Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What We Can Learn From Grizzlies

Sarah Palin’s got a point about humans being able to learn from the behavior of grizzly bears. Some lessons we can extrapolate from bear culture:

*No talking. Bears do not have language. We should growl, and maybe moan when in pain.

*Fishing should be undertaken using nothing but our formidable paws.

*Our ideal weight is 1200 pounds (about 544 kg).

*Naturally, we must go naked at all times.

*Mating must take place between May and July, after which (serial monogamy being the ideal), we must take leave of our partners until the next mating season. Fathers must, under no circumstances, take any part in child-rearing.

*It is sometimes acceptable for a father to kill and eat his children (if he's super-hungry or they're just annoying him), or to kill his children in order to make his female partner sexually receptive.

*Children should leave their mother’s home between the ages of two and four.

*We should eat a nutritious diet of fish, roots, berries, moths, the occasional deer or moose, and carrion. 

Feel free to add any additional moral lessons below.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jax's Ghost Story

Note: I swear this isn't going to turn into a blog about my kids. I swear. 

Jax: I’m going to tell you a scary story. Once there was a spaceship. And it fell to earth and then a big giant snowstorm started. It got windier and windier and windier and windier and windier and windier and windier and WINDIER and WINDIER….and then it snowed…on a flowerpot! And then a skeleton hand came out of the flowerpot….it was very creepy. [To Harold]: Are you getting too scared?

Harold: Yeah.

Jax: Okay. But I’m going to keep telling the story. So…it got darker and darker and darker and darker and darker and darker….

Harold [close to tears]: Stop! It’s too scary!

Jax: ….and then the hand stopped! On a little sack! Do you want to know what was in the sack?

Harold: Yeah. What was in the sack?

Jax: I can never tell you.

Harold: Was it a little kitten?

Jax: Yes! It was! He unlocked the key to the sack and he scribbled around and he came out with his cat food and he was very cute. The end.

Harold: Was the sack his home?

Jax: Yes!

Harold: But how could he sleep in there when it’s like so small?

Jax: It was a very big sack.

Harold: Oh. Let's play Batman.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I tried to be a writer in high school. I joined a student writing group my sophomore year. There were, like, five of us in the group. We met in Mr. Beede's* room. He was the cool English teacher. He never used the overhead fluorescent lights; instead, he set up thrift store lamps, and in place of desks, his room had bean bags and couches, in egalitarian formation (choose your own image; it's probably accurate). He subjected us to the tyranny of discussions rather than lectures. Of course he did; he was the cool one.

He was always happy, which pissed me off. The good students, the ones he liked, called him "Donald," but I couldn't shed my conventional ways. The best I could do was to call him "Beede," though in moments of obeisance I may have added the "mister." I heard rumors after I'd graduated that he got fired for assigning a poem that offended a student, because it mentioned a vulva or something.

I wasn't a student of consequence, to Mr. Beede or any other teacher. I got D's in his classes. I took a Shakespeare class and a poetry class with him. I didn't get Shakespeare, and I didn't get poetry. I loved writing and reading but I couldn't think about books in the way I was supposed to. I got an A in word processing, and in my playwriting class, and in French, always, and I even got an A in economics. I wasn't supposed to be the kind of student who got D's in English.

Beede announced one day a great opportunity for aspiring writers...there was one slot left in a 10-week workshop at the Walker Art Center, taught by a writer from New York whose novel had been optioned for a movie. We could have our work critiqued by a real WRITER from NEW YORK CITY and the workshop would culminate in our writing being PUBLISHED in a MAGAZINE (to be distributed amongst ourselves). I had never heard of the writer, but it sounded like a step up from the student writing group. I approached Beede after class. 

"Oh my god, I would love to be in this workshop! I love writing! I bet I would love this writer!"

"Uh....well, no one else has expressed an interest in it yet....So I guess I could sign you up." He seemed annoyed, and I got the impression he was signing me up only because no one else wanted to. "But you know, Katherine, this isn't just something you can not show up for."  He was referring to my minuscule stint on the Speech team, of which he was the coach. I had underprepped for the first tournament, then overslept on the Saturday morning I was supposed to be in Eden Prairie competing and missed the whole thing. I made it to the second tournament, only to find myself exactly in last place with my reading of Allen Ginsberg's "America." The judges, it turned out, didn't like the Eff word. They liked my impoverished speaking skills even less. So Speech wasn't my thing. I'd already moved on to Debate, which I dropped a month later.

"No, I promise. This is really important to me."

