Saturday, April 23, 2011

history lesson #2: letters to the editor

in a strange sort of way, being younger than everyone else in my grade shielded me from taunts and bullying. i'm not sure if it was pity, protectionism, or the fact that i didn't pick up on a lot of it, but my K-12 education was blissfully devoid of angst. i was happy. thrilled beyond belief. when i got to college, i was barely seventeen and totally unprepared for the idea that anyone would ever really think i was worthy of ridicule.

and then i found myself at a school where… well, to call the student body conservative is an insult to the term conservative. these kids and i did NOT see eye to eye on anything, except our deep, abiding love of alcohol, that is. but i was undeterred. every school needs a liberal op-ed columnist, right? well, i'll handle that. no biggie. i called my column blows against the empire, just like the true believer would. there's no fervor like that of a pure-hearted teenager, and i wrote beautiful tirades against the conventional wisdom of the school.

by the time spring semester rolled around, my reputation was known far and wide across the tiny mountain school. so when not one, but two, smarmy little right-wing jerks, thinking themselves the second coming of p.j. o'rourke or something, decided to unleash in the papers, i took my righteous fury and wrote letters. it was march, and i was heated. one of them made a "joke" about the openly gay student body president; i took him to task for it. the other said something jerky about women and subservience. he also felt my pen's wrath.

so when the april fool's day issue of the paper came out, there was a fake letter, with a bastardization of my name, chocked with all those trite "silly libs" jokes that fox news has since made household standards. if i saw that now, i'd probably roll my eyes and laugh. but at seventeen? i lost it. i was already on emotional tenterhooks in that place as it was. i was not academically successful relative to my peers, and i was about 70% of the way through my first real nervous breakdown (events alluded to here). so this was the final straw. i fled to the stairwell of the boyfriend's dorm and cried my eyes out.

from there, it was all downhill. some prick started prank-calling me in my dorm room, for god's sake. one night in early april, when the prankster called again, i screamed something incoherent into the phone and took off walking. i stalked, barefoot, up a hill, across the entire campus, to the decades-old ruins of the original building. we'd had orientation up there, and that's where i met the boy who would become the ex. somewhere along the way, the boyfriend caught up to me, shepherding me on my march. we laid down on the grass, covered in dew, and i turned to him and said:

i am not coming back here next year.

i finished the semester, transferred back home and moved on with my life. that ridicule wasn't what pushed me into my semester of darkness. honestly, i was already there. i was in way over my head. but it was, in a weird way, the final slap of self-preservation that sent me towards bigger and better things. somewhere deep down inside me, i knew i wasn't cut out for that place. no amount of sass and charm could change the fact that i had chosen just flat-out wrong.

so even though it hurt to be bullied like that, it ended up being a great gift. not in that cheesy christina aguilera "my enemies made me a fighter!" way, mind you. they weren't really enemies; i did not become a fighter. i already was a fighter. no, what i saw, for the first of many times in the intervening years, is that some battles are won only by living to fight another day. i learned to survive through retreat, and a stupid april fool's joke taught me that.

Friday, April 22, 2011

epistle #2: ophelia

[another letter i'll never send...]

dear ophelia:

it's not like i didn't try. i did, more than you could ever have known. i mean, i felt like i owed it to you not to give up. loyalty was something you prized above all else, and i understand that better than most. but at some point, it's just not worth it. there came a point when you were just not there anymore. and it's not like i begrudge you the stressors in your life. again, no one else understands what it's like to watch your mother slip away from you, while you stand powerless to do anything, like i do. but instead of accepting my hand, you slapped it away.

'course, the distance started long before this, i guess. you never really forgave me for getting out, for having the courage you never could have. you stuck it out, and on some levels it was easy for you. we suffered the same slings and arrows there, you and i. and at first, we managed it the same way - as destructively as possible. but i woke up. i smacked myself into a form of reality and got over the troubles. you, on the other hand, got addicted to the darkness. patton oswalt said, there's a chilly thrill in moving with the herd while quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated and unknown. we both fell for the seduction of depression as glamour. but the difference between us is, i realized that it was a glamour, in the old witchcraft sense of the word. y'know, a swindle, a lie, a joke. there's nothing sexy or special about being miserable.

but i could even deal with that. i could understand that. it was the paranoid delusion that pushed me over the edge. you just flat-out lost touch with reality. every small slight became a gigantic cosmic sign that THEY were out to get you, eh? you just could not see what you'd become. i remember the last time i saw you, how happy i was and how… miserable, i guess, you were. it was so hard to watch. i tried to stay with you, be your friend. hell, you stood up for me when i married the ex. the three of us were so melded together. but you sliced us off like a moldy patch when you felt "betrayed" by us.

