Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Age Is Just A Number, Right, Edna?

Sometimes I forget how old I am. Not in the sense of denying my age. I literally forget and have to do the math. This forgetfulness could be ascribed I suppose to the fact that I have never spent a lot of time in my absolute age group. In school, I was skipped ahead, so I was with kids older than myself. At family gatherings, I was always much more interested in what the adults were talking about than in playing with my cousins. Ok, I was not normal. It didn’t end there.

I started going to college part time in addition to high school when I was fifteen. For years, I was always the youngest one in any group I was in at school or at work. I’m not sure when that came to a halt, exactly, only that I begin to notice that people I was around were younger than me. That was shocking at first, but then grew into a bit of a satisfying state when younger people would ask me for advice and I could pretend that I actually knew anything. Was this how it really felt to be an official adult? I wondered, as I carefully kept up my façade of wisdom. Amazing, I thought, all I have to do is listen, then tell them what I think, and because I’m older and not their mother, all of a sudden I’m “really smart”. Adults have had a good gig all this time and I never knew!

I noticed all of this, but somehow my actual age was always this nebulous factor that I never really thought about. Birthdays would come. “So, how does it feel to be ______?” I got asked. “Umm… the same as it did yesterday?” I would answer, not sure how I was supposed to feel, but knowing I didn’t feel any different at all.

There have been moments of Oh My God, though. Like the time I was in the break room at a place I was working, and the cover of the AARP magazine someone had left on the table bore a brilliantly smiling Cheryl Tiegs. Yes, something in my chest did convulse for the briefest of moments. But I moved on, unaffected after that split second. Or the time more recently when I found myself referring to a person younger than myself as a “whippersnapper”. Whippersnapper? Where did that come from? Is there an entire vocabulary that suddenly springs forth from your mouth when you reach a certain age?

I used to tell my mother that I had this theory about old people and names. The theory was that people got names like Edna and Earl when they got old. They weren’t born with these names, one day they just were saddled with them, and everybody who knew them suddenly began calling them by those names as if they had always had them. My mother looked at me dubiously. “Well, think about it,” I said, “Do you know anybody named Edna who isn’t old? Or Earl?” She had to admit she didn’t. I remember smiling with the proof of my point.

A few days ago, I got notice that my 30th high school reunion is coming up. Thirty years? The word that comes most readily to mind is: eeeeeeek! I attended my tenth reunion. It was pretty uninspired. My then fiancé (who had not gone to the same school) summed it up by saying “You can already see who peaked in high school.” He was right.

I don’t remember what was going on when my 20th came around. In fact, I don’t even remember it coming around. So the 30th sneaked up on me and body checked me. In the same week, one of the whippersnappers I work with sent this email with a virtual jukebox containing the top 20 hits for several years from “back in the day”. The most “recent” collection is from 1979, the year I graduated. I looked at it. Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and My Sharona by The Knack. Donna Summer. Michael Jackson was just coming into his own. It all put me in mind of that lyric “ain’t it funny how time just slips away?” Funny. Strange. Never noticed it until I woke up feeling like part of me has been in an oblivious time warp while the other part was busily and actively engaged with the world.

They say that age is just a number. Why can’t I ever remember that number?

I wonder how soon it will be before I awaken to a new day with all the whippersnappers calling me Edna.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Anna, the Romanovs, Madness and Me

I’ve heard it said that one definition of madness is the repetition of the same action while expecting different results. Lately, I’ve been wondering if that applies to reading a novel. This last week, I read both The Kitchen Boy, by Robert Alexander, and What Happened to Anna K., by Irina Reyn. Since the time I saw the film Nicholas and Alexandra when I was a kid, I’ve been in love with the Romanovs and Imperial Russia. Granted, I never had to live there, and if I’d had to, I would likely be more on the serf end of things than the white-gown-and-sash end of things. But one can fantasize, right? Why, yes, Count Handsomovsky, I would adore to dance the Mazurka with you. Sigh. My father had this book called Treasures of the Kremlin, a gigantic, coffee-table kind of book with pictures and pictures of the most wonderfully beautiful things. I used to look at it for hours at a time. To me, Leningrad was blight on the luster of St Petersburg and I never used that name.

In college, I discovered Rachmaninov and Tolstoy. I remember one time playing a new recording of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at home, and my mother said “The man who wrote that was in love.” Not the last time she said something like that about music, but she could not have expressed any better how that beautiful piece felt. Of the Tolstoy I read, none reached in and grabbed my secretly romantic heart like Anna Karenina. How I loved her, and wept with her and raged at her not to be such an idiot, all the while understanding what could make a woman be just such an idiot.

I devoured everything I could read on the Romanovs and Imperial Russia, from the scholarly to the, shall we say, more speculative. The story made me sad, but so fascinated me at the same time. Like Anna, fatally flawed with some really silly tendencies when you got right down to it, Nicholas and Alexandra as well as the children captured my imagination for years. There are great parts of it they still hold dominion over.

