Saturday, July 11, 2015

Remembering James Tate

I had the great privilege of hearing James Tate read twice in my life. The first time was approximately a decade ago in Seattle at Open Books. What I remember about that reading, in terms of the man, is that Tate seemed to be tipping prematurely into old age.

Fast-forward to just a couple years ago when I was able to attend his reading at USC. It was clear then that the gods of health had not been kind to Tate. I assumed he had a stroke at some point prior because he had all the telltale signs of neurological injury. This, I suppose, is unremarkable only in that there is no explanation for why some people are the lucky ones and some get the short shrift. On James Tate's behalf, I felt that life was unfair. That hasn't changed. Grace seems to anoint haphazardly. 

But if it was unremarkable that I was seeing Tate's body being destroyed by what I would call a too-rapid aging, what was remarkable is that, during that reading, I saw him carefully, with cane, make his way to the lectern, and I heard him push his poems out from a mouth that resisted working. On the one hand, it was difficult, in terms of empathy, to listen; on the other hand, it was profound that each poem hung in the air, fully assembled, as if Tate repeatedly gave up ghosts, which is what, in some respects, poems are. They live and interact with us even as the body has been taken away. I remember feeling, at the time, that he would not be with us for much longer, and that made me sad. Thus, I return again and again to the second half of "The Lost Pilot:"

...All I know   
is this: when I see you,   
as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life,   
spin across the wilds of the sky   
like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were   
the residue of a stranger’s life,   
that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky,   
I cannot get off the ground,   
and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling   
to tell me that you are doing   
well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune   
placed these worlds in us.

And all I can think is that Tate is, a lifetime later, finally able to pursue his father. That he has finally gotten off the ground, and that it was indeed misfortune that was placed inside Tate, which is why he was taken from us too early. But if I believed in any kind of grace, I hope he is a satellite now.

James Tate's poems manage to temper wonder with wit; moreover, he made the best of accessibility in that the poems are generous to readers even as they're absurd sometimes, and thought-provoking. Some of the greatest moments in the arts are when the most profound mysteries of the human condition are presented in the guise of humor. Tate did this. He will be sorely missed even if his voice still lingers on our bookshelves.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lessons Learned from Big Hero 6

The villain in Big Hero 6 harbors great animosity, triggered by the fallout from loss. Darkness wells up inside him and eclipses any good he may have had left. He plots revenge (a familiar trope), and loses his humanity. This serves to remind us that, if we don't tend to the issues causing us pain, we can become lesser monsters in our own right. What we fail to reconcile can ruin us.

I wanted another child but have had two miscarriages instead. My only child has developmental issues. I am now too old to have another. I must come to accept these things. Meanwhile, I have dear, dear friends with the family they have always wanted, the two or more "normal" children. I have dear, dear friends who are pregnant right now. I have a younger sister with an infant I have never met.

I don't have difficulty feeling happy for them, exactly, but I don't want to talk with them about the things they have that I don't. At least right now. I'd rather surround myself with women whose experience of motherhood is similar to my own. That is, whose story is complicated and made up of both high points and low. It feels familiar.

But there are times when I admit my antidepressants have given me a nice, thick rind, which allows me to cope, to be capable, to be high-functioning. Here's the problem with a rind, though: The way we chose to ripen what is inside us determines whether our pulp will be bitter or sweet. I struggle with this at times. Choosing between sourness and sweetness. Practicing gratitude. Trying not to be a dick because other people get to have more than me, especially when so many have less.

I know I don't want to lose my humanity like the man behind the Kabuki mask.

Big Hero 6 celebrates the triumphs of science. Moreover, it demonstrates how intellect can be a stand-in for strength. Hiro, and the rest of the "nerds," use their big brains to innovate. They develop tools based on quantum electronics, chemistry, electromagnetics, pyrotechnics, and so on. The heroes in this movie are such because they can out-think antagonists.

What is also made clear is that science itself is just a means to an end. In all the debates about the morality of technological and scientific advancements, we must remember that the discovery or creation of something only becomes an evil when it is used for nefarious purposes. Otherwise, it is neutral until activated.