and what was our crime? to indicate to you that you lived in a world that did not exist. i think my final sin against you was to root for a different baseball team. it's like that old twilight zone where the embittered old movie star, once a young ingenue but now well past her prime, was so trapped in her reverie that she actually willed her delusion to exist. she literally ascended into the supposed heaven of her former glory, abandoning those "killjoys" who kept trying to tether her to the painful ways of the real world. if it were possible, you would do that in a heartbeat, i know.

but you've done the next best thing, haven't you? you just cast people aside, into perdition, when they violate your unspoken code. and if that's the way you want it, that's the way you'll get it. you kinda hurt me. but really, the reason i'm sad to see you fade into the mists of my past is that it didn't have to happen this way. you didn't have to wade into that water, letting the weight of your finery drag you into the depths. but you were too far gone, too deep into your own vision. so here i sit, waving my hands, watching you drown.

i tried to help. but i can't work miracles. goodbye, ophelia.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

opposites attract

i am serious. i mean, i have a silly streak a mile wide. this isn't a deeply-guarded secret, especially to those who know me in the flesh. but i am, fundamentally, a rather serious person. i hear this a lot from certain people in my life, one in particular. you're very serious. you are a serious woman. you take things very seriously. ad infinitum, ad astram, forever and ever amen. he, on the other hand, is a comic of the highest caliber, able to take anything and craft a joke around it. if you ever need the perfect quote for a given situation, provided you don't mind the source being late-1980s through late-1990s popular culture, he's your man.

i plan. i keep a calendar in digital form and one in analog form. i like to know what's going to happen in the future, especially now that the future is all sparkly and full of promise, butterflies and cotton candy. i don't really do surprises, at least not on a grand scale. i was once given a surprise party, and while i could - and did - appreciate the sentiment, my first thought was, i'd have dressed better if i knew you were all going to be here. i like preparation, being ready for anything. you think i'm high-strung and neurotic, i say to him. not neurotic. just a little straitlaced. he continued, you think i'm cavalier to the point of being ridiculous. you're not ridiculous, love. but he is cavalier. he likes spur of the moment things. he gets a wild hair to go do something, just for the hell of it. there's a thrill in that, to be sure; i just can't do it every day.

for two people who should ostensibly know each other inside and out, we come up with these diametric oppositions sometimes. part of it is the fact that i have changed DRAMATICALLY over the past few years. i've gone from the nutty baby sister role to the calm, serious lawyer in the family dynamic that is my circle. and it's not like we're that different. we're liberals. we're atheists. we're SEC and saints fans. we have the same weird, twisted senses of humor, and we both get annoyed with the same dumb things. (and that's just the pack of similarities i can discuss in public; propriety, and the desire not to give you all sugar overload with the sweet stuff, limit the rest to my private mind.)

but i see threads in his tapestry that would never be a part of mine. he loves the fact that i'm willing to be the life of the party. i love the fact that he never, ever lets things get too far under his skin. he loves how i'm ready to handle any situation that comes along. i love how he can always help me see things through the right lens, and that it might not be that bad after all. so maybe it's not an opposition. maybe it's a complement to each other. apart, we're both pretty interesting people. together? we are unstoppable. the strengths in him balance the weaknesses in me, and vice versa.

now if i could just get him to commit to a vacation this summer... :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

shine on you crazy diamond

[buckle up. we're going fictional today.]

the way home never changes: on the train, thirty minutes. off the train, through the park, across the street and through the parking lot. seven minutes' walk, eight if you have to wait through the light. but on nights like this, when you're suddenly confronted with the destruction of the dreams of your past, it takes on a sinister cast. odd what triggers the bad humors, but such is life, you guess.

on the train at night, they're all paired up. friends leaving happy hour. couples, warm and happy in each other's arms. they're happy, redolent in the glow of comfort and joy. and it's not even that you don't have someone. you do. but you have a boyfriend, a term that rings with the casual immaturity of the looseness of the arrangement. a boyfriend is a recreation. hell, most men seem to love being someone's boyfriend. they love to fuck; they hate the work that goes with it. and what's the supposed work, that onerous test that prompts them to say man, women don't want you to have ANY fun without them? being there. just being around, being present. yeah. such a task.

the darkness feeds the annoyance, nurturing it, talking sweet to it. you can grow strong, turn into the seething storm of anger i always knew you could be. when he kisses her on the platform right in front of you, you have to swallow hard to choke back the sudden spike of rage and hurt. you're part of a pair, in a way, but not the way it used to be. in a way, that makes it worse. better partner; looser bond. it's a double cheat, like living down south was. you got all the problems of a small town and all the problems of a big city, with the charm of neither. same deal: you could call him, but you don't really have the right to do it.

