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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under the Udala Trees and Being Able to Breathe

If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.
When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effects of her spells on you.
No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes. - Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
So here's the thing. Sometimes I use this space to gripe about stuff in my life that is bothering me, which is fine. It's awesome, actually. It feels good to complain about things! The problem is that the books I read are often Very Serious, which is to say that they deal with topics that make my complaints seem very, very trite and minuscule. If it seems like I'm trying to have it both ways, it's because I absolutely am. I want to talk about my life, make jokes, and talk about heavy stuff in the books I read. This makes for weird posts, but I'm a weird guy. This is what you're signing up for.

So here we go.

I worry a lot that I'm comparing my little problems with some really big ones. When I talk about feeling left out sometimes in high school and then wrap it up with a book about racism, please don't think that I'm equating the two. I worry about that every day. I'm just talking about books and also about my experiences but do not think for one tiny second that I'm not aware of the privileges I often take for granted.

Here's a big problem with the way my brain works: when I feel bad about something it immediately jumps to someone who is dealing with something way worse and then I berate myself for feeling bad. For example, when I have my quarterly visit to the doctors office to find out how bad my body is crapping out on me, it's preceded by approximately a week of low-level stress that climbs over time to the day before in which I am a complete and utter wreck. When I go to the hospital to do my blood work, I'm at about peak anxiety, which is especially great given that my blood pressure is one of the big numbers I have to worry about.

So there I am in the waiting room feeling sorry for myself and looking at my phone for some kind of distraction, and my name gets called. Then I go into the room where they stick the needle in me and I have to look away in fear of passing out, and maybe half the time there is a little tiny baby in there! And man, do I feel like a jerk. This may be a controversial opinion but I for one don't think that babies should have chronic illnesses. Like, at least I know what's going on, you know? I'm there voluntarily. It took most of my time here on earth to learn that life is essentially arbitrary and random and I'm not special because I'm sick and you're not special because you're healthy. It just is.

At least now I treat myself to a sticker on the way out

These poor kids are born into that. They get betrayed by their parents on a regular basis. One day they get in the car and it's to go get ice cream and play in the pool and visit grandma. Another time someone holds them down and sticks a needle in them. You guys, that sucks. It sucks way worse than what I'm going through.

I'm very glad I have this body. It does a lot of the stuff I want it to. It doesn't do spinning roundhouses (YET), but it can run and jump and longboard and rock climb and work. It helps me garden and hike. My ears work well enough that I can hear and identify birds. My eyes (with pretty intense corrective lenses) can watch peregrine falcons fly and my kids playing pretend in the yard. I'm so grateful for all that my body can do, but let's be honest, it's also kind of busted.

There's the aforementioned kidney thing that I've mentioned before, I've talked about that a lot at this point. At some point I decided that if I shine a light on it and talk about it honestly, it stops being so scary. Kind of like how dumb the guy in the Alien costume looks when he's just hanging out on set. I mean, it's scary and can still kill you, don't get me wrong there. But it's terrifying when it's dark and there's fake smoke everywhere. I need to be honest with myself and others, but it makes people a little uncomfortable.

In my opinion, the words "It could be worse," is one of the last things I ever want to hear in any situation (another is "you've got polyps up there") because of course it can. Every situation is worse if a meteor hits you. Or if Netflix went bankrupt. I can't think of a more garbage response to a bad situation than it could be worse. Other alternatives: "You're going to get through this," is... fine. "This will make you stronger," is true-ish but not helpful. How about this one instead, how about "Let's talk about it. Tell me what you're thinking." Ooh, that one's good. When you're telling someone that they're going to be stronger or that it can get worse, what you're really saying is that their pain is making you uncomfortable and they should stop it. You can't be in pain anymore, you think, because I just said a cliche. What an inconvenience it is to have to watch them suffer when it's their job to be funny and cheer you up.

Speaking of inconveniences, here's another one. I don't talk about it almost at all. It's more complicated, is why. And frankly, it's embarrassing.

I'm extremely allergic to dogs.

When I'm in an enclosed space for more than an hour or so with a dog, I start to get hives on my back. That's when I know I'm in trouble. Soon the itching becomes unbearable and spreads to my arms. Then the coughing begins. At first it's just a little itch in my throat, then it's hacking, then I can't breathe because my airway is closing. I can open my airway with an inhaler and kind of manage it that way, but allow me to let you in on a little secret: inhalers are expensive. Even with my insurance, they cost $50 apiece. That's no EPI pen cost, but it's still a frickin' video game I'll never buy for every one of those little canisters (not to mention boring stuff like dinner for my family or a chunk of the water bill).