I love the science working in my life right now. My son takes an anti-seizure medicine. You can imagine how grateful we are for that breakthrough. He takes another medication that allows him to function at a level high enough that, more often than not, he is indiscernible from the neuro-normative kids his age. I take a medication that helps me out of bed and into the morning light. We are the poster people for better living through chemistry.

Other more straight-foward points from the movie that resonate:

Nurses are important in the world of medicine (My husband is a nurse): "On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?"

Though it is debatable whether there is an afterlife, or a soul, those we have lost can remain a presence in our lives if we hold the memory of them inside us: "Tadashi is here."

Family can be a construct. For my son, who will be an only child, I hope he may find "family" outside of our small nuclear unit: "Hiro, if I could have any superpower right now, it would be the ability to crawl through this camera and give you a big hug."

There are times when we all need to be comforted: "People keep saying he's not really gone, as long as we remember him. But it still hurts."

To review:

Don't let disappointment and loss turn you into an asshole.

Remember that you can think your way out of difficult situations.
Science is your friend.
Nurses matter.
Keep the flame burning for those you mourn.
We can cultivate family.

Now available on iTunes and in stores.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Studies Show That the Breakdown of Parenting into Quantifiable Units Demonstrates That it is Largely Chore-Based

I'm thinking about parenting, and little boys, and autism spectrum disorder, and I'm thinking, again, about the way social media is a place to telegraph triumphs in the name of positivity while all of the challenges often remain unacknowledged, neither tweeted nor prominent displayed in status updates.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, you must know there are days where my five-year-old boy has me on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I don't know whether you can chalk it up to age, gender, and/or diagnosis, but being in the house with him is maddening: he doesn't talk to me about his day, he doesn't draw at the table with paper and markers, he doesn't race his Hot Wheels down the long hallway; he pinballs off the walls and furniture while making repetitive, nonsense vocalizations, and this is interspersed with opening and closing the microwave twenty times, sliding open and closed the closet doors, opening and closing the freezer, and turning the sink water on and off over and over and over again. His energy is intense and odd, and his toys remain relatively unplayed with. Then, when we leave the house, he's always afflicted with the ants-in-his-pants jitters, and if I don't keep my eye firmly on him, he'll be gone. It happened twice at the aquarium today. I was looking at a fish, and he was already in another exhibit.

Beyond this, it seems important to also mention that parenting-- which, contrary to what you may have heard-- is not always "rewarding." Perhaps, yes, in the long run when our children are moulded, with our help, into high-functioning adults: I'll use the word "rewarding" then. In the meantime, in the interest of honesty, parenting often feels like a burdensome chain of chore-based activities. From the preparation of breakfast, which must be accompanied by teaching moments (How do you ask to leave the table? Use your napkin. Don't scratch the table with your fork. And so on.) all the way to reading that bedtime story, which I can't skip because of how important it is to his future as a reader. Frankly, my friends, I'm exhausted. Parenting (on a case-by-case basis, of course) can have you close to pulling out your hair or bursting into tears. Or drinking too much wine at the end of the day, which is better, I guess, than bringing a sippy cup of gin to the mall for a mommy playdate.

And yet, and yet, and yet. It's all so paradoxical, isn't it? It's not as though I've ever thought, "Send him back." Or "Why did I become a mother?" Or "Get me the hell out of here." In fact, anytime I've ever felt that my motherhood was threatened, ever worried about my son's well-being, I've become distraught. I've wept from the immensity of my love for my boy. He is my life now, for better or for worse, and I wouldn't trade him for more nights alone in the bathtub with a pile of soggy New Yorkers stacked on the floor next to me.

Which gets me to the other half of the better or worse equation. Of course we're going to telegraph those triumphant moments, the betters for the worsts. Because those moments feel like shining achievements of sanity. Those are the "aha!" moments that remind us why we ever gave up going to shows, taking quiet trips to the art museum, or enjoying loosey-goosey nights out with the girls. Take, for example, this morning: My son walks into the kitchen and says, "I was a baby in a different house, but this is the house where I'm going to grow up to be like daddy, just like a seed grows into a tree." And I was like, "Whoa, way to be profound before I've even had my coffee."

