c. I don’t say all of this because I think my approach is right or wrong. A lot of what I don’t think is okay, especially for myself, is actually okay.
4. The use of best (family member) ever! has always bothered me in the same way that the term won/lost the battle with cancer bothers me. I understand that neither is intended to be exclusive — others’ partners and kids aren’t mediocre, someone who dies from cancer isn’t a loser. But it wouldn’t take much to actually eliminate the exclusivity in the execution, would it? Nor would it take away from the actual sentiment. Why even introduce the unintended thought?
4a. My sixtysomething father closed his Facebook account a couple of years ago, even though he regularly gets urged to jump back in. He told me that he felt that commenting on everything that everyone presented was the polite thing to do, but Facebook makes that an impossible, daunting task.
4b. My father and I, like many people, overthink Facebook.
5. I liked this line of the article:
In a society of unrelenting competition—where reality-show contestants duke it out for the approval of aging celebrities and pastors have publicists—is it any wonder we market ourselves relentlessly?
5a. Creative types have to work this on more than one front. Get the balance wrong, invite criticism. And, of course, everyone has different ideas about what that balance should be.
5a.1. My online persona takes criticism because I tend to post things that amuse me but not necessarily anyone else. I navelgaze far too often.
5a.2. I criticize online personae who never seem to be genuinely self-deprecating. (To be fair, I do this offline as well.) Shock value for shock value’s sake bores the shit out of me.
5a.2.i. Online personae who seem to operate in a vacuum bother me less, because I know the rest of the Internet will make short work of those, favorably or unfavorably.
5a.2.ii. “Personae” is really affected. Sorry about that.
5b. Self-marketing is tiring. Staying classy, at least for me, is tiring. Thinking about all this crap is tiring. And I should be working on the stuff I will eventually have to promote online. So…
5c. Here is the tl;dr!! This article won’t change how I interact with Facebook. What’s more likely to change that is SongPop. I’m pretty good at SongPop. In order to play SongPop, I visit Facebook. Every time I visit Facebook, I take a minute or two to scroll down the main feed. I like things, I comment sometimes. I miss things entirely, because Facebook doesn’t quite understand how I use Facebook. Then I play SongPop.
The twists and turns of Internet evolution have resulted in my spending most of my LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT ONLINE THINGS time at Tumblr lately.
I think this is probably because I now have the relatively idiot-proof Tumblr app on my phone.
Anyway, come visit!
Things that are time-consuming, but extremely boring to others, going on here. It’s not even one of those situations where there’s a potentially Cool Outcome that I hint about now, and officially announce on Facebook two weeks from now. (Even if it was…I can’t be the only one who finds that shit annoying.)
A storytelling project on Facebook. (Trigger notice: Star Trek)
I get asked sometimes why I prefer Twitter to Facebook. Some of it is because I try to hold to this ideal.
And finally: Charity shop monster paintings.