I don't want to carry one in my pocket everywhere I go because they get dirty and crappy in there or trigger themselves and precious puffs get wasted, and I can't afford to have one in every vehicle in addition to the one I keep near my bed for when allergy season is bad. I can bring it with me if I know there's going to be a problem, but a lot of times I don't. Dogs these days are like impeachable offenses from our president or that one Shakira song, the one called "Wherever, whenever."

I know how people feel about their dogs, especially natural resource people, and especially especially natural resource people who live in Salt Lake City or Park City. Dogs are life. I get that. I'm sorry. I'm sorry that your furbaby makes me feel like I'm dying. I wish it were psychological, or that I'm just a jerk who doesn't like dogs which according to social media is a very profound personality flaw. The entirety of the internet meme community is based on the joke that dogs are better than people. I will hold every human baby there is, snotty or not, and I will love it, and I will get it to fall asleep and you will want to take a picture because we are adorable, but I don't want your dog in my lap. Yes. I'm basically a monster.

This all gets made worse because I don't ever want to tell people. Many people who I just love have dogs and man, do they love their dogs. I don't want them to be weird around me. People are already so weird about me when it comes to sodium. I get policed sometimes by people who know, chiding me gently about eating potato chips, when potato chips are actually pretty low in sodium compared to literally everything else served in a restaurant (especially salad dressing, oh my gosh you guys, the salad dressing). I hate having concessions made for me. Just can't stand it. I'll quietly go hungry or thirsty because nobody has offered and I hate to ask because then my host will have to stand up. "Where's the bathroom," I don't say, before disappearing and driving to the gas station ten blocks away and then coming back and pretending nothing weird happened.

Instead, I just look like some kind of weirdo jerk because I push dogs away from me when they stick their faces in my crotch. Or when they do the thing where they rest their head on my knee when I'm sitting and look up at me sad because I'm not petting it. I gently kind of angle my body away or stand up. Then the owner looks at me pityingly and half-heartedly says, "Get down Duke (they are always named Duke), he just must not like doggies." Duke doesn't get down, by the way. Duke never gets down. Duke is like the opposite of James Brown.

Isn't that enough, though? This isn't like my buddy's barbecue, this is a professional setting. Like a lot of offices have dogs in them now. If someone comes to your place of work for a meeting you invited him to, and he is giving you clear signals that he doesn't want your dog up in his privates, shouldn't that be enough? Get that dog up out of his junk, for goodness sake. We are human beings.

It's not enough, it turns out. Because your dog is like your kid. OK. But I have kids. My kids can be annoying. I love them and sometimes I still want to lock them out of the house and push food out of the cat flap when they get restless and/or the neighbors are about to call the police. I recognize and am painfully aware that you might not love my kids, or have any kind of affinity for them, or even care about them. That's one reason I don't have them in my office all of the time (the other is because I've read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). I don't take them with me when I'm going to do work with other professionals who have a job to do and may or may not want a small child running around and destroying things.

They're only here because the salt mines are closed on Sundays

When I'm on a hike, I keep my kids close and when we pass other hikers I tell them to keep it down. I don't let them chase wildlife. They stay on the trail. I don't let them poop directly in the path of other hikers, either. I've taught them how not to negatively impact other people's experiences in nature. I know not every parent does this (believe me, I know), but I think we all are at least given the luxury to frown at such parents and complain about their kids.

Not dogs, though. And yes, I've heard. There are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners. That's a really clever slogan but it doesn't fix the fact that it takes me 2 or 3 days to get the allergic reaction out of my system after having to fight a dog off of me on a hiking trail. "He just wants to be friends," the bad dog owner says. "Friendship is a two-way street, and I am clearly pointing out the one-way sign," I want to scream back, but instead I kind of laugh and smile politely while trying to get muddy paw prints off of my rad flannel that I got on clearance because of course I did. In the end, though, I'm not allergic to bad dog owners. I'm allergic to dogs.

Some of you are reading this and saying, "not my dog," and you're probably right. I love good dogs. I love watching working dogs work. I love a dog that understand boundaries and let's me approach her. I will pet your good, good dog. Even if I itch later. There are lots of things that bring me pleasure that make me uncomfortable later, like singing too loud along to Kelly Clarkson on my run, or putting too much hot sauce on everything. I want to pet your sweet puppers and scratch your doggo behind the ears, but dangit, I want to be the one to make that decision. Because of the aforementioned issue in which they make me sort of not able to breathe, please understand that even when it's open air and I'm probably fine, they give me anxiety that is completely non-voluntary.
It was like having an addiction to chili peppers, or to beans. You sensed that eating too much of them would overwhelm your system. That afterward there would be consequences. Your mouth would burn; you would surely get the runs. The dreams would come again. But you did it anyway.
Anyway, all this brings me to other things that people are born with that makes them feel like outcasts even though it's no fault of their own and should not be shamed for it. Let's be honest, the dog thing isn't that big of a deal. Nobody has stoned someone to death for being uncomfortable about dogs. Or beaten them in the streets. Or forced them to go to "therapy sessions" that use techniques that sound a lot like torture.