So, to the question about the madness of a repeated act. When I was reading the novels I mentioned this past week, I realized something. I kept hoping, with a desperate hope, that somehow, the Romanovs would be saved, that they would not meet their end in that dreadful basement of the Ipatiev house. (Despite differing conclusions, of course, there are still some who maintain that not all of them did perish in the middle of that July night in 1918). Watching Anna K. walk every step towards her appointment with the train just as Tolstoy’s Anna did was heartbreaking and wrenching. Something in me kept hoping that maybe, this time, this time, Anna would come out the other side of things. But I couldn’t turn away, couldn’t not be her witness. I still wanted to save her. But, it was not to be. Nyet.

This happens every time I read a book about the Romanovs, every time I see a film version of Anna Karenina. I know what will happen, but I just can’t help myself. Is it a sign of diminished capacity on my part? A sign that my secretly romantic heart is not so secret? Maybe it’s that part of human nature that is drawn to the misfortune of others, simultaneously empathetic and grateful to not be in that position. Something grand and beautiful fallen into tragedy and destruction. Something within us that resonates with that joy and that pain. That particular feeling called “alive”.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scientific Proof of The Obvious

“Cats Do Control Humans, Study Finds”.

That was the title of a “news item” I read the other day. Someone actually needed to do a study to determine this? Kind of like having to do a study that finds that the sun rises in the east. Of course they control us. The ancient Egyptians admitted it, so why can’t we?

I long ago gave up any pretense of who actually runs the house. Hands down (or that should probably be paws down), His Royal Catness Prince Mabon does.

(Note to prospective cat “owners”: be very careful what you decide to call the cat. They tend to manifest the qualities. “Banshee”? Really bad idea). My friends have seen various ways in which Prince Mabon exerts his powers. For instance, if people are over for a visit and the time reaches ten p.m., he proceeds to parade back and forth before the assembled guests and meow at them until they leave. Closed doors? He’s not having it. One speck of bare bowl showing through his crunchies? Disaster that must be immediately rectified. Not to mention the required petting, brushing, and the fact that I must be within his eyesight at all times. If he could figure out a way to imprison me 24/7 he would. Actually, I am not altogether sure he isn’t hatching such a plot as we speak.

There is an international conspiracy of cats, if the truth were told. The study, published in the July 14th issue of the journal Current Biology, is only a hint at the vastness of the influence held by the furry felines. At the risk of endangering my own well-being, I will let you in on some of the secret things I know about. Cats For An Illiterate World is a global organization. The members of CFAIW carry out their mission by immediately hopping up onto desks, kitchen tables, lap boards and just plain laps whenever reading material is present. The only exception to this is if the reading material is cat related. Their mission? I think that is obvious. Sinister, but obvious. Keep the Big Ones ignorant. Let them toil in their delusional state and never let them awaken from it!

But wait, there’s more. Behind every cat that uncannily knows the one person in the room with an allergy, which rug is the most expensive, just exactly how to knock over that planter, is a secret society so ingenious, so pervasive, so diabolical that even Dan Brown would be at a loss to fully appreciate it. Yes, I am talking about The Bast Society. Long ago, the first Grand Catster disseminated amongst the faithful the Keys of Mind Control and the techniques for The Yanking of the Chain. This last can be very serious, just read this excerpt:

Be sure to choose a time when you are alone with a Big One. Better still if darkness abounds outside. Be companionable and sit in a cozy fashion with the Big One. Wait. Be ever mindful of the temptation to nap. Be not sidetracked by the Nip or by shiny objects. When the time is optimum, suddenly sit up straight as an arrow, ears erect, eyes wide, and stare. Staring at a darkened window is best, but if one is not available, any direction will do. The more intent your stare, the more unsettled the Big One will become. This is great fun.

We cannot fight against this kind of superior tactic. And they know it. Somehow, they managed to get us to pay for a study to prove it. Hear them laughing their sinister little cat laughs?

I understand they are working on genetic developments involving opposable thumbs.

We’re doomed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Writer-Reader Collaboration

For over twenty years I have been of the opinion that writing is a solitary art. Sure, people read what you write, but they aren't involved in it. It isn’t a collaborative process. Knowing that has made it easier to remain solitary in my fortress of solitude crafting solitary works. I developed this point of view in college one summer.

The Ice Maiden of Esmeralda County is a play I wrote. It was produced during a summer theatre season. Part of the play festival included opening night critique panels conducted by faculty of both the Drama and English departments as well as a drama critic from a Los Angeles newspaper, and a television actress. One of the panelists from the English department was a literature professor whom I greatly admired. I had taken several classes from her that I didn’t need just because she was that cool. She was from New York and dressed in stylish tweed jackets and plaid wool skirts and wore scarves and I pretty much thought that anything she had to say about English lit from Brontë to Wordsworth was revealed divine truth. I even toyed briefly with becoming a double major in Drama and English so I could learn more seriously literary things (whatever they might be) and adapt a tweed and plaid skirt wardrobe. I still wear scarves to this day, and not just because it’s necessary in Minneapolis half the year.

