Sunday, February 28, 2010

Forgive Me

When I finished grad school five and a half years ago, I sent out DIY announcements to far-flung family members. I was proud of myself for earning a Master's degree and teaching freshman composition at a university in my mid-20s; prouder still that I'd financed the venture myself, had written a thesis in one semester. On a sunny May afternoon Mom called to say she'd received my precious home-made card in the mail. I detected the tremor in her voice immediately; what she said next made me dizzy. "But sweetheart, doesn't 'announcement' have two Ns in it?"

After screaming and sobbing and desperately venting to my fellow grads, I decided not to resend the announcements, not to write a mea culpa post-script. After all, I was the one suffering; some people probably never noticed. But I can honestly say that even as I was trekking through the June-green jungle of Costa Rica a month later, the horror of spelling "anouncement" as I announced my graduate (English!) degree made me cringe. Eventually I got over it, and even came to savor the awful comedic irony.

But, oh, the pain of forgiving myself.

This episode has been on my mind this weekend, as I again try to have mercy on myself. On a rainy Friday afternoon nothing is better than a handful of rag-tag high school kids---playing harmonica, sharing a giant cookie, looking forward to a sleep-over---bouncing around inside the creaky school van on our way home from viewing the fantastical animated Oscar shorts. What a treat, to go to the movies during the day-time, to watch Wallace and Gromit for the first time, to relish every minute. But then trouble comes, in the form of a belligerent old grump who steals our parking spot and then yells at us for parking the van in front of his house. I don't yell or scream or curse, but in the most caustic sarcastic tone I can muster, I do let this man know that his joyless existence is annoying the heck out of me. I'm fuming as I climb back into the van. And then I turn around and see my sweet-cheeked little students, all wide-eyed and befuddled at the stupidity of grown-up grouchiness. I feel awful. Aren't I supposed to be a role model? Shouldn't I be gracious and kind, full of deep breaths?

Not twenty-four hours later I'm congratulating myself for writing five short pieces for the Bohemian's upcoming issue, for interviewing people and fashioning clever titles and greeting the Friday deadline like an old chum. And then something makes me look again at the jacket of the book I reviewed, and there's that dizziness: I added a word to the title and a "c" to the author's last name. Now, sure, I made the corrections, re-sent the document, managed a light-hearted apology to the editor, and can rest easy knowing that tragedy has been averted. But still there's the lingering doubt that tagged along all day today, as I huffed up a hill in the Glen Ellen wilderness and munched a sandwich in the glary afternoon sunshine, that uninvited intruder that would rather taunt than forgive.

I could go on and on about all the missteps and failures of late: not doing those 30 daily push-ups, missing a fun hootenanny last night, not finishing Eudora Welty's autobiography, leaving dirty dishes in a Sunday evening sink. But damn, do these really matter all that much? Does it really matter that I post this blog tonight, the final night of February, so that I don't fail to post four blogs a month, roughly one a week, my goal?

Sadly, it does.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

beautiful sadness

One of the challenges of my life is finding balance. I've constructed a black and white world that often smacks me with its brightness and rigidity. I need more gray. I need fuzziness and shadows and opportunities to pull away from the magnetic polarities that seduce me into believing that things are either fantastic or hopeless. Today is Mardi Gras, a day devoted to over-indulgence, to final binging before the subdued asceticism of Lent. It's a holiday of extremes. Exactly what I want to get away from.

Which reminds me of two heartbreaking pieces of art where both suffering and joy shimmer because they are linked, not absolute, not separate. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a book to savor slowly, like fine chocolate. It melts on the tongue and warms the belly. Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine in France, had a sudden stroke that left him completely mute and rigid except for the blinking of his left eye, which is how he wrote this gut-stirring testament to life. Though his corporeal life is over, his mind, his spirit, rustles with vibrant urgency. I read it easily in a day, from the car ride through the forest to the couch, bathed in evening

Dirty Filthy Love is a movie about a man suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Turrets Syndrome. He suffers because he is aware of what he is doing and yet he can’t help it. He suffers because anxiety is isolating. And yet he also experiences some of the sweetest moments life can possibly offer up, even a transcendental intimacy with a lovely woman. Set in London, this film has smartly satisfying camera work; it approaches the characters with the utmost compassion, as if stroking them gently on the cheek. I haven’t cried this much since The Wrestler---the good, heaving kind of crying that feels like all the beautiful sadness of the world is breathing right through me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who dat?

When you grow up in Louisiana, you know that the Saints are a joke. Even in my single-mother household, where the only male was my older brother who would rather make brownies than field goals, where Nickelodeon, not organized sports, ruled afternoon television, I still knew that the New Orleans Saints stunk. Even their slogan---Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?---made me blush with shame.

If there was any reason to pay attention to the Saints it was because they represent New Orleans: one of those cities, like San Francisco or Istanbul, that is unlike any other metropolis on earth. As teenagers, my grandfather courted my grandmother in the Magazine district, with its second-storied corner stores and big front porches. There’s nothing like having beignets (French doughnuts) and coffee at the open-air Cafe du Monde, powdered sugar on your shoes and black waiters in long aprons leaned against the wall smoking cigarettes on break. Behind you the chocolate Mississippi so lazy you can't tell which way it flows.

I've always been ready to criticize football. It reminds me of dog or cock fighting, a primitive blood-sport that sanctifies aggressive competition. A modern gladiator match that degrades the human body for the pleasure and greed of the audience. Football emphasizes hyper-masculinity, a scary trend that encourages men to perpetrate violence to validate their egos. And then there's the Super Bowl---a circus that, like most of television, keeps Americans placated and inactive. I want to retch when I think about 30 seconds of commercial airspace costing more than three million dollars.

But no matter how analytical us big-brained creatures are, no matter how intellectual, still we are animals, excitable and instinctual. And what are organized sports if not microcosms of our primal behaviors? When we choose teams, we render loyalty to a tribe. When we form crowds of screaming fans, we show just how comfortable we are in a herd, everyone bleating and barking their victories and grief together.

And so, last night, despite all of my heady objections to the sport, I tuned in to the most watched program in all of American history; I yelped with glee when the Saints (my team! my home state team!) made their fourth quarter interception; I even gnawed on a couple of buffalo wings. And boy did it feel good to let my inner critter roam off the leash for awhile.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another Revolution

In memory of Dennis, who would have been (unbelievable) 47 years old today.


loss is sudden

no time to back up
no chance to retreat

then: you're not even a heartbeat

but you made everything happen
like magic, it was done

forget Marx and Lenin
your revolution was fun

your dead tunes your incense your 80s tight jeans
your rebellion your sadness your impossible dreams

all glowing red inside the coziest lair
socialist provocateur meets mechanic extraordinaire

fall in love with a broken heart, they said
go ahead, if you dare

but breaking the rules never felt better
bamboo windows and borders,
we snuck through them together

june green silver wet night
i was the sky, and you were my weather

those weeks of scheming through dense jungle heat
rainbows and water slides, two hearts, one beat---

escapes usually come with a price
but if i had to do it over again i wouldn’t think twice

wouldn’t wish for a warning beneath the tropical moon
forever and always the warning would come too soon