homecoming

I’m home amongst the legions of others who are home now and I find Close Range on the shelf–the shelf that gapes wide and open like a gap-toothed old man, now, what with the predations of either my sister stealing books or my mother pressing books on me because you should take it, just take it, when you get to this stage in life things don’t matter to you so much and I want you to take it–and I pick it up and read the first story.

And I remember not liking Annie Proulx when young; I read The Shipping News when twelve or thirteen and hated it–hated all adults living shitty lives I viewed them as too infantile to rise up to and change–but I know I read some of her short stories too despite my disdain. At least one or two were required of me–on a standardized test and in a classroom. I can remember having to fill out a multiple-choice question asking “based on the context, which of the following best describes how the word ‘moony’ is being used here?”

But I also know I read the stories, some of them anyway, because here, this first one, “The Half-Skinned Steer”–I riffed off it for a short story that got me the attention I always craved as a teenager; got people yammering about me being good at this or that and that’s always what I wanted to hear. I used brothers and the West and and abusive alcoholic father, but I kept the boys alive and the mother alive enough for memory and made it be a rumination on the destruction wrought in all their lives by this man now dead, whom they were being called back to honor now. I named it after a colloquialism for parhelia, which again I’d never seen on the soft eastern coast. But I did all this despite, again, not liking Annie Proulx and not enjoying the stories I read of hers, whether short or long.

I tried to explain this recently to a poet friend. When young, I understood real ugliness, the acknowledgment that it exists and that it touches a lot of people even if it spared me, as a stamp in the passport to adulthood. The women writers I read who were taken seriously had all been, or had known and then written about, other women who’d been raped or beaten or had psychological warfare waged against them for years by people too close to them; people who the school counselors with their syrupy abuse presentations and the doe-eyed actors playing concerned hollywood teachers assured us should never be so close to us. But I understood that most people had real ugliness coiling in their life like a snake, and sometimes they trod on it and it struck out and sank its fangs into them and the poison creeped there for years, festering. Even the happy-seeming adults I admired seemed to know this. So I put it in stories hoping to be treated as an adult, and not to be bothered with the idiotic concerns assigned to people my age: the humdrum list of characteristics all-important to silly movies about high school. And it worked. I was treated like I knew something, if not maybe the most important thing which was that those happy-seeming adults I admired didn’t know about that dark thing coiled waiting in everyone’s life from just adequately paraphrased stories. They’d trod on it too.

How do you know when there’s enough of anything? What trips the lever that snaps up the STOP sign? What electrical currents fizz and crackle in the brain to shape the decision to quit a place?

This time of year–especially even tonight, with the apparent tradition of going out with old friends in the old haunts and getting wasted–a lot of people probably drift through familiar places they quit, simmering just beneath their surfaces with either bitterness or nostalgia. This corner reminds them of being chased home by hooting bullies; the old school reminds them of some pimply-faced boy they let fumble with their breasts because no one had taught them to say no and mean it. Or nostalgia: ┬áthis was the field where I performed that impossible feat of athletic prowess and saved the day and everyone loved me; this was the place we stood when we kissed for the first time. These themes are widely explored in books, movies, music. These are accepted and well-rehearsed reasons to leave.

But another, more quiet, less-interesting reason to have quit a place is simply to have done what you came to do. Read the books and brushed off the bullies and shied away from the methheads and garnered the praise and affection necessary to survive and move on–and to have moved on. To have realized that just because you haven’t frantically cobbled together all the experiences you think add up to an adult in this one place isn’t failure–it’s fluidity. A necessary fluidity you will have to call on the rest of your life because the adults you know who don’t bend when called on for it, snap like branches in winter. And then they fester, and set about seeding that ugliness you read about into other people’s lives.

Before I even recognized the shape of the story, I knew I had read it by the first line. “In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year…” Unfurling. This was the story that began my love of this word, and this phrase specifically, with its treatment of life as a broad vast thing with curled edges that flaps in the wind, that you can’t see the end of at first because it’s buried in the middle. I’m sure I’ve used unfurled on this blog, and in four or five stories through the years. It’s a phrase that invokes the magic she usually reserves for her landscape descriptions. When she describes people–when she sits there with a pencil and the yellow, lined notepads she writes on before transcribing all her stories to typeface and limits herself to the realm of what people think and do and touch–it is often ugly. Short, brief descriptions like tidy bullet wounds. But with the land she lets herself unfurl. Sometimes she lets the two mix and it’s beautiful. I knew how to do that math, when young and writing, but only because I’d seen the functions carried out before. Not because I knew what the equations meant.