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Influence

I have never put my head in the oven, not even to clean it. That’s what the self-clean function is for. I have lived comfortably beyond the age of thirty, never sunk into the kind of depression, clinical and of-the-ages, that drives a mother to throw open nursery windows and stuff rags under the door separating kitchen from living quarters where her two babies sleep. Never had cohorts who offed themselves, too, in garages and off bridges. Never needed time in a ward for the mad.   

Beyond my twenties when melodrama was a blood jet, when every chord struck was minor, I never thought I would be done with this, never thought, “Here, pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”  I have never had a daddy with a Meinkampf look. Mine was pretty much a Jew, though in absentia before I was born. Not dead, just deserted. I never laid flat the patriarchy with a sing-song rhyme, was never scraped flat by the rollers of wars, wars, wars. Never spoke like Cape Cod royalty, raised in a clapboard den of privilege, though what good it did her. My upbringing was purely blue-collar, white-trash dysfunction, though my early childhood, too, was sealed…off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth. Except I never became bitter. Never despised what I lost for how it shimmers like green meadows glowing… a bush of flies. I could not make an object of my girl-self.

I never had a husband whose body hurts me as the world hurts God, who left me for a woman who mimicked my suicide after outliving the Holocaust, only taking her four-year-old daughter into the gas with her, tragedies unfolding again and again like little bloody skirts. Never had a husband whose words competed with mine. I never managed to churn out two inches of pages, a tome, of lineated grief. I have barely managed a half-inch. My thirties, for what it’s worth, were feminist-approved. I didn’t even marry until she was dead seven years. Didn’t have my only child until she was already dead eight. My boy is Right, like a well-done sum. A clean slate, with his own face on. He will never inherit a curse; he may be ordinary.

I will never be conjured by teenaged girls in their attic bedrooms, girls disgusted by their parents and cheerleaders with ponytails, eyes ringed in black, toying with the idea that dying is an art. My only novel will never compete with Catcher in the Rye. I have never needed shock therapy. I will never be portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in a movie that romanticizes my death and turns writer’s block into an opportunity for baking. Will never have my death mocked by cinema as something radiant and well-earned. My son will never hang himself in Alaska, the family legacy of depression snuffing out my Nick and his Candlestick. We will be lucky.

I am not her nor will I ever be. I will never spend my last winter churning out the best work of my life in a nightgown in a drafty room, will never succumb to the cold. We ran away from it. I took my boy into the sun instead. My lines are not driven by fever. I will never be Sylvia. Will never walk through the valley of the shadow of death stalked by infamy. And though my career be damned, at least my family thanks me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


James Baldwin in Letters From a Region of the Mind makes the observation that “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” which, on the surface, strikes one as sentiment bordering on the sentimental, as something pat and easily contained on a bumper sticker. Yet, as sentiment, the statement is emotionally accurate. James Baldwin knew the human heart.

Consider this: How much safer were you before love? And then: How much did you wish to cast off the hockey mask and enter the frays of romance, or of childbearing, or, even, of loving a pet that you knew would die before you? We walk around, before love, safe behind the armors of loneliness, and we ask those we deem worthy to strip it all away so that we stand there, a throbbing heart, exposed, the cages of our safety masks and curved ribs as good as gone.

Thus here I stand before you— world, fates, family— all of my masks gone, stripped down to the skin, and I ask, meekly, that you let me be in my nakedness or that you wrap me in the blankets of goodwill. Spare me the excoriation. My husband, late forties, the man I hand-picked and pursued, has just competed in a triathlon, and he is vital, a force, more alive than anyone I know. I see him pushing past all probabilities in terms of mortality, so when he rides his motorcycle home from the hospital at four in the morning after a long night of work, steer the drunk drivers the other way. 

And my son, my one and only child, the one who has already scared me, scarred me, with health concerns and mortal danger, let him outlive me, let him mourn and miss his long-dead mother. He is everyday getting farther away from that proverbial well that wishes to suck him down into darkness. Abnormal MRI, seizures, autism: He’s shrugging them off like a coat he has outgrown. In Mexico, when he fell into the deep-end of the pool, his father watched him plunge below the surface only to paddle up to where he was able to hoist himself over the side of the pool, away from tragedy and back into the waning sunlight. World, fates, family: Be safe and let me be safe.

