to know the angles and the edges and the spaces in between

There are times–months later, years later, a decade later even–that it strikes Lottie how very odd it is to be abandoned by language, how the future demands what should have been asked in the past, how words can escape us with such ease, and we are left, then, only with the pursuit.

God damn you, Colum McCann. He is so good at this. Making us feel known. Better here, even, than in Let the Great World Spin, which I dearly loved, but took too personally, for selfish reasons revolving around a vain claiming of grief for my own. But here–here! Following them through time. Not knowing that’s what he was doing, at first. America so very young. That’s what it shows you, this quiet padding after bloodlines–how few generations it takes to get to now; how young we are. How I love his idea of my country. What he thinks it could be, or is, or was. His tender treatment of wars not his own. His invocation of it elsewhere–the blue and the gray–he has made himself conscious of pain he doesn’t have to bear. I know, I know, it’s not a gift. But you can read it as one. A blanket around the shoulders. He comes from a place of such loss. He knows it; it’s everywhere; he hasn’t made himself blind to it or exchanged his own history for another’s. And he still has room for us, too. There is such tremendous generosity in that.

My phone is full of pictured quotes. No time to write them down. I thought I would post them one by one but there are too many. I kept waiting for the vignette I didn’t like, that I didn’t feel was true. Kept waiting for the female character who would make me embarrassed to share my sex with her. But there was not one. Not one. Lily, whom I misunderstood at first, didn’t understand why I was being asked to look at her, but. A woman of second and third chances, one smashed right after the other. How you can feel the changing times in the collapse of what used to keep her alive. Ice produced by machines. Machines which will never again take someone’s husband and two grown sons in one fell swoop. And her daughter–obviously–furniture made of books, a world of men, outwardly tolerated but thrashed against in words, a brittle personality. So few people to love. The respect she shows Brown. Her understanding him without needing to show him she understands. A humility in that. Such dependence on Lottie and the difficulty she thought would rear its head in letting go, just vanishing. It being so much easier than she expected, the thing she has watched everyone around her do with such pain their whole lives. The passing on, pushing forward, of care and progress and the world’s concerns, and then. Falling back. Across the Atlantic. To the town with so many houses “perched on the cliff, looking out to sea, as if in a last-ditch attempt to remember where they came from.”

And Lottie. Her being well now but not always having been so, even with the ease of her camera and words and her long lean tennis body–there having been doubt to her, a suspicion that Ambrose in his easy affection might be hiding some terrible sadness waiting to pounce on them both. Her having known sadness herself, for two decades it sounds like, between the flare of youth and the familiar safety of age. But her knowing it wasn’t actually safe, how could you think it safe in a town fraught daily with bombs and kneecappings–the familiarity of that fear (solipsistic again) to an American told to duck down in her seat while her father fills the tank in case of the DC sniper, and of course the papers telling you to tape up your doors and windows and Dad’s train running late, waylaid by bomb-sniffing dogs acting on a tip-off…how you settle into the comfort she paints for you with her memories and her family, the only off thing being a distrust of a son for his stepfather. How she sweeps you up into her worry, the awareness that something could and might and would and will go terribly wrong out there, even now, even surrounded by warmth and the security of having “made it.”

And how she’s right.

I balked at the existence of this book when I heard of its pending publication; I loved the short story and listening to McCann read the short story; I’d pressed play many times and caught the differences in text and resented them. “You wrote a near-perfect story, man, and read to us a perfect one–why are you doing this?” I didn’t want the other people in there, wanted only Alcock and Brown, the lift, the spin, the almost-death. The people running toward them in the field. I didn’t want the weight of what came after.

What he thought we had to give the world, though. What we managed to, even despite ourselves.

His conviction is like a hearth.

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coveralls

More and more guys show up in coveralls on the bus. Fur-lined. But built for factories, not fields. The men aren’t workers. They’re PhD students. I read their iPads over their shoulders. Social work. History. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Every time I see a new one I still wait to decide they’re a student until they make it plain. I wait for them to get off at one of the auto places along the route. I think of the Sikh in middle school who told me to fuck all these books and take auto shop class with him. You’ll have a job when nobody else will, he said. I don’t know why he talked to me; he was sharp-tongued and edgy and I was mousy and nervous. Still I tried to argue the merits of college. He’d sneer. How much do you think you’ll make, he said. Whatever it is I’ll be making twice, three times that.