Now, I do. More than I used to, anyway. For that I am thankful.

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no spoilers, or : time travel makes me nauseous

I hated Looper. I thought of it today while sitting through a presentation on about an old, rehabilitated building that had kept, for posterity’s sake, a corner of its floorspace the way it had been when workers used to work there until they were sawn in half by machinery (accidentally) or boiled alive in chemical vats (whoops). I thought of some poor old salt now able to look, in this shiny updated building otherwise reserved for office spaces and start-up projects, at the place where he lost his hand when young, or where he lost his best friend. And I thought of the beginning of Looper, the disappearing fingers and noses and legs. And I felt sick.

It’s not just Looper and it’s not just physical deformation that makes my stomach churn. I know that now thanks to the slow game of catch-up I’m playing with Doctor Who, wherein, in certain high-drama episodes, a momentary fuck-up can erase whole histories from your head. Whole people. That definitely made me have to put down my drink and stop watching for awhile.

Because, look. There are definitely moments in life on which your whole future hinges. Potentially every moment could be, I suppose. But the grace of being human is that we don’t have to be aware of the import of that moment when we’re in it. If we knew, every breath we took, that this or that action not just could but would have recriminations decades down the road, we’d be paralyzed. Sure, people might make some better decisions, like deciding not to smoke if they could see the gaping bloody hole that would be carved in their throats in 30 years when they needed an laryngectomy. But you’d also have people, I don’t know, going all Eternal Sunshine and not dating that person because of the pain they’d experience when being dumped by and/or divorcing them. (I should point out that–spoilers!–the reason Eternal Sunshine does not leave me with a bad taste in my mouth is that, despite this foreknowledge of the possibility of impending heartache, they go on and date again anyway not because they feel confident that heartache can be avoided, but that 1.) maybe it could work this time, and 2.) even if it doesn’t, the experience will be worth the pain at the end. In the premise put forth most time travel narratives, including Looper, the finality of the recriminations of the past act cannot be argued with.)

Part of the additional horror of the carvings of the past appearing on Bruce Willis’s arm, for example, or those disappearing digits, is that the years during which one hopes one accustoms oneself to one’s past mistakes are not there. They never were there. They’re being put into place as we watch, but the lived experience, while supposedly implanted in some sort of muddle in the time traveler’s brain, got skipped. It took no time at all to whisk from “I’ve lived my life a certain way for forty years and those forty years have informed who I am today” to “oh whoops, actually, apparently I fucked up forty years ago, and that’s why I have no arms.”

This–becoming who we are–is supposed to take time.

And the loss of that time, whether through time travel or the erasure of memory (or the frequent entwining of both) is nauseating to me. Maybe if the narratives we wrote and watched of time travel started back at the beginning each time some tweak was made and reconstructed the person in each instance–showed us how the change in their past affected them all throughout their lives–I’d be less disturbed. But of course then the horror of the time disruption might be softened, and that’s not in the best interests of the plot or the ticket sales. I realize this. I realize, too, that the running of Alzheimer’s through my family might also increase my aversion to time or memory obliterated in an instant. I’m not completely lacking in self-awareness.

I guess my point is that, while I guess part of the appeal for many people of the TARDIS and its powers is that ability to skate through time and space and see what was and what will be, I could never be a candidate for that kind of awareness. I don’t want to know. Because when I’m there, I will know. I’ll have lived it. And I hate spoilers. I may not like River Song–neither men nor women were made to dangle like fishes on hooks, and people who act like they are will receive only scorn from me–but I agree with her on that point. No spoilers.

can i come with you?