I'm not comparing my (comparatively) silly problem to the horrors perpetrated against LGBTQ folks, but I think there's an interesting thing to talk about here. Here's a scary word that gets used so often that it's become an easy target for fedora-clad meme-makers, it's intersectionality. What that means is that there are no clear lines that divide groups that are discriminated against, and if we focus on one group at the expense of another, our work is counter-productive. Women, on average, get paid less than men. But white women get paid more than black and hispanic men.

That doesn't mean that white women shouldn't fight to reduce the pay gap, but it does mean that we all need to recognize that race and gender intersect. Sometimes white feminists can come across as uncaring or dismissive of other discriminating forces in society. White women deal with micro-aggressions every day. They get cat-called. They get assaulted. That all sucks. But they also get out of tickets when a man or woman of color could very well be shot. It doesn't mean everything is solved, it just means we all recognize what we're dealing with in a society that is still fundamentally unfair.

None of this means it's OK to tell someone who is struggling or standing up for themselves to stop it, because someone else is suffering worse. I have a tendency to downplay my struggles when compared to others', and the result is that I don't allow myself to feel bad, or feel like I should stand up for myself. That's a dangerous conclusion. It would be ridiculous of me to ignore someone else's struggle that is greater than mine, or make it seem small in comparison, but it doesn't make my problem go away. I have a right to assert boundaries as much as anyone else while at the same time acknowledging how hard it would be under different circumstances. This is tricky stuff, you guys. I'm probably blowing it just trying to explain it.

So the book I read is called Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta, and this whole ordeal you just went through with me will hopefully make sense. In the book, we meet Ijeoma, an 11-year-old Nigerian girl in the middle of the Biafran War. We've talked about this war before here, so I won't go further into it, but you don't survive a war at that age and not come out of the other end untouched. Ijeoma has lost her father, and her mother is unable to care for her, so she is sent to live as a house girl. Here she discovers that she is gay.
Man and wife, the Bible said. It was a nice thought, but only in the limited way that theoretical things often are.
Here also is where we discover what being gay is like in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s. When her preference is discovered, she undergoes borderline abusive Bible study with her mother, then over the years watches atrocities against LGBTQ people take place with a collective shrug from the populace and the tacit approval of the government. To put this into context, in 2014 the Nigerian government passed a law against "establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection." The punishment is a 10-year prison sentence. According to one report by Human Rights Watch, "the law, which took effect in January 2014, is used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimize abuses against LGBT people, including widespread extortion, mob violence, arbitrary arrest, torture in detention, and physical and sexual violence. The law has created opportunities for people to engage in homophobic violence without fear of legal consequences, contributing significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes against LGBT people."

Ijeoma, like so, so many gay people in the United States as well, (especially in my community) marries a man in order to "cure" herself, and soon has a child. Here the book turns into the best description of emotional abuse I've ever read in fiction. We understand so clearly how gradually it happens, how trapped an abused spouse or partner can feel, and how difficult it is to get out.
I spoke in a monotone those days, because by then I had begun to grow numb. As much as I didn’t want it to happen, it was happening. Often my only thought was of how much longer I could carry on that way. How much longer could I continue to exist in this marriage with Chibundu? I was convinced that I would only grow deader were I to stay in it. I would only grow more numb. And who would take care of Chidinma if things went that way? Who would take care of her if I became like the living dead?
Sounds like a real downer, doesn't it? Somehow, it isn't. In spite of all this, we love Ijeoma. We love her mom. Her life is tough and complicated and also beautiful. And, oh my gosh, this book is also beautiful. Throughout the book Ijeoma employs the Nigerian tradition of telling folk tales that apply to the current situation. She sees herself in the cautionary tales, but struggles with guilt, both for being what her mother called an "abomination," and for living a lie. I've just never read anything like it.
And now she began muttering to herself. “God, who created you, must have known what He did. Enough is enough.”
Anyway, that's what I keep thinking about. We can take our own struggles and use it as a beginning to understand someone else's, but need to be very, very careful when assuming we understand them completely. It's harder and sadder for a baby to have a chronic illness than it is for me, for example. But that doesn't mean I should pretend that I'm not suffering. I would never tell someone who is LGBTQ that the discrimination they face is less than a Nigerian deals with, but it would be equally ignorant to ignore just how far we still need to go in regards to worldwide attitudes.

And for real. Poor me who gets sick around dogs, because in spite of my complaining, they are pretty easy to ignore. But also, poor me, right? I'm tall, white, straight, and American. That's a pretty great hand to be dealt. All that being said, though, I still should be able to breathe.