And my two dogs? The smaller brown one has many years ahead of her. My old, white dog turned twelve last month, and I can see her eyes going milky. Her back legs slip out from underneath her, and I have to hoist her up. All ninety pounds of her. She has gotten more nervous with old age, and she can no longer hold her bowels very well. She doesn’t mean to shit on the floor, and I can feel her shame. She knows something is wrong. I clean it up with no admonishment. I just stroke her until I see her tail wag. In truth, I think she has another two years in her. When I picked her out from the homeless man’s litter twelve years ago, she could fit in a cat carrier. I was not projecting this far into the future; I did not think of her death. I just wanted to let a little love in.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Well…I Didn't See That Coming

Shitmotherfuckerfuck. Not, of course, that such profanity was screamed or whimpered, although I was surprised to hear myself whimpering having never heard such a thing before. Yet this is the kind of language I imagined my vagina would use if it could speak. My uterus and its sick heaving, me vomiting over the side of the bed as I approached transition, my asshole puckering and then failing to hold in the shit as I pushed it and my son out at three-thirty in the morning during a particularly cold March morning in Connecticut. Fuck. Motherfucker. Shit. Because birth is just as profane as it is profound. 

I suppose there are the occasional women out there who have the kind of birthing experiences to be envied. Something more like poofing feathery angels from their twats while they scrunch up their motherly faces all slick with a comely sheen of sweat, and then those babies turn into children that flit about and charm the world with their glitter glue and spangled soccer trophies. That’s okay. I don’t need to wish them into the cornfield anymore. After all, we’re made to forget the pain, to abstract it so that we don’t even have the words to describe the way our bodies are mangled. 

But if I had to describe it, I would tell the whole story. That, for example, the birthing suite and it’s tastefully muted walls, beyond a certain point, were details lost in the rage of childbirth. That the Joni Mitchell I had playing— the candy of her voice— could not be heard over my retching and keening. In fact, all of the ways that I thought I had prepared myself were as effective as closing a slider door on the tsunami crushing towards me. 

Oh, but once I couldn’t handle listening to myself whimper anymore, I called it and asked for the epidural. And the anesthesiologist swept in like a goddess in institutional blue. I sat on the end of the bed and leaned over as still and trembling as I could manage between throes, and the thick, blissful needle slipped deep into my back while I hugged the ball of my as-yet unborn son. Then…numbness. Complete, dead, utter numbness. Because she thought I should get some sleep, the epidural was proceeded by a spinal block, and my legs, the whole bottom half of me, were as rubber as bread dough. 

Thus, it seems the telling should end there. That this is the point where what was should overlay quite nicely on top of what should have been. Epidural. Bam. Birth. But— the word should, it only serves to fuel regret, self-doubt, and worthless obligations. It reminds us that although one’s cervix shouldn’t be torn during childbirth, sometimes it happens. When one commences with the process of pressing a human through a hole that begins as little more than a dimple, one should plan to expect anything. So should can be useful after all.

That, for example, my son’s heart decelerated, the machines binging and my husband going to fetch the nurse. That the nurses and doctor rocked my dead legs back and forth to dislodge my son from the birth canal. That I had to push him out before full dilation so that not only did he tear the opening of my vagina, but he rent my cervix. That he came out as pointy as a pinhead. That the doctor was stitching for so long and the blood loss was so significant, my mother almost passed out. That I would be up for more than thirty-six hours. That I would look pale and bloated in post-partum pictures. That my son, fresh from the womb, slick and a little bit purple, would look me in the face as I floated above the experience. That the minute he latched on to my breast, I became his blubbering fool. That even after all this upheaval and hurt, I would have liked to do it again. That by the time it was possible, I couldn’t.