But when I see the coveralls I don’t think about the money. I think about how warm they all are. No scarves even. No hats. As I shiver. And I keep wanting to tell the angry boy from middle school you’ve won. You’ve won, you’ve won, you’ve won.

close but no cigar

Recently I was recommended two books from two different cultural timezones by two people, actually, who were each from the time of the other’s recommendation, and–they came close, but not close enough, to my lived experience, and that specific time is still a bit holey. A slot someone needs to fill.

Because, yes, I may get all (or most of) the gaming references in Ready Player One but I was a mere toddler during the period of its (albeit, in its post-apocalyptic, looking-back way) focus, and my knowledge comes from a nerdy mom and a vast library of 1980s computer games–and also, I guess, a lot of professors who talk about it–than from firsthand experience. It’s hard to pin down, because being nostalgic about the eighties has only recently become fashionable (as, I guess, those old enough to remember squandering quarters in arcades start having kids of their own to compare their childhoods to), but there is something about those particular rose-colored glasses that grates on me. Everyone says their own youth was more innocent, sure–that being part of the nostalgia package–but with people singing paeans the 80s it’s more like “yeah, maybe we too were corporatized and only watched mass-produced media and listened to music that had filtered through a vast number of focus-groups first…but it was somehow cleaner and okay back then.” As in, it was fine when we did it but when you do it it’s just wrong. I’m sorry, what? Sometimes the breezy vapidity of the 80s is explained as a necessary prelude to the oh-so-serious-and-stressed-out grunge movement of the 90s, which I know little about and have less interest in, but–give me a break. Don’t excuse the shallowness you condemn in millennials as “necessary,” a quarter-century before, to birth the kneejerk resistance to it that followed. If for no other reason than that you don’t know what comes next.

And then there was Fangirl, somewhat obviously much closer to my time and yet…there are those few years of distance that matter so much, like–and I know this is completely solipsistic; that’s part of the package too–time speeds up, twisting and warping and mattering more in the differences, the closer it gets to matching your own, and so the places where lived experiences don’t line up stick out more. Like, for instance, 9/11. Our Nebraskan heroines were mere third graders during this time and I tensed as soon as they brought up the date, a[n entirely unfair, I know] sneer ready on my lips, thinking “oh go on little Nebraskans, tell me how it mattered to you. Tell me how you in your nowhere town with no one you know burning alive somewhere were just so wrapped up in this tragedy, with everyone you love safe and unbroken. Tell me.” And she actually ends up mentioning it in a way that doesn’t make me gnash my teeth. The girls’ mother–spoilers!–left them on September 11th–The September 11th. (Cath still found this incredibly embarrassing; it was like their mom was so self-centered, she couldn’t be trusted not to desecrate a national tragedy with her own issues.) They describe fleeing outside from their parents’ fight and watching the President’s plane fly overhead, too low, the only plane in the sky, and even as third-graders they know the whole sky is empty all over the country and it terrifies them, this one plane, knowing exactly who’s in it and where it’s going and why.

Thank you, Rainbow Rowell. Thank you.

Still, though, the incongruities bothered me. The things Cath gets to take for granted, coming to fandom as she does maybe a decade after I did, after Web 2.0 has already had its far-reaching effects. She doesn’t remember the internet the way it was–its strengths and its limitations–and so doesn’t bother comparing it; can’t feel the difference and so doesn’t mention it. But it mattered. To exactly the kind of girl Cath is. Sequestered, whether in Bumfuck, USA or in a lonely corner of her own devising, with the only alternative to a.) blind and rather unrealistic going-along-with-the-pom-poms-and-glitter à la Jane in American Beauty or b.) agonizingly over-choreographed resistance à la Jane in Daria (I think? I didn’t watch it?) being this new, still-evolving otherwhere, dependent upon very concrete objects–the hiss of the modem, the stretch of the phone cord–but able to transcend them and bring you into contact with women in Cornwall or Perth or Helsinki or Lyons whose shared interests, hewing as they do so close to your own, is still unbelievable enough to be magical.

