augmented personalities

There are, obviously, those who bring out the best in you.

My former boss is one such person. She is the most upbeat human I know—and not in a superfluously perky or absurdist way. She can be telling you about her mom’s slow miserable death from cancer, but she’ll tell it in a way that makes it clear people were lucky to have known her mom, and that you in turn are lucky to have known someone who knew her mom. Not because her mom moved mountains, but she just emphasizes the positive in her mom’s life—even in those horrible last days where she couldn’t speak or move more than her hands and face—to the point where you’re alternately thinking “damn that woman has guts, dredging up memories like this” and “if I have to go I hope I go with that much grace.” My former boss drops that word into conversation occasionally, without a religious context, and like a struck bell, it clears out a space for the important things in a life. Here is a woman who has seen enough grace to know to value it. Talking to her, you’re pretty sure you’d better get a handle on that, too.

There are those, though, that bring out the worst in you. For fractious people like me they can be harder to spot, easily confused for people with whom you just end up disagreeing a lot. But that is not the defining factor. Friends of ours have this effect on us—on both of us, we agree. I’ve mentioned people who are black holes before—they number among them. What they want to talk about, always, is how things have gone sour for something or someone in their lives. Whether it’s a mutual friend who is marrying a girl they find boring, or a political movement gone awry, or a social group whose clothes or music or habits they’ve chosen to vilify that week, the talk is always negative. But it demands response and engagement, such that you realize all you’re saying in return—indeed, all you’re preparing to say as you set out to meet these people at a given venue—is negative. What has gone wrong in the world since you last spoke? Who has suffered or been made a fool of? What can you sneer at together, then wrack your brains over later, alone, trying to figure out why it felt so necessary to take such a harsh interest in earlier?

I don’t think it’s any secret that you want to minimize the ranks of the second kind of people in your life, and maximize the first. You could speak of balance, but I have little desire to populate my social sphere with those whom I know cause me to enter these spirals of negativity. I think here of playing SimPark as a child—population management, predator control, the need for slaughter amongst the delicate hoofed creatures of the wild. 

But my life is not a national forest, and if you prey on positive feeling—on happiness—you will be removed from the premises, as hastily as I can hustle you to the gates. 

Once that’s done I can resume my anxious tread through the brambles—breath suspended, feet agonizing over the possibility of cracked twigs, hoping that in some pocket of the wilderness I’ll stumble onto the sudden clearing, the raised horns, the placid amber gaze that shrinks you into someone who knew only wonder, once.


A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”


I now have a full-time job.

I have been trying to get a full-time job for a year.

I am still learning how not to be worried all the time.

I try to explain to people what a huge deal it is that I now have this job, and they cut me off with congratulations. Perhaps the realities of my financial situation embarrass them. Perhaps it is not kosher to discuss these things; I don’t know. Usually I am surrounded by people of around my same level of monetary means. But I have given up trying to explain to them its awesomeness, because I am still coming to grips with it myself.

I can now walk through the Asian section of the library without my stomach clenching with guilt. The books that surround me don’t hearken back to something I failed at; something I should have made a career out of—now they just recall something I tried once and didn’t like, and from which I am allowed to move on, now.

I can carry the teapot back from the water fountain and sail in the doorway and not writhe at the thought that this is the 50th or 4th or 2nd-to-last time I’ll be able to move in this space I know and like, full of people I know and like, with the confidence that comes from long familiarity. Worry over the impending end of my various jobs (though unrelated, all the contracts ended at the same time this summer) was a constant companion. Worry over something has always been my constant companion. Worry over these jobs, over combative graduate students, over everything in Japan from nationalist old men to swine flu; and before that, worry over what to do after undergraduate, what to study during undergraduate, how to pass calculus in high school, because I wasn’t, and when my calculus teacher refused to give me my grade, saying “It would just depress you,” I fell apart and stood in front of her desk bawling. I who don’t even like to grow misty-eyed in front of blood relatives.

Before the final interview, my left eye—always my indicator of stress—swelled up red and painful. It is now at peace. The rest of me is still learning how not to be constantly worried. How to be calm with the knowledge that if I am run over by a car—as has happened before—or if I contract a blood infection from something as simple as a scraped hand—as has happened before—there will be a safety net for me. And for those I love. We’ll have health insurance.

I can breathe again.

being neighborly

At 2:20 last night I lay awake in bed listening to a woman lose her mind.

I heard her huge, gaspy sobs. I heard her running up and down the street and, it sounded like, into and out of the intersection by our corner lot. I heard a group of men—at least three of them—make catcalls at her and swoop in for a closer confrontation than seemed advisable. I prepared to grab the fire extinguisher, bark a warning to my husband (he’d try to stop me, if he knew beforehand, and probably get himself hurt), and launch myself into the front yard at this point, because even if this lady was tripping on the bath salts those guys in the South were on, I’d rather have my face eaten off than know I sat safe and warm in my bed and just listened as someone got raped. But before the men got much closer the woman howled and did something and the men took off screaming “crazy bitch!”

It continued for ten minutes. She alternated between sobbing and screaming, the only part of which I could make out was “LET ME IN!” At one point a single male, perhaps in his thirties and perhaps in a vehicle but probably walking, asked her “Are you okay?” Like the last encounter, this one occurred right in front of our house, and as much as you can trust tones of voice heard through a bedroom window (perhaps not much?) he seemed genuinely concerned. “I’m fine!” snarled the woman, and the exchange ended. 