I keep encountering news articles bemoaning the encouragement, in children right now, of keeping your head down, doing well in school and “getting through” so you can get out into the great big world and make your own choices. Rewarding kids for striving for this mindset is, we are told, essentially teaching them to be hoop-jumpers. And I worry when I read these articles because I was one of those kids–kept my head down, did really well, and got out with enough accolades to be helped toward doing what I wanted with my life. And I think, “am I only a hoop-jumper, then?”

Such fears worsen when I watch (yes, for the first time; it wouldn’t be a party if I wasn’t late to it) shows like Sherlock and Dr. Who, where I feel keenly in tune with the desire of the non-brilliant party to impress the man with all the answers. Is this just part of my training, then, I worry? Am I just wanting a gold star of approval as though I were in third grade again? Do I just want more hoops, and to be rewarded for jumping through them?

But I don’t think that’s true. Because, as I was finally able to articulate to myself last night after finishing Season Five’s Christmas special, what I like about the Doctor is that he is in a position to know so much, to be so wise and experienced and, sure, jaded. But he is still constantly learning from the less-wise, less-experienced, less-jaded humans in his acquaintance. And that is what I crave to instigate in people. I don’t need to be the best or the smartest or the longest-living or the one who’s seen everything. I just need to know that I can still teach those people something.

And that’s not jumping through hoops. That’s giving an insight to people who should have maxed out their insight quota long ago. But who still think there’s something you have worthy of knowing. That they don’t, yet.

immerse me

ninokuni

Yesterday, though I paid for it later with a wicked headache, I rented space in front of a PS3, too close to the screen really, and played Ni no Kuni for three hours.

And. It. Was. Amazing.

It came out a while ago, and there are more and better and more in-depth (since they own the game and all) reviews out there. So the only thing I have to offer is my subjective experience. And it was an amazing experience. Just amazing.

Look, I’m one of only a few people my age who started seeing Miyazaki movies at the age for which they were at first intended. I saw My Neighbor Totoro as a four-year-old, and Princess Mononoke on limited distribution in an out-of-the-way theater that had to be evacuated due to a popcorn machine that went up in flames. I watched my middle school Japanese class cry in the black bars of the widescreen bootleg copy of Grave of the Fireflies we watched in school. That’s not to say I’m cooler or more entitled to attachment than anyone else–that’s to say, rather, that my enchantment with the color palette and the painted backgrounds of these worlds is an old one. It predates my ability to speak Japanese, my falling into and then messily out of love with the culture. It outlasted my bitter distaste for the time I spent there and has sustained itself despite my present unease with most things wildly and deliriously touted as omg sooooo Japanese. Even upon learning that the earliest exposure I had to a world I loved and (sure, naively–I was four!) believed to have once existed, was in fact my coming face-to-face with an imaginary past conveniently scrubbed clean of three wars and the hardship they required of a people and a planet. Even then, I pined when I saw homes with jerkin hip roofs that looked like the home in Totoro, or mountain ranges skirted in mist that resembled those in the title card of Mononoke. I pined.

And then I played Ni no Kuni. And as I went hoarse raving to my husband last night–you’re there. You’re finally there, after all your notebook sketches and MUSHes and tabletop roleplaying games and comics and daydreams, you’re finally there. In a world bright and colorful, painted tableaus rolling out to every side of you, cobbled streets winding under bridges hung heavy with the morning’s washing by a cat in an apron and clogs. You’re there in one of Studio Ghibli’s worlds, and you are free to move about it. The green is overwhelming. It’s everywhere, bursting out of flowerboxes and sweeping over riverbanks in intricate moss entanglements overhanging swift-churning waters. It is bright, not searing but welcoming; it’s the green of the Valley of the Wind; of the steep hill leading up to the decrepit amusement park Chihiro stumbles onto. Of Poppy Hill, for that matter, or the violin-maker’s home, from which you look out onto a gorgeous sprawlscape of a city I could have, would have, loved, but didn’t and can’t. These are Miyazaki’s colors you’re rolling in, and they are as familiar and as well-loved as the smell of your parents’ doorway after two years’ absence.