The production went well, and I was eager and terrified to hear what the panelists might say, especially my goddess-like English professor. The drama critic liked the play very much, praised my artistry with dialogue and said the play reminded him of a favorite of his, The Rainmaker. The actress also waxed a bit on the play and said the love scene was one of the most beautifully written she had ever seen. The Drama faculty talked the finer and not so fine points of my direction, the acting and the production. So far, so incredibly wonderful…but what would Dr. Brilliant say?

For the next several minutes, I listened in rapt disbelief as she talked quite eloquently about the wonderful symbolism I had used throughout the piece. Complete with examples. I sat and heard all about what my (very successful in her opinion, by the way) intentions had been, how I had so skillfully rendered through use of language and imagery an iconic period in American history (the 1940’s) for a new audience. Dr. Brilliant thought I was gifted! I was Talented! Successful! And I had absolutely no clue why she thought I meant or intended any of it. Literally no idea. I had never “intended” or even given the briefest thought to rendering iconic anything, certainly never cleverly thought out all that symbolism. All I did was write down what the characters were saying in my head.

The conclusion I left with was that everything I had ever learned in literature classes about themes, and symbols and such in books was a load of horse pucky. The world shifted when I realized that just because a professor said something about a book, that didn’t make it true. All the things we as students had taken to heart about books, poems, or plays, we had accepted because an authority had said This Is The Meaning. If Dr. Brilliant thought I had meant all she said I did, and she was so incredibly wrong, then anything said by any English professor about any book or poem or play was forever suspect. In my mind at that time, only the writer would really know what was meant or not, and any other stated "meaning" had to be, by default, incorrect.

I felt this way until just recently, when I was having a conversation with a friend about a book we had both read but had very different opinions on. What I think now is that writing is not a solitary art. It is as collaborative as film making or theatrical production. We as writers craft something, but the reader completes the process by bringing their experiences, desires, biases, and emotions to their own interpretation of the work. As individual as each reader is, the ways in which our works are completed are myriad. A novel, story, poem or play does indeed stand alone when the writer completes it, but it stands so much stronger for the contribution made by the reader or audience.

Guess I’m not too old yet to learn some things.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mendacity Schmendacity

Sometimes my mind works on and niggles at odd things. This can be anything from the small, inconsequential though baffling hot dog-hot dog bun packaging disparity, to larger, more lofty odd questions regarding life and the universe. Most of the time, the things I ask myself about are somewhere between.

When I was very young, I was taught that you did one of two things in any given communication. You were truthful, or you lied. As I got older, of course, I discovered that things were not so simple or black and white as that. During my teenage years, this discovery was the Fort Knox of Ways To Get Away With Things. However, just as Fort Knox is not easy pickings, lying in any or all shades of variation was not a very successful venture for me. I never could figure out how to short circuit that flashing neon sign over my head that screamed “LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!” Every part of me gave my dissembling away. Unless I was playing a joke on someone. Then I was as smooth, unruffled and believable as they come.

I've been thinking a great deal in recent months about the role of a fiction writer as artist, scribe, interpreter and teller of tales. Because the word fiction is tacked right on at the front, this would seem to indicate that we are not necessarily truthful. One writer I know said we are unashamed, bald-faced liars. “But we do it for a really good cause” he said, and I wondered why it sounded like justification and why justification should be needed.

A short time later, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with the actor/singer Terrence Howard. He talked about acting and truth. He said that actors have to work to be as true as they can because the audience wants that truth. A performance that isn't truthful fails. To me that sounded closer to what I felt to be true not only about my own work as a writer, but also regarding the books that had meant the most to me over time. Not literal truth, but something deeper, shared between writer and reader, between reader and reader. Common experience from just being human and alive. From the earliest times when our ancestors told stories beneath the summer moon or in a smoky shelter in the midst of winter, the absolute literal truth of those tales has never been important. The underlying, inner truth is.

My friend Nichole, who is also a writer said “We tell the truth in a funny (i.e. strange or indirect) way.” She's right, too. Between the lines and layers of those things we as fiction writers fabricate is interwoven human experience, our own as well as the greater depth of it.

I have come to terms with the dichotomy of lie vs. truth in fiction writing and see it not as a dichotomy at all but more of a reflexive, complimentary practice in the expression of common human experience.

The novelist Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), summed it up very elegantly by saying: “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth”. While I was musing on the question about lies and truth and deciding how to approach it in my writing this week, I came across that quote on a writing community site that I belong to ( I grinned at the synchronicity of it all.

I am in good company.