And here's my main point: we should all be able to breathe.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Brit Bennett's The Mothers and The Going Rate On Words These Days

After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet. - Brit Bennett, The Mothers

I stayed up too late finishing Brit Bennett's The Mothers, because I was having fun and didn't want to put it down. When I closed it I was convinced that it was the best book I'd read all year. By the time I fell asleep, though, I'd completely changed my mind on it. Then, when I woke up, I was somewhere in between. There. That's my review of Brit Bennett's The Mothers. Five stars then three stars then four stars. What a ride.

The nice thing about this blog is this: very few people read it so I can say whatever I want here. For example: Hall and Oates is the worst band to ever exist anywhere, and by anywhere I mean even in alternate dimensions and the imaginations of man and beast alike. I challenge anyone to come up with a more annoying song than "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," that isn't "Maneater." Holy crap, you guys. I just looked them up and they also did "Kiss on My List." What else is on your list Hall and/or Oates? Genocide? Witchcraft?

Anyway, see? No consequences. You should do this too. Write a blog post saying inflammatory things and as long as it's not about how, like, Mad Max Fury Road is sexist against men or that Star Wars: Rogue One is sexist against men or how Wonder Woman: The New Wonder Woman Movie is sexist against men, nobody gives a crap. There are just too many words out there that in the economy of words and supply and demand the supply of opinions online so outstrips the demand as to make them near worthless.

Warner Bros Pictures
Me when I'm reading someone who can actually write

Here are other true opinions that I have that are demonstrably rubbish in comparison to the overall court of public opinion that is the World Wide Web: Keanu Reeves is a good actor, My Chemical Romance has some really great songs, and the Nintendo Wii was a beautiful system that has some of the best games that company has every made. Jonathan Franzen writes crappy and boring books. You can't be sexist against men because sexism, like racism, depends on an oppressor with a preponderance of power. Women can potentially discriminate against men, but it can't be sexism unless they control the majority of government, business, and non-governmental organizations, which they do not. Like, people lose their minds when two Star Wars movies in a row have a main badass female character but had no problem at all that the previous 6 in a row starred a (admittedly kind of effeminate) dude and no big deal. See? I can do this all day.

So that's kind of freeing. Now that the system of gatekeepers that protected us from bad writing, or at least pretended to, is gone, everyone can put words in front of everyone else. I don't have an editor. I put dumb stuff up here all of the time. Who cares. I don't even have to sneak into the high school copy room and risk getting in trouble printing my sweet 'zine about how cool Morrissey is. I just hit send and there it is. Jettisoned into the ocean of nonsense like so much bilge. Nobody notices, and yet the entire ecosystem is a bit worse off for it anyway. 

We all have the power of the press now, when in the olden days words were so scary a man was executed for translating the Bible into a language readable by the masses (the small subset who could read) instead of being completely controlled by the church. Who knew that the best way to silence one's critics were to give them a microphone, just as long as every single other person had a microphone of equal volume. It's like Syndrome in The Incredibles, "When everyone's super, no one will be."

That means that we have to live in a world in which "pizzagate" is an actual word that people use seriously, and one in which someone believed it so hard he went to a pizza parlor (and let's talk later about how "parlor" is such a strange thing to associate with pizza -- alliteration aside -- which comes from the french word parler, or "to speak" which everyone knows is impossible to do in a real pizza place, especially if it has a jukebox and ESPECIALLY if that jukebox has Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" on it) with an assault rifle and the intent to raid "a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing (sic) the lives of a few for the lives of many."

What I'm saying is that I shouldn't be kept up at night agonizing over what Goodreads score I ultimately gave The Mothers and I should go to sleep secure in the knowledge that my opinion means nothing. It's kind of a liberating feeling, actually. If I was some kind of influencer or tastemaker, like people sometimes call themselves on their Instagram profiles, I could really affect Brit Bennett's career. I could say that while her character studies were fascinating to me, the way the storytelling came together was sometimes too trite and coincidental and it could actually hurt her feelings. 

Brit, if you're reading this, which you aren't, I'm in awe at your talents. You did something just phenomenal here. Your book is still sitting with me and I can't stop thinking about it. I'm just astonished at your potential, given that you wrote a nationally recognized novel amid the aforementioned ocean of words that resonated with so many people at the age of 26. I, on the other hand, am a white man who has been told by society that my opinion is important and so I find myself sharing that opinion constantly even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Thankfully for everyone involved, I'm not an influencer. I did not go to Fyre Festival in order to boost my online presence but instead eat cheese on bread and call it "gourmet." Nor do I pose topless in my van with #brands prominently displayed because someone paid me to do it while I pretend that I'm living a bohemian lifestyle on Instagram. This is not for lack of trying, you understand. There's a (small) potential that you navigated to this very post because of my very good hashtags.