Well, they skipped that, because Fangirl happens just a shade too late; its characters are just a shade too young. And that’s setting aside all the usual discrepancies between “oh, I’m such a nervous wreck around people!” and “…yet somehow I’m just the wittiest most charming thing ever when put into these social situations; I don’t know how I do it!” I do, girl. You don’t exist, for starters, and your creator was never the wallflower she’s trying to write about (or for, or to), either, so she can’t quite bring it together, now, can she?

The point is, the people recognizing their own childhoods in Ready Player One have had too long to think about it and to stylize it into something cool (Cline already had a film contract upon first publication!), and the people who recognize themselves in Fangirl haven’t had enough time. They’re chomping at the bit, trying to cash in on this younger-and-younger nostalgia while they can still claim to be first. Well, folks, you forgot my cohort.

Make room.

ballerinas and bilbo baggins

The other day I heard this on the radio. Or started to, anyway, and I wasn’t sure I would stay tuned. I have no great interest in dance in general or ballet in particular, associating it vaguely as I do with various not-so-terribly-nice girls I grew up with. Tanaquil LeClercq, I thought idly, what an awesome name. As Robin Young started to name-drop choreographers who were apparently luminaries, one who became LeClercq’s husband and the other her ardent fan and choreographer–“she was muse to the both of them,” was the phrase–my interest dropped even further. A sordid love triangle. How utterly predictable. As I considered whether I wanted to switch to the same old humdrum playlist on Spotify as an alternative to a story I’d heard too many times to care to hear again, the bare minimum of the tale that would be expanded on later in the piece came out: LeClercq’s passion, her skill, her body that was different than any other dancer’s up to that time, shattered by polio in a very public way, at a very young age, which destroyed not only her but also those to whom she had been muse–her husband, of course, and then this other man, who in the flurry of names I thought was George Balanchine, and who–it was mentioned briefly–was gay.

I sat up.

Now they went on to describe how distraught Balanchine was, how he tried everything to help her, bringing her to he who would become “the” Mr. Pilates to try and bring her muscles back into play, even tying her hands to his hands and her ankles to her ankles and moving her about, dancing the both of them, trying to bring her back. Trying to fix her. And that image really, really moved me. He wasn’t even fucking her, wouldn’t even dream of fucking her, and here he was trying so hard to restore her to the inspiring state that had fuelled what apparently is one of the great ballet masterpieces of the 20th century, choreographed by none other than himself. It occurred to me briefly that there might have been no small amount of self-service in there; if she was his muse and was so great a star, he had a lot to lose in her collapse into motionlessness. But I dismissed it. Willfully. Because realized, sitting there, that the fact that they weren’t lovers mattered so much to me in this story. Clips from the documentary Afternoon of a Faun (named after said masterpiece of the 20th century, dreamed up and choreographed before LeClercq’s illness but unnervingly spot-on in that she, the star, played a victim of polio as her male opposite, Death, stalked and ultimately slew her) played, in which voice actors read letters sent back and forth between LeClercq and Balanchine, and I swooned. He’s trying to come up with one plan after the other and she–writing with the wrong hand, since the one she usually writes with won’t work anymore–makes observations like “It may be easier to have polio than to be close to someone who does…I’m afraid he’s being unrealistic about this.” If I ever had so debilitating and final an illness, I thought, I would like to maintain that level of perspicacity, since what else would I have to wrap around myself, and use to claim humanity above and beyond my victimhood?

Flash forward to last night, watching Fellowship of the Ring, a movie I’ve probably seen more than any other in my adult life–more even than Lost in Translation, which I watch for similar reasons–and a line I have thus heard, at the very least, thirty times. Bilbo, at his own party, having been whisked to safety from his needling relatives by the perpetually genial Frodo, turns to his nephew in a suddenly serious frame of mind and says, haltingly, “You’re a good lad, Frodo. I’m very selfish, you know. Yes, I am. Very selfish. I don’t know why I took you in after your mother and father died but it wasn’t out of charity. I think it was because…of all my numerous relations…you were the one Baggins that showed real spirit.” I’d been watching FotR flipping through the various lenses available to me, as you do when you know something so well you don’t have to pay attention. I’d been thinking about my older fandom days, and wondering why so few people had pounced on Bilbo’s childlessness and unattached status as a ripe invitation for pairing, and then in the middle of trying to imagine all those years between the adventures of The Hobbit and the beginning of FotR, alone in his hole with his stories, out popped that line, delivered so earnestly and even, almost, apologetically. And it was like a lightning bolt. I knew why the line was there, to establish this relationship in the very brief time we have remaining before Bilbo departs, but though I’d heard it thirty-some times I’d never looked beyond that and actually thought that yes, that is exactly the kind of selfishness I could see myself indulging in; and moreover it described, however circuitously, the kind of selfishness inherent in my shameless adoration of the kind of relationship described in the radio segment between the dancer and her not-sexually-attracted-to-her mentor. The kind of selfishness, too, ingrained in the pride I so recently took in delivering–to flourishing success–the retirement remarks for someone I greatly respected, and whose daughter I apparently caused to cry with what I said.