I think she ran away, eventually. I don’t think she made it into the halfway house two doors down from us, which is where I assume she was trying to go. I don’t know if she was actually locked out or imagining it, since some of her later demands of the night were along the lines of “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and there wasn’t a soul out there. 

“Are you awake?” I asked the darkness at one point, when she had run off to the far side of the intersection.


“Do you think she’s actually locked out?”

“Maybe.” We listened to her keening from across the street. “I haven’t heard anything yet that you can call for help for though.”

Paramedics are always at that house. At least once a week. But there’s also a lot of meltdowns that occur over there that don’t involve paramedics, and I don’t know where they draw the line. At one point she did scream that she was going to kill herself, and I think you could probably call based on that. Maybe my husband was asleep for that part. I listened when cars passed, to see if she was throwing herself in front of them, at which point yes, you’ve got to do something. Had I been less sleep-fuzzed in my thinking, maybe that would have dawned on me. Maybe the threat is enough. But the fits that occur at the house nearby tend to run their course, and my concern was less for her psychotic or drug-induced episode than for the advantage other people might take of her in the state she was in. 

I probably should have called someone.

I was remembering, too, how in Infinite Jest, there’s a strike system, and if you lose your shit too many times; if the authorities get called on your behalf too many times, you’re out. Your chance at redemption is gone. And there is no way the people in that halfway house couldn’t hear her raging out there. Absolutely no way. So if they weren’t letting her in, there had to be a reason. There’s always someone in charge—someone on duty—and if they weren’t calling someone, or acknowledging her in any way, there had to be a reason.

Maybe I am just telling myself this to feel less guilty.

I hope if there were drugs in her they left her system, or that she got the meds she needed if she needed them. Listening to her, I thought of all the solipsistic moaning I did in Japan, and all the people I know here who talk about having it rough, and thought, we don’t know the first thing about it. Not the first goddamn thing.

guarded is the new pink

I am not, socially, a Hammurabian.

Most people are. Most people my age, anyway. There seems to be this belief that because you dump your political beliefs in my lap, or your deepest secrets, or your sexual history, that I should in turn do the same to you.

Um, no thank you.

I signed off on nothing to receive this report on your intimate workings. In nine out of ten cases, I did nothing to encourage it. This is a conscious move. The less I know about what really makes you tick, the less I can be disappointed in it. Because let’s face it—most of us are disappointingly mundane when it comes to our inner workings. Not that beautiful or moving traits shared by millions are any less beautiful or moving for the sharing, but I can count on one hand the only people whose inner awesomeness I really need confirmed in my heart of hearts. Everyone else can be assumed to be much more interesting, or deep, or thoughtful, the less you know about them.

If this sounds vague, let me give an example. When people start the political conversation with you, unloading their views on you like a dump truck full of gravel, they do not want precisely that in return. What they give you is a laundry list of stances they either agree or disagree with. What they want from you, minus perhaps a few highlights from that list, is a label. Are you a liberal? A libertarian? That is what they want. 

I hate labels. After academia, labels are probably what I rant about most on this blog. Labels do violence to the people they are employed to describe. They oversimplify and eliminate, as far as society is concerned, the need for narrative—and I am in no way a proponent of the elimination of narrative. You want to know what I think and why, you don’t get a goddamn bullet point. You get a story. Because stories are everything.

But because they are everything, they have power. And I don’t want to just hand that power out to people. Friends of friends of friends have no need to know why I will lay into you like a rabid bear if you start off on your crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories anywhere near me. Passing acquaintances have no place knowing what I find attractive in a person, or why. You have no right to those stories—and they are indeed stories. Probably you would have no interest in them once you attain them, but occasionally you meet people who latch onto things and remember them, and who then think they can label you as a result. Perhaps if I were better at reading people I could be more generous with my storytelling, weeding out the labelers from the genuinely interested and/or politely disinterested, but I’m not. I err on the side of caution, then, and avoid what a German teacher of mine once proclaimed to be Americans’ embarrassing tendency to overshare.

You can spill your guts to me all you want, but if you’re expecting me to share back, before I’ve gone through hell with you, or have any other reason to believe you really give a damn about who I am or what I think…forget it.

sit your ass down in that chair and write, boy


Now that that’s out of the way: men need to man up and fucking write.

I’ve bitched before about the legions of would-be Hemingways and Keroaucs that surround me here. I’m not doing that now. I’m not doing that now because as much misogynistic overhyped crap that is heaped at the feet of those two, at least they had the balls to sit their asses down and fucking write. You don’t even get to be scoffed at as some cringing little would-be Kerouac if you can’t put a goddamn pen to paper and produce more than a paragraph before calling it quits. Are you actually giving me the inspiration line? The “waiting for my muse” line? Does this look like Verona to you? Are you a goddamn bard?

The female writers I know do not have this problem. Sure, their descriptions may be flat and their plots nonexistent and they may have the diction of fourth graders, but they WRITE A WHOLE GODDAMN LOT. Novels. The plural of novel. As in, multiple novels. Are you hearing that, guys? You don’t get to write a few half-assed sentences, call yourself an auteur then wander off to play with yourself. You’ve got to fucking work. Writing is work. Anything worth doing is work. 

Sit your ass down and work, motherfuckers.