In a way that visiting, living, even claiming permanent residence in the Japan of today will never, ever grant you, you blend in here. Your character isn’t some embarrassing mashup of poorly-rendered 3D mesh and blocky patch painting; you blend almost seamlessly into the fully-realized world around you. You’re still 3D. You’re still able to spin the camera 360 degrees. But the light falls on your tousled hair the same way it falls on the houses and fences and tree trunks. Your footfalls echo in alleyways and become less audible under the chatter of ambling passersby. Your character may be from another world, but you are not a goddamn foreigner. You’re allowed in.

And that’s more than I ever got to experience in Japan. So immerse me, please. Let Joe Hisaishi’s orchestra tumble me down forest paths and across sweeping plains, the way it pounded through my headphones when I tried to use it to drown out the nasty comments of schoolboys sitting across the subway car from me. Let there be greens, pinks, yellows, blues, where I saw only soot-stained white cement and asphalt black. Let there be every sound and color and kindness you imagined you might experience some otherwhere, and which never existed anywhere you were allowed to go, as you were. Are. Gaijin. Shiroppoi. Eternally other and reminded of it every step of the damn way.

Don’t be other, for once. Be welcome. In this beautiful glorious production of a game.

the express train to racist town

So Look Homeward Angel was lovely until we got to the racism. Which, granted, I was expecting on some level, given the time period and the fact that the writer’s from the South. But ugh. I’ve just given up reading it on the bus, because if someone–especially someone of color–were to look over and see me reading this, say what you like about diagesis, there’s no way I’m going to come off as anything other than a racist ass. And so my progress through the book has greatly slowed, because even when alone it’s a slog to continually confront the casual racism. I believe, now that I think about it, that Thomas Wolfe, along with William Gass and some others, was first referenced to me as “one of those brilliant writers who are now ‘too white to read,'” and I think a.) I should have challenged that statement instead of ignoring as I did at the time, and b.) there is a validity to being uncomfortable with that kind of dated literary racism that is too easily dismissed as political correctness.

How am I supposed to react when the gamut of racist words, sentences, whole chapters runs from proto-Nazi anti-Semitism to Scarlet O’Hara-style chummy condescension? Am I supposed to be okay with this, for the sake of literary flair? I am not okay with this! I find it difficult to rationalize the beauty of some of the prose–when he describes the interior worlds of characters, for example, or steps back to make grand sweeping statements like that first paragraph I posted earlier–with the bald, unrepentant regurgitation of phrases like “clean but funky, like a big black woman.” Good god, man! I can imagine some of the platitudes you feed to young people when you’re teaching books like this, but from the perspective of a technical admirer I’m a little murkier. Which is further complicated by the fact that I’ve never been one of these people who loudly announce that they don’t care for the morals of the filmmaker–“who cares if he shagged a minor, it’s all about the art!” No, it’s not all about the art, and it’s great that you can divorce a work from its context and creator like that but I can’t and won’t. I’ve enjoyed some of Thomas Wolfe’s phrasing immensely, but others make me want to punch him in the teeth. And I don’t know how to navigate between those two responses.

It isn’t just racism, either. The whole “Ben and Eugene were born aristocrats” thing is possibly the worst way one might go about framing a child’s desire for better circumstances. It smacks of old-school Southern castes and entitlement and yes, I know, is meant to contrast with the agonized up-by-your-bootstraps/nothing-like-a-good-day’s-work mentality of Eliza and (to a lesser extent) Gant. But it comes off just terribly, especially today.

I suppose if I had had racist grandparents constantly spouting off at the dinner table at Thanksgiving or something, I might better know how to handle this situation, but I didn’t. At least, not that I can remember. So I’m left skulking in corners, hoping no one will see over my shoulder the pile of offensive crap that’s currently unfurling across the page, and wondering if I’m ever going to be able to drag myself through the rest of this before it’s due back at the library.

on sports rivalries

“I don’t think I understand sports rivalries.”

“What about them?”

“Well, why is it okay for that guy to make fun of our coach because he’s fat, but it’s not okay for me to say to suck a bag of dicks?”

“Er, in general, you want to keep the insults to things that have to do with sports.”

“But who cares if the coach is fat!”

“But it’s still the coach, so it still has to do with sports.”

“Sucking a bag of dicks COULD be a sport!”

“…”

“I still don’t see the line.”

“It’s a delicate one to walk.”