Bilbo doesn’t have to work for Frodo’s veneration. It just appears. He’s just so fascinating, has done so much; knows so much outside the realm of the Shire, that to a boy like Frodo, whose nose is buried in a book more often than a mug of ale, he’s amazing. And Bilbo invites Frodo into his life; no, he plants him there, not just for his handiness around the house or anything helpful like that but because adoring Frodo is a like a constantly flashing neon sign: You’re so great! You’re so cool! You know all these stories–you’re fantastic! And, yeah. Arranging your life so you hear that all the time–that’s selfish.

And there I was fawning over the dancer-choreographer relationship, too, thinking essentially how great it was that all she had to do was be herself, which by default was awesome and amazing, and here this guy who didn’t even want to use her the way men so often want to use women was so fond of her, even with sex not being on the table at all, that he’d go to huge lengths to try and restore her to her former glory. So what exactly was I admiring there? Her just getting to sit around being praised for being who she was? How wretchedly one-sided. Sure, sure, he asked her to do things, to perform, in ways better than anyone had before, and she could and did, but she loved doing that anyway, it seems. She didn’t need to adore him in return. She simply was, and could sop up his attention, as Bilbo sops up Frodo’s, free-of-charge, so to speak.

And to privilege that is, yes, terribly selfish.

Here’s the thing, though–I mucked it up. I didn’t know anyone in that radio segment, and got the names confused, and the whole time that I thought Balantine was the gay choreographer genius? I was wrong. That was Jerome Robbins. Balanchine was the guy married to LeClercq. Oh, and after a few years of attempting to resuscitate her muscles failed? He dumped her for another hot young dancer.

How romantic.

But my confusion is beside the point, really. Because what I thought to be true was something that moved me, and what moved me was a parasitically selfish version of love. I hear you, Bilbo, your apology, even if Frodo dismisses it as boozy ruminations brought on by the Gaffer’s home brew. Because you used him to feel better about yourself; used his admiration as a kind of crutch to buoy you through the comparably low-key and disappointing life you lived for decades after your adventures. The correct thing to do, when someone loves you so blindly and without question, is to point out to them that their admiration is misplaced. And you didn’t.

And I don’t know that I would have, either. I don’t know that I’m that good.

elizabeth moon is my hero

I had been thinking just for her portrayal of women. Which I dearly love. One of the many reasons I tend not to like scifi is because I hate to think that in thousands of years things still haven’t gotten any better vis-a-vis how women are treated–how they act, and are expected to act. As mincing, sexy little attaches to their burly, decisive male counterparts. And it’s true that I’ve read the Vatta’s War series and loved it, for its lack of exposition as much as anything else–no long torrid history of space travel from the very beginnigs back on Old Earth; no boring scientific treatise on how holograms and lasers and warp drives work–they just are, and in that way are more believable than if you wrote a whole novel-length appendix detailing their function.

And it’s true that I delighted in her endlessly (though not demandingly) slashable juxtaposition of Cecelia and Heris Serrano, the debunking of their prejudice about each other’s class and background, the slow realization of otherwise hidden capabilities each had formerly dismissed in the other. But to a certain extent, I expected that. I expected the captain’s practicality and dependableness to show itself, because I saw how women of action were treated in Vatta’s War and would have accepted no less. I expected, too, the older Cecelia not to be banished to the realm of irrelevance that present society currently condemns women past the age of reproduction to languish in until their unremarkable deaths.