so you get mad. you get mad at him for not being there. you get mad at yourself for getting mad at him. the spiral tightens and you seethe. a clutch of words from an old joni mitchell song, you love your lovin', but not like you love your freedom, drift through your head, and as your darkness attributes those lines to your man, you clench your fists. as he sits blissfully in his living room, watching baseball and laughing with his friends, you walk through the park in the dark alone and blame him for... what, exactly? you don't even know.

this inhuman place makes human monsters. great line from a great book. that creepy hotel and its ghosts dug into jack torrance's brain and warped him, twisted him, made him the specter that ruined him and nearly ruined his family. one of your favorite books, that one (we won't talk about the scenery-chewing monstrosity that is the jack nicholson movie of the same name). and somewhere in your heart, you feel a cold, creeping kinship with the tortured dry-drunk writer and his struggles.

yes, you've been known in your time to become a sort of monster yourself. but the inhuman place that makes you that way? it's nothing external. there's no gothic hotel, just the corners of your less than benevolent mind. there's no red death to hold sway over all. you don't wield a roque mallet against others; you wield your own thoughts against yourself. you are your mother's daughter, aren't you? the glittering brilliance of your good humor disguises dark, swirling currents, like sunshine sparkling on the surface of a roaring, rushing river. you injure when you plunge this low. unmask. unmask.

this too shall pass, you think, as you silently curse the man who loves you for failing to read your mind, to shine into you and save you from yourself. i just can't win. you and jack, siblings in arms, a couple of broken talents flailing to hang on to some scrap of reality when the ghosts close in. it's not murder - REDRUM - it's suicide. you could never do to others what the monster bids you to do to yourself. that's what makes you a socially acceptable monster. but you open the front door, move to your room, shower, change and lay down in your bed alone. the dam holds, and you sleep. tonight, anyway.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


it's 3 AM, i'm awake and my heart's still dreamin'...

when you're an inveterate insomniac like i am, you're given to rumination while the rest of the world slumbers peacefully away. i think the fact that i spend so much time awake and contemplating my navel explains how i came to be a writer, and also how i developed my style. i write to y'all as if we're sitting at the coffee shop together, talking about things. i also write in my analog journal as if it's a friend. you won't believe what i've done now, journal. it's only crazy if you expect an answer. a lot of y'all are bloggers/writers/etc. yourselves. you understand this disease better than most, i think.

sometimes this is work
and don't you know sometimes this is play
sometimes you're listening to me
sometimes, you don't hear a damn word that i say

writing, for yourself or for others, is a different enterprise than talking to people in real life. that's why i often resort to writing out big important statements i have to make in my life and submitting them to their intended audience in writing. when i left the ex, i did so in a carefully crafted seven-page handwritten letter, one that took me three drafts and several hours to compose. but i made my case one hundred times more clearly than i could've if i'd had to contend with nerves, speaking to him in the face. some call it cowardice; i call it clarity. when you take a step that momentous, precision and accuracy are the most important possible things.

sometimes, writing something down is the only way to make damn sure someone gets the message. i can talk to someone about some subjects until i'm blue in the face, and the words just become a wall of noise that washes over him. he gets the idea, but he tunes me out. not out of malice; he just doesn't believe in words past a certain point. he's a man of action. i have grown to appreciate that about him, and to learn to look for what he's telling me in other ways. but asking me to stop using so many words would be tantamount to asking me to stop using so much oxygen.

but i'll keep chasing my dreams
and only you can make them real
i pour my heart out every night
but do you know the way that i feel?

so i write to him. sometimes i write to him directly; other times, i write to him here, knowing he won't really see it. (he only reads when i show him specific things.) in the rarest of times, i commit the words to my analog journal, in the age-old ritual of pen to paper. i feel, big and broad, all the time. writing gets it out, manages the feelings, turns the intangible into the tangible. i make damn sure i'm heard, even if it's just in the security of my notebooks. maybe it's a control thing, but i want it made crystal clear exactly how i feel. lucky for me, i've got the tools to make it happen.

Monday, April 18, 2011

history lesson #1: silent all these years

[i'm starting a new series, to go along with my letter series and the occasional throwback. i'm going to look back at trigger events, watersheds, and examine them for what they were to me. call them history lessons: the events that built me.]