This is easy to say given that I am in no position to change things but it's probably good for the greater society as a whole that Brit Bennett really is influencing people. The story of Nadia Turner is a small one, but it has massive ramifications for her small, predominately black, coastal California town. At 17, her mother commits suicide, and Nadia is left adrift. She meets Aubrey, whose mother was given the choice between protecting her daughter and staying with her abusive boyfriend and chose the latter. Those mothers feature prominently. Though we never meet them, their impacts permeate the lives of the two young women. Another mother, the pastor's wife, is hard and pragmatic. And the symbolic mothers, like the muses in Shakespeare, tell us the story. They are the elderly women in the church who watch over proceedings, gossiping not out of cruelty, but because they've seen and lived through so much, that the way events unfold seems almost inevitable. They narrate the tale with a sad shake of the graying head.
All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.
In there too is Luke, the pastor's son who was a football star on his way to being a college great before his leg was broken. He works in the bar and, in true pastor's son fashion, disappoints his parents. These three characters' lives interweave in various ways over a period of several years, often to disastrous results.
Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.
There's nothing mind-blowing about the setup, and often you can see things coming from a mile away. I don't know if this is because of good foreshadowing or because it deals so much in literary cliches. I was disappointed at how often I knew what was coming next because I've read it so many times in similar stories. Maybe this is on purpose, that I'm reading this with the weariness of The Mothers, the old women who've seen it all before. Like them, the reader can trace the lines starting with the horrors of suicide and sexual assault and see tragedy coming a mile away. But, like how I felt while watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens Within A Girl This Time But Why Isn't It a Man Again I Mean That's Sexist, I just wanted to be surprised once. Lead me down the path, trick me into thinking I know what's coming. Then, right before I get to the inevitable conclusion, give me a sharp turn. Just once it would be interesting.

That annoyance aside, though, the way Bennett spools out the story is beautiful and heartbreaking. These are flawed people who make often terrible decisions and are forced to deal with them. Maybe at the end things are tied up a little too tidily. Maybe it's just too convenient the way things work out. But there's something to that feeling of putting down a book after a marathon late-night read and thinking, even for a minute, that it was the best book you've read that year.

Words may come a dime a dozen (which is a pretty great deal, less than one cent per word by my reckoning) but you don't come across them organized like this very often. 
Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.

Postscript: Anyway. Moms, am I right? Mothers Day is coming up and it seems appropriate to point out how frickin' rough it is to deal with the expectations American society puts on mothers. They get one day where we tell them 'good job' and maybe do an extra thing for them, then 364 of an assault of telling them they aren't good enough because the house isn't clean or the kids aren't taking 18 cello lessons a week while also somehow learning how to simultaneously build cellos while coding and starring on the soccer team. Mothers have a huge impact in The Mothers (obvs), but that impact is mostly felt from their absence. Both Nadia and Aubrey would have just loved a mother, period. If at any time you wonder if your kids would be better off without you, I promise, they won't. Just keep being there is all. Go get yourself a little treat, even. It can be a secret.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Kay Ryan's The Best of It and How Poetry is Like Birds Looking for Dates

Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hate ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds --
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn't generous.”

― Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems

So this is a new one. This is, by my accounts, the first time I've written about a book of poetry. That's because it's maybe the third book of poetry I've read in my whole life that wasn't A: written by Shel Silverstein or B: actually maybe that's the only other poetry I've read. The other two are The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins (whose title apparently inspired an A.F.I. album? citation needed) and You Come Too, which is just a lovely, lovely book of Robert Frost poems meant to be read to kids.

Oh, there's also The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton which I read a lot as a brooding teen who liked things that were dark as long as the extent of that darkness was PG-13 AT MAX. That book you read in like 20 minutes and there's some funny stuff in it.

What I'm saying is that I'm not really your one-stop source of what is good or bad in the poetry world. I am the cliched man standing in an art museum admiring a tasteful nude and saying, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like, and what I like is tasteful nudes." In this scenario, the tasteful nudes are poems by Kay Ryan. And let me tell you, I like these tasteful nudes a lot. That is a sentence I very much hope to see quoted out of context one day in a highly embarrassing situation, by the way. I'm thinking funeral.

Anyway, I picked up this book because I consider myself a literate man, and yet I've eschewed an entire genre of literature basically because of formatting. That's a bad reason. Way different from the other genre of literature (fantasy) I've completely eschewed because of better reasons (dragons are dumb and character names ending with "-anarius" or "-agorn" give me hives). Also, I thumbed through it at the library and I thought, Heck, I can read this in a day and then I'll have something to write about for Howie's Book Club Dot Com: The Blog that will keep the ravenous fans at bay. Like zombies outside of the ramshackle cabin that is my website, they tear at the boarded windows that are my pleas for patience when I miss a week, eager to devour the brains that are my hastily and poorly-constructed ideas (and mangled metaphors).