So, every Monday for ten weeks, I took a bus up Hennepin to the Walker, and rode an elevator up to a mysterious room past the galleries, where I met with the NEW YORK WRITER and other students from around Minneapolis, ones who probably didn't get D's in Shakespeare, to share poetry and stories and critique each other. I developed a little crush on the WRITER. He wasn't an asshole New Yorker; he was from the Bronx, and easy to talk to, and he didn't seem to hold our Midwesternness against us. He smoked a lot of pot, he said. He wrote everything on a manual typewriter, and bragged about how he'd break computer keyboards from banging on them typewriter-style. (I, of course, got myself a typewriter at the earliest opportunity.) He had interesting and fervent ideas about writers I'd never heard of, and about potential designs for our magazine. I remember in particular his disdain for the magazine "Ray Gun," and since I found "Ray Gun" breathlessly cool, I found his disdain for it even breathlessly cooler. His ideas were so fervent that he had a falling-out with the director of the teen writing program over some minor issue or other, and left abruptly before final week of the workshop, whereupon my crush deepened.

He came back to Minneapolis the following month, to do a reading at Hungry Mind bookstore. I was elated that the WRITER treated me like an old friend after the reading, and signed my copy of his book with an exhortation to keep writing forever. 

The magazine came out and I was horribly embarrassed to see my poems there, in print, alongside other teenagers' work that was way better than mine. My vocabulary was slight. My D in Shakespeare was evident. My failure on the speech team was a warning I hadn't heeded. Who the fuck was I? Beede was right to be annoyed by me. I was right to know that I hadn't earned the right to call him Donald.

The workshop done, my Debate days over, I tried out for "The Merchant of Venice." I didn't get a role. The following semester, I tried out for "Fiddler on the Roof." I got a part in the chorus. I spent the rehearsals stoned. Quite stoned. Theater, it turned out, wasn't my thing either. Pot was my thing, and writing, even though my heavy Royal typewriter inflicted welts on my fingers.


Some years later, I emailed the WRITER. I reminded him who I was and told him how meaningful the workshop had been to me. "I think I remember you...." he wrote back. "Didn't you knit me a hat?" 

I wrote back that I had not, in fact, knitted him a hat. I had never knitted in my life. I didn't hear from him after that. I still have the signed copy of his book, but no longer the manual typewriter.


*Given the sensitive nature of being fired over poems about vulvae, I have taken the prudent step of changing the English teacher's name.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How Writing Is Like Cat Shit

I always sort of believed that writing would take care of itself, that even if I was never published or read, even if I was miserable, writing would somehow improve my lot. That's the lie that well-meaning teachers and authors of writing books like to repeat, and the lie we have to tell ourselves to keep going: the Good will somehow, even if on a transcendently moral level, come out on top (Good=writers, in this instance. Try not to think about that too much.). When I write, my overarching mental state is one of extreme cognitive dissonance: I tell myself I'm doing important work, even if it's not exactly affecting anybody.

But some of the time, the dissonance wears off and reality confronts me: there just doesn't seem to be any point to writing. What has it gotten me, really? Deeper self-awareness? Big fucking deal. Sometimes I’d rather be more aware of the greater world. I write to communicate; I don’t know how to talk to people, so I write. But in that regard, my writing life has been an utter failure, since most of what I've written sits sadly in my hard drive, or (best case scenario) in a literary magazine's slushpile, communicated only to the imaginary friends* I've never fully shed.

What has writing not gotten me? In the time I don't spend writing, I could be making my yard into a not-jungle. I could be exercising, so I wouldn't be so fat. I could have a real job and make actual real legal tender money so I could take my kids to the doctor and shit.** I've wasted many evenings perfecting sentences on the page when I could have been out perfecting conversation and making real friends with real brains. I could be on for my kids, instead of doing my best to tune them out so I can think about what I’m going to write in that rare, weary moment at the end of the day or before the day has begun, when I can steal some alone time.

Don't mistake all this to mean that I don't love writing. I do. I love the blank page, I love the words that roll out initially, when nobody's watching, I love dictionaries and etymologies, I grow to love my characters and find myself engrossed in their conversations.

That's how I feel about the first draft. Then I read it, and it's something I want to destroy, something I wish I'd never brought into existence. Bile. Centipedes. A hangover. It's like when I take my kids to the playground, and there's all this promise, all this fun, and then while we are digging in the sand my hand squishes into a pile of cat shit. Well, that's never actually happened, but if it did, it would kind of ruin my time at the playground, and I'd have to go home and wash up, and my kids would be crying, and they would hate me for making them leave early, and then I'd run into a neighbor as I was walking home, and they'd want to chat, and I'd have to either stand there stinking and trying to hide my catshit-covered hand, or explain that I had to go home and wash the shit off my hand. That's how it is every time I write something. It's a ball of fun, marred by the outcome. Promise, then shit. And people pissed off at/grossed out by me.

Eh. Ignore the shit. It's the best we can do. I guess.

*Yeah, I had two when I was a kid. Creso and Seekos.
**I'm sacrificing my kids' future for a laughable dream.