'cause sometimes, i said sometimes, i hear my voice 
and it's been here silent all these years

the further away i get from the wilderness years, the more i marvel at how, frankly, i absolutely sold myself down the river. i really, truly did. i made some decision somewhere down the line that all the things that made me, well, me were no longer important. what was important? what other people wanted, what they needed. it wasn't a pressure thing, to my recollection. i don't remember anyone telling me bad things about the way i was or anything. i just cast in my lot with a lifestyle, an ethos, that had no relation to the way i'd lived for my entire life up to that moment.

years go by; will i still be waiting for somebody else to understand?

and then one day, i woke up and realized how far off the rails everything had spun. i was nearly thirty (though a lot further from it than i am today), and who the hell was i? i mean, really? i did not have an answer to that question that didn't involve my relation to someone else, something else. to think that a strong, brilliant girl had morphed into a young woman who wielded bravado to cover quavering insecurities… well, i could hardly bear it. and i felt alone, alone, alone. how could i have been so goddamned stupid?

i've been here, silent all these years
silent all these years
silent all these years…

i really thought the old me, the confident me, the self-assured me, was dead and buried forever. i thought i had no options other than to lose myself in the new identity i'd crafted, the epitome of the gilded cage.

and then came the hurricane.

gustav took a lot from a ton of people. but it gave me something. there's no grand irony in the storm itself (y'know, how the root word of katrina is cleansing or something like that). but what there was for me was the realization that many, many things were broken. it was time to start fixing things. and in the reclamation process, as i pulled tree limbs off the caved-in remnants of my free-girl heart, i saw that the shreds of that dream were far from dead. the pieces of my old spirit glinted out at me from the wreckage of the dream like long-lost friends. hey! it's you! man, have we missed you. just because i packed them in a box, high on a shelf in the back, so that i could… do whatever it is i did in my early and mid-twenties, did not mean they were dead. they were in there.

i was in there, silent all those years.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

organic patriotism

[jessica, this one's for you.]

so apparently there's a soccer team in portland, oregon. i guess that makes sense. portland's a fun, chill, liberal town with athletic types in it, from what i've seen of it. now, i really could not give a damn about soccer. as much as i love sports of all kinds, i just can't get down with it. it bores the hell out of me. run, run, run, run, kick, run, fall down for some reason, run, maybe score, run, and then out of nowhere, there are between two and five mystery minutes added to each half for no apparent reason. it makes no damn sense.

but leaving that aside, the timbers did something cool to open their home season, something i'd never seen before. instead of trucking out some d-list celebrity, tweenage pageant queen or american idol castoff to butcher - er, honor america with the national anthem, they had the crowd sing it. 22,000 people in unison, enthusiastically and boisterously belting out our nation's theme song? man. i had chills watching it. usually, it's just a perfunctory thing when they sing the anthem in public, often augmented with totally unnecessary jingoistic macho. you don't really feel connected to it. but this? good grief. i loved every second of it. made me especially proud to be an american.

so you can imagine my SHOCK when veteran sportswriter bob ryan chose not to embrace this display when it came up on around the horn on friday. in fact, he lost his freaking mind. it's a joke. it's a civic joke. the people of portland PLANNED this. it wasn't patriotic. every other panelist loved it. even crazy woody paige said it was patriotic. tony reali, the host, is visibly shocked in the video when ryan snapped. basically, bob ryan accused the entire city of portland of mocking the national anthem, and by extension patriotism. look. crotchety old dudes will be crotchety old dudes. this is understood. but to accuse an entire city, especially one known for its pervasive liberalism, of being anti-patriotic, mocking america, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? unacceptable. watch the video and see for yourself.

i can think of only one other instance in my life when the anthem hit me like this one did. y'all of course remember september 11, and undoubtedly remember the dull, numb shock that we were all wrapped in for days thereafter. i was twenty years old, a senior in undergrad. through the fog of the general tragedy, though, came the sharp, acute pain of losing a friend, a guy two years older than us who worked at cantor fitzgerald. everything shut down that weekend, including college and pro sports. however, our tiny little mountain school decided to go ahead with that saturday's game. normally, next to no one ever went to games; division III football is nothing to write home about. but the entire school dressed in its finest and filled that stadium that day. we all wore black ribbons in honor of our dead friend. i will never forget how, in the words of bruce springsteen, the sky was still that same unbelievable blue that it always is in the mountains of virginia in september. usually, at these games, the anthem was a canned marching band, fwonking away the notes of the song. meh. but that day, all 2,000 people in that crowd, arms wrapped around each other, tears streaking down our faces, belted every note as if it was the last thing we'd ever do. the roar that went up from that crowd echoed off of the blue ridge and reverberated through every inch of that town.

so to say that a crowd's boisterous enthusiasm is a civic joke rubs me 100% the wrong way. to read anything other than love and joy into that demonstration is to hold a view of the world that's dangerously cynical. or more insidiously, it's to assume that liberals can't be patriotic. ever. and that is WELL beyond the pale. bob ryan? you're a jerk. look at that video one last time and tell me that's not love. that crowd is the living embodiment of patriotism, organically grown.