Long-time poetry readers are probably highly amused at this assumption. In fact, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, took me way longer to read than a novel of equal page length ever would. It's not because I kept bouncing off of it, or because I rarely picked it up, it's because somehow in those handful of words on each deceptively sparse page there was just so much to digest. I reread them over and over, not because I didn't get them, but because each reading gave another layer.

Like, after reading this book, I totally get poetry. When every word is slaved over like they are in this book, and the rhythm of the words are consistently perfect, these things explode with meaning. When I read great prose, I do stop to reread sometimes just to revel in it, but that's rare. I get caught up in stories and read fast and only rarely do I sit back and think that a sentence was perfectly constructed. Yet when I'm given so few words to handle such big ideas, I'm forced to do only that.

Here's a thing I do sometimes for work: I listen to birds pick up on each other. The world is their singles bar, and like stereotypical construction workers in movies about New York City, they have no shame. They just actively flirt with each other in broad daylight, saying what I assume are just the most disgusting things. Like, all I hear are their songs, but these songs are just loaded with context about which I am blissfully oblivious. What a pretty song, I think.

It reminds me of a nice Mormon mom I met as a missionary in Mexico who wore a t-shirt that said, "Love Sees No Gender," to a church party. I was delighted by the sentiment, though when I asked if she knew what her shirt said, she admitted that she had no idea. I imagine there are further messages in there but my brain is too tired from all of that poetry. 

Back to birds. I have a love/hate relationship with birdsong, and it's probably for a different reason than you think. It's not the singing in the morning that gets me. What I hate is hearing a song or call that I can't identify. It drives me seven kinds of bonkers. I can't relax, hold a conversation, or even breathe normally if some stupid bird is singing his heart out and I don't know immediately what kind it is. It makes me feel inadequate on just the deepest level. If you ever see me looking like I'm going to rattle into pieces it's (probably) not because what you're saying is annoying me; it's (probably) because I'm hearing a bird and I don't know what it is.

This is triply so when it's for work. These bird surveys take place with strict time limits, because most birds only sing in the morning. I always have very little time at each point to identify every bird I hear. It's overwhelming and I rarely get a chance to step back and realize what a cool and fun thing it is that I'm doing because those birds are just so randy! You guys. They are singing to beat the band, and my guess is that it's not like the subtle innuendo they use with country music so that your Young Women's leader doesn't know. I think it's some of that real Nicki Minaj stuff.

These lil rappers I can see 'em in my dash cam
I know dey grouchy like Oscar up out da trash can

Birdsong is great. If I lived in a world without it, it would be a diminished life for sure. That being said, when my job depends on my being able to turn that birdsong into data on a piece of paper, sometimes I just want a few of them to shut up for just a second while I think. Can I just think for a minute you guys? You, I've got you. Listen. I know that you're very proud of yourself. Just. Stop singing so I can get that guy.

That's like a page of prose sometimes. Too many words. Like I want to find the symbolism and the themes and the underlying metaphors, but also I want to find out who the villain is or if they're going to smooch at the end or if the dictator takes over (hint: he always does, and yes, it's always a he). Do I look like I have the time to dissect every page of your dumb novel about "the dichotomy of humanity"? I've got a blog to write.

So to summarize: if the novel is a woods thriving with birdsong -- beautiful and perfect but also kind of maddening in its complexity -- then a poem is that clear song you hear when the woods are otherwise quiet. You can really sit and listen to it. You can separate the notes and do that dumb thing birders do and translate it to words, like "tea-kettle-ettle-ettle," or "cheeeese-burger," or "who's awake, me too," or "mm baby I like that malar stripe come sing a little closer sweetheart and check out these wing bars."

There's no better way to learn songs than to watch a single bird sing his heart out all by himself. I mean, I guess it's sad when you think about it -- like watching a guy on the train swiping right on every girl he sees but never getting a response -- but you really get to know that bird. You also want to tap the bird on the shoulder and tell him that maybe the shirtless profile picture isn't doing him any favors, wing bars or no, but that wouldn't really be polite, you know? Also he's a bird.

That's why it took me a long time to read The Best of It. I spent some time with these poems.

"The Song Sparrow sings a loud, clanking song of 2–6 phrases that typically starts with abrupt, well-spaced notes and finishes with a buzz or trill. In between, the singer may add other trills with different tempo and quality. The song usually lasts 2-4 seconds. Patterns of songs vary over the species’ enormous range, so the Song Sparrows you hear when traveling may not sound quite like those from your hometown." - Cornell Lab of Ornithology

How Birds Sing
One is not taxed;
one need not practice;
one simply tips
the throat back
over the spine axis
and asserts the chest.
The wings and the rest
compress a musical
squeeze which floats
a series of notes
upon the breeze.