So consider this a public service announcement, reader. Anticipate the unanticipated. The more you know about not knowing, the better prepared you'll be to be unprepared.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Queer as a Three Guinea Bill

…the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us…
—Virginia Woolf

Forgive me for being so contemplative and reticent about responding to your conservative rhetoric. Here you have dangled the so-called welfare queen in front of me and asked how we can continue to provide safety nets to the less fortunate when clearly your stereotype serves to remind me that any person “on the dole” as you like to say is just a shyster gaming the system. And this is just the tip of your ideological iceberg. I have come to understand that you do not understand why gay couples should marry, why we should put environmental protections in place, why we should reconsider gun-control laws, why we should regulate corporations, why we should invest in education, why we should offer health care reform, why we should tend to — dare I say it? — women’s issues and, in general, why we should do anything that is beneficial to anyone besides what I would call the privileged class of conservatives living in their glass houses.
            Forgive me for not responding sooner. For we, in many ways, share similar experiences here in the present that are far removed from what germinated our political beliefs. I read stories to my son before bed, and so do you, or so I imagine. We equally shake our heads in confusion and dismay when presented with a Miley Cyrus video. You eat wings with blue cheese dressing; I eat wings with blue cheese dressing. Moreover, we all claim to be thinkers, to be interested in how we can make our country a better place. But… those three dots mark a precipice, a gulf so deeply cut between us that…I have been sitting on my side…wondering whether it is any use to speak… Because, frankly, I think all of your conservative sputtering is just a politically and pseudo-religiously convenient way to validate your intolerance for anyone who isn’t white. Yeah. I’m being pejorative about that word, meaning anyone who is different, whether skin tone or otherwise, from your narrowly defined concept of what constitutes “American.”
You see, I was raised by a woman who, though young, thought she was making good decisions about love and her future, and instead found herself a single mother. Then it happened again. She met a man who, though he liked to cut loose, seemed ready to settle down into family life. Boy, was she wrong! Then my mother became a single mother of three children, all because she thought she could change a man. But I know what you must be thinking. She was clearly to blame. And her three children? The ones who, for part of the time, had to rely on government assistance for basic needs such as food? Well, according to your agenda, if a mother has somehow fucked up, so then, too, should her children pay for her poor (only in retrospect) decisions. So, too, should they be fucked by inheritance or otherwise.
Thus you claim to be Christians, but in reality, you’re just Darwinists in disguise. You say I love Jesus but then espouse a magical up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, which has worked for .001 percent of the public who were, as a matter of birth, born at rockbottom. You’re really all about survival of the fittest, but can’t admit as much, so you like to trot out the one black guy you know who beat the odds. Then you say, if he did it, so can you, but you fail to scrutinize his story, fail to recognize that he was the lucky one, the one who had a grandmother who pulled for him, who had a publicly-funded community center that kept him out of trouble, who had a clever mind and an against-all-odds imperative to not just survive, but to thrive. Who was part of the middle class. Spare me the pandering. Spare me the black republicans, the gay republicans, and the Phyllis Shlaflys. They are only representative of rare and narrow truths. 
Furthermore, you claim that you have gay friends, but if they were really your friends and not just people you shared cake with for office birthdays, you would recognize the love they have for their partners as just the same as you have for your wife (I’m pegging you as male. As white male.). If you took any environmental considerations to heart you might recognize that if you don’t do something about fossil fuel consumption now, then that son of yours, the one you like to read to, might be pretty cold in the future when he has to, by necessity, ration oil during the bitterest winters. And if we don’t come up with thoughtful gun regulations, that son of yours might be in the wrong school at the wrong time with the wrong, armed classmate. And if we leave corporations to themselves, we might forget that even if moral people function within the office parks and skyscrapers, a corporation is, by its nature, an unwieldy machine built to churn out profits. And if we fail to invest in an educational infrastructure, then any child not born into privilege must first figure out what bootstraps are because he or she never heard of them, doesn’t know where to find them, and has never been instructed on how to install and use your stupid, fucking bootstraps. And, and, and… I am reminded of the Elvis Costello song, “Tramp the Dirt Down.” Do you know it? It’s written to Margaret Thatcher, one of your people, and the last verse goes like this: Well I hope you live long now/ I pray the Lord your soul to keep/ I think I'll be going/ before we fold our arms and start to weep/ I never thought for a moment/ that human life could be so cheap/ But when they finally put you in the ground/ they'll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down.

So I guess I’ll just end this here.