But what I hadn’t counted on was the sudden, imperative and deliciously believable transformation of the bubble-headed arm candies–one of whose names is even Bubbles, for crying out loud!–into competent, determined women brandishing night-vision goggles, rifles and a desperate conviction that they can survive a given situation. It would have seemed trite, maybe, if she hadn’t stuck the aforementioned Bubbles’ childhood memories in there too, clashing as they do with the present location of their peril. It’s expertly done–her finding a cache of hidden treasures buried by her childhood self as adults with guns hunt them down with every intent of killing them; her digging up, so to speak, the resourcefulness she’d buried when she grew her hair out and fluffed it up the way she learned the boys liked. Shedding years and fripperies, to return to a present-day and too-real adventure the likes of which she play-acted time and time again as a child on the very same island. Like anything emotional in Moon’s books, it’s brief, impactful–a sudden flash and then gone. So good. Maybe we can’t all summon up a Heris Serrano inside us at a moment’s notice, but it doesn’t take too much digging to find a Raffale or a Bubbles. I like that she didn’t leave the less heroic of us out.

the peace you forget

Lately there’s been an ad running during the Olympics whose song I couldn’t at first put a name to. I recognized it immediately and knew where the sounds were going and I was a little nervous even as I was moved, because it laid me open without my asking.

And then when he happened to be in the room the next time it aired, my husband pointed it out immediately: Andrew Bird’s Scythian Empires. Of course.

And I knew, then, why I was nervous, why it laid me out just by starting, in front of whoever was there, without my approval–this album, that song, oh that opening piano and the plucking strings and the plonking…whatever that is…I listened to it over and over cycling along the Kandagawa during my self-imposed exile. I’d closeted away the bit of peace it gave me because that period of my life is gone and I have put in place checkpoints to make sure it doesn’t come back. But it’s easier to relate it to others if I don’t have to stipple my painting of general discontent with the occasional sudden, sad, jolt of peace. Monochrome is easier to convey.

But it wasn’t monochromatic. I didn’t just sulk the whole time. And there was such a need–I am unable to make it plain to people here without sounding trite; whiny–to escape the looks, the muttered comments, all the things you are supposed to have come to terms with as an adolescent. The things which shouldn’t bother you as an adult, but which very much do, if they’re all you receive. So yes, I did the not-so-safe thing and barrelled–really; I had Olympian quads, so fiercely did I rip over hills and along the river road–along the Kandagawa, along the river road and through backyards, under train tracks, through shopping alleys, with my headphones clinging to my skull. And so, so, often, having flung myself uselessly at texts and clumsy attempts at friendship until the sun began to fall, I hissed home along brick pathways at dusk with the thousand-candle flare of the Tokyo sky above, and the glimmering reflection of it below, along the river, my main lights home.

Home.

That was the only time I could think of it as home. The only time I’d allow myself to think of it as such. At the top of the towering hill at Hamadayama I would stop, panting, having abandoned the river momentarily in favor of the glinting train tracks, and I’d watch the sun go down with Scythian Empires trilling in my ears. Alone. I was always so cavernously alone. The giant green golf course nets of the practice field along the tracks would rise and fall with the wind gusts, as though exhaling as heavily as I was, and the trains would nuzzle up over the lip of the hill and then shoot out west toward my eventual destination, and the last of the sun.

Every day.

So often, when I stood here, I’d take a picture of it with my phone and consider sending it to the man who I’d dated back in the States, and I would stop. He had fled me, I had cramped him, and I thought sharing this moment would worsen that situation. Would make me more alone than I already was. And I’d consider sending it to my parents with a jaunty message like “check out this sunset!” And I would stop. Because I didn’t want them to read under the uncharacteristic jauntiness–they would–and see this great empty flat sky over this great empty flat city and know how empty and flat I felt. I didn’t want them to know how often I thought back to the tale of a friend of a friend, who had had to undertake a horrendous journey to Spain to retrieve her son’s remains after he threw himself in front of a train in Madrid. I can’t do that to them, I reminded myself the whole time I was abroad. I can’t. I won’t.

So I stood to the side of my bike and watched the sun die over Tokyo, with Scythian Empires in my ears, the tracks shining beneath me. And when the Chevrolet ad with that song comes on now, it catches me off-guard, and I have to turn away a little; collect myself. Hide the sun, the rails and the slow breathing of the golf course nets. Hide all of it. Because it’s not home anymore, and only had to be once. Long enough for me to learn. And I worry if I remember I found peace there anywhere, I’ll unlearn whatever it was I paid the price for.