Like the bird's song, these poems seem effortless, but are dazzlingly complex in their melody. Like a Nicki Minaj song is. Or a Howie's Book Club post isn't.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Kindness of Enemies and Being Lonely While Surrounded

The Russians believed the Chechens were wily and suspicious. The Chechens believed the Russians were aggressive and treacherous. They were both right, they were both wrong. - Leila Aboulela, The Kindness of Enemies
Ah, springtime. My favorite time of year. When yellow-jackets start to build their nests in my backyard and the weeds fight for dominance among the fledgling little plants I try to grow in my garden. When longer days lead to ornery kids who say it's "too light outside for bedtime," and I start to sunburn because I guess I forgot what sun does again and it will be a month or so before I remember to bring sunscreen in my backpack when I work outside. When my morning bike ride is freezing, so I wear a sweatshirt and beanie, then it's blazing hot when I go home so I have to wrap my sweatshirt around my waist like some guy named Chad.

Spring is also my conference season, which is a super specific and not-at-all-relatable time of year when I go to like three 3-4 day conferences in two months and feel very inadequate for one hundred reasons all at once. Here's what wildlife conferences are like: there are talks and presentations by people who have accomplished and are accomplishing amazing feats of real science. These are interspersed with breaks in which one should be "networking" and "meeting people" and "making eye contact" but one is actually nursing a Dr. Pepper kind of by oneself and realizing (again) that one has very few friends and just never feels comfortable anywhere.

At the first of these, located near beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park, the best word I could describe for the experience was this: it was the word lonely. Surrounded by like-minded people in a beautiful setting shouldn't feel that way.

Me: I should take a selfie here
Also me: 

That's sad, right? I like being by myself. That's not the problem here. To me, being lonely doesn't mean that I'm alone, because alone is pretty rad, tbh. I like hiking alone, going on long bike rides alone, and especially movies alone. That's not lonely. That's freedom. Lonely means being alone when surrounded by people, wanting to be among them in a meaningful way, and failing.

In the last few years I feel like the internet has been filled with posts and articles about this secret world of introverts that only introverts will understand. I'm not sure if I'm one of those. I don't know what it even means. Chances are most people who claim to be introverts probably aren't. Does it mean that sometimes people exhaust me and I would rather spend some time in a quiet place sometimes? Sure. But I also deeply enjoy being the center of attention and crave it like Sonic the Hedgehog craves chili dogs. What I am is someone who very much likes the conviviality of social interaction with other humans but who is also very bad at it.

I would say that using words wrong is so hot right now, but that would be literally bananas.

I spend a lot of time during conferences on the outside of small talking groups of people who know each other very well but don't know me. I nod along with them and laugh or whatever and then the group disperses. Was this dispersal because of me? Well that would be pretty narcissistic to assume that my presence had that impact on other peopl- oh look they have formed the same group on the other side of the room. It's true that I'm relatively new at the agency where I am working, and I use that as a consolation except wait a minute is that the new girl just surrounded by uproarious laughter? Dang it.

That's kind of the whole thing. I know some people, and like them, and hopefully they like me back, but I'm very aware of the phenomenon of the conference clinger. I don't want to just follow around the small handful of people with whom I am comfortable, because they're supposed to be networking too and just because I'm rubbish at it doesn't mean that I should drag them down with me like I'm some kind of Jack hanging on to the driftwood that is Rose's effortless ability to be part of something bigger than herself. So I let go and drown. It's very sad but we'll definitely meet in heaven, conference buddy. As the rules of heaven go, we will reunite where we met, so heaven will be a conference. And both of us will really have to question how we lived our lives after all. Is this heaven? We'll ask ourselves, and then the credits will roll on our ambiguous faces -- reality dawning on them too late. The first speaker begins. His Powerpoint is bad.

This year instead of going to the big banquet at the end, I went for a hike by myself and dinner in Panguitch. The hike was fantastic. Eating my too-small smothered burrito in a hamburger and shakes place while listening to a podcast was fine. Going to the gas station to get supplementary chicken strips because of the aforementioned inadequacy of the smothered burrito was just the kind of thing that makes me enjoy being by myself. I can make those kind of unilateral bad decisions without any judgement or grumbling. But the long road back to the hotel room (long because I got lost) gave me time to kind of feel sorry for myself, too.

The truth is, I don't know why I'm like this. I don't know why I'm socially awkward and am more likely to say something that results in the uncomfortable stare followed by a let's-pretend-nobody-said-anything return to the conversation. And I certainly don't understand how in other circumstances I can have a crowd of people eating out of the palm of my hand, as the saying goes, though I want to emphasize with some forcefulness that I mean this metaphorically and not literally because gross. How can this same person (me) be genuinely quick-witted and charming one moment and be such an absolute failure the next? Get yourself lost in Southern Utah sometime and let me know what you come up with.

This is all super small potatoes, by the way, compared to how the main characters in The Kindness of Strangers feel. But because of the aforementioned narcissism, I still managed to relate to it. Natasha calls herself a "failed hybrid" of Sudanese-Russian descent. She considers herself a secular Muslim, which is to say non-practicing but fascinated by the culture. Her favorite student, Oz, is a descendant of Imam Shamil, who in the early 1800s led a spirited defense of the Ottoman Empire against the advances of an imperialist Russia.

Natasha is a professor at a small university in Scotland; an expert on Shamil and his military campaign, and she befriends Oz and his mom. In a post-9/11 world, Natasha is viewed with suspicion in Scotland based on her lineage and her fascination with Islamic Jihad, and in Sudan is rejected for not practicing the religion in which she was raised. Thus the "failed hybrid" part. Oz, a young man fascinated with his heritage, is even more closely scrutinized, and his search history leads to an arrest and detainment. This throws everyone's life into disarray as computers are searched, offices are broken into, and the university shies from the new attention.

That's the one story being told. The other is about Shamil centuries before. His son is kidnapped at a young age and raised as a Russian. Decades later, in retaliation, he kidnaps a Georgian princess for several months and holds her for ransom and his son's return. Anna, the princess, develops a fondness for Shamil and Shamil's son Jameleldin integrates into the more technologically and culturally advanced Russian society.

But nobody integrates fully. Anna is Georgian married to a Russian, but she still pines for a free Georgia. Shamil calls her the Queen of Georgia, which she likes very much, though if her husband heard her say it he'd flip. Jameleldin thinks he's fully part of Russian culture, but is rebuffed when he asks for a Russian woman's hand in marriage. As much as he loves the place where he lives, he's always considered an outsider. Both, when returned to their old lives, feel wrong and shiftless. Anna misses the simple life and righteous cause of defending one's homeland she witnessed in the Caucuses. Jameleldin craves literature and music, forbidden among his family. Similar to the kidnapped children raised as Kiowa in News of the World, there is no world for them left.

That's way more description than I usually get into, by the way. But I guess it's what I keep thinking about. On the one hand, my personality takes getting used to and is not for everyone. I'm the first to admit that. I'm like black licorice in that some people love me, some people have tried me and would rather never do that again, and some people think they know me from the get-go and turn the other way. Also, I don't like black licorice either. So there's that.

The other thing is that I don't really feel fully invested in anything. Having one foot in everything (in this scenario I have dozens of feet) might make me interesting to go on a car ride with, but it makes me so hard to talk to. I like wildlife but I don't hunt. I bird, but not every weekend (or even every other weekend). I watch football but not college football and literally not one second of any other sport. I read, but not any one genre. My politics are left of a lot of people I work with now, but right of a lot of the people I worked with before. What happens is that I'll find a common interest with someone, but I'm not as into it as they are and so the conversation quickly exhausts my limited knowledge of it and then we're casting around for anything else. "So," I ask, desperately flailing for something, anything, that can keep this person engaged. "What's your favorite Sega CD game?"

It's interesting that one of the things I like about myself is how hard it is to put me in a category; but simultaneously that's part of why I struggle so much in social situations. When Wall-E finds a spork and struggles to categorize it, he finally gives up and puts it between the spoons and the forks. It's super cute, but here's the thing: sporks suck. They're useful if they are the only thing available, but do neither thing well. If you have a more specialized option, you go with it. I'm almost 38. I don't know if at this point there's going to be some big change where I'm able to focus on any one thing long enough to make it my own deal. It might be spork-town from here on out for ol' Howie.

This is a look I'm pretty used to when meeting strangers
I'm being pretty hard on myself, I guess. Human beings aren't eating utensils. There's a good chance that I'm a conversational multi-tool. I'm not the best knife or set of pliers, but sometimes you don't need the set of pliers. You just need the screwdriver thing. If you need a screwdriver, a knife isn't going to get you very far, just like the guy who lives and breathes Alabama football maybe isn't going to get you very far in a discussion about disc golf. I've played disc golf like 10 times. I'm not the expert, but I can hang.

"I'm not the expert, but I can hang" may be the thing I request be put on my tombstone.

Also a big part of the book is how different jihad was during Shamil's time, even in a military sense, than it has been in modern times. It's discussed that Shamil would despise the current actions of some members of his own religion, even as his name is sometimes invoked in support of it. That's a very good and interesting discussion but I couldn't figure out how to make it about me, so let's stick with the tombstone thing.

Tombstone generator