Paver Stones

paver-stones-double.jpg

A hundred and twenty paver stones from an unearthed patio are stacked in front of our garage door. I'm not bothered by their presence; no one parks in the garage, they're in the way of nothing. My husband Patrick talks about putting them on Craigslist for a while. He takes a photo but stops there. I feel proactive one evening, so I post the photo along with an appropriately concise description: "Lot of approximately 120 paver / patio stones. Each measures 15.5" x 7.5" x 1.75". $100 OBO for entire lot."

The price was Patrick's suggestion. It seems like a lot to me, but I know nothing about paver stones, and there are no comparative listings for reference.

A man named Bill emails with an offer of $25.

"Someone named Bill offered $25," I tell Patrick.

"Ask for $50," he says.

"We can do $50," I reply.

I don't hear back for two days. I assume Bill's boat has sailed.

His response comes at 12:30 am on the third day. "hi," he writes, no caps of any kind. "the only reason i offered you that low of an offer is that i got some of these same pavers for free - the owner told me i was the only call for them - i will wait to see if you sell them - thank you - bill."

I read and reread it at 4am, when I have woken up early for no reason. I tell myself that the reply is literal, that the anonymity of Craigslist inhibits Bill from knowing anything about me other than my zip code and a random series of 32 characters that replaces my email address. I suppose he can see the corner of our garage door in the photo but that does not give away my gender. Still, I feel the spreading burn of condescension that I so often felt as a young woman when a man decided to tell me how the world worked. All of it is concentrated into that one sentence: "i will wait to see if you sell them." Not, "let me know if you don't sell them," not even the more aggressive, "i doubt you'll sell them." Bill went with: "i will hang back and watch you fail. then i'll swoop in and do you the favor of taking your goods at no cost while smugly smiling down at your petty foolishness."

I consider my options:

Bill,

That's so kind of you to wait. I'm happy to send daily status updates. 

Bill,

I wouldn't let you take these paver stones off my hands if you were Robert Mueller and they were evidence in Trump's collusion with Russia.

Bill,

Wow—I guess I am in over my head with these paver stones! Feel free to swing by later and grab them. Tonight's chicken pot pie night if you want to stop up for a bite!

I imagine grinding the paver stones into a fine powder and adding a spoonful to Bill's breakfast every day until he shits concrete.

I reflect thoughtfully on my anger. I will not reply to Bill. I am a woman in America.

A Sort of Non-Gravitational Super-Consciousness

screen-shot-2018-06-17-at-3-19-02-pm.png

During a recent bout of sickness, I spent seven hours watching Killing Eve on BBC America, which means I also saw at least 30 rounds of commercials advertising the same four things: the May Maytag Sale (though May is over), some slim laptop championed by a fashion blogger, the overly sentimental promises of a mediocre hotel chain, and Microsoft AI's partnership with Iconem—a startup that digitizes sites of cultural heritage. The Iconem commercial has popped up before—during screenings of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu, maybe even earlier somewhere else. It irked me from the start, but it took this recent cycle of multiple Dayquil-infused viewings for me to pinpoint the source of my disdain.

The ad opens with Common (Microsoft's newest spokesperson) describing how artificial intelligence will be the future of historical preservation. His voice narrates a documentary collage of ruins being digitally reconstructed before our eyes: a Jurassic Park-like glimpse into a history that deterioration has not allowed us to fully experience. Then another voice comes in: a western European accent describing in English the particularities of the software and the importance of this dialogue with history. "Eef you donne know where you come from, you donne know where you go."

Entré Yves: representative from Iconem that we see digitally photographing sites in the field and using artificial intelligence to "steetch them together" back at the office. The ad depicts Yves as sort of grungy metro-Euro chic: a tall, bony frame draped in v-neck tees and scarves, a dark beard with a few grays demanding we revere their presence, bedhead from here to Prague. I don't want to be presumptuous about how the real Yves carries himself; I only know that here, in this ad, he is the portrait of a very specific kind of manchild: obsessed with his work and convinced he is changing the world and—because of that—cocksure that not only can he get into your pants with little effort, but that you are going to listen to him talk about the significance of his work for hours just to grant him the effortless opportunity to do so. "I need to make eet possible," he says into a wobbly iPhone cam, "because eets so important to do eet,"

By the third episode of Killing Eve, I could no longer tolerate the sight of this man. Naturally, you'd think I'd been burned by this type, but my distaste is far more nuanced. In my mind, Yves is a composite of three men:

  1. In Type: A guy I met in a bar when I was 26 and went on a single date with at a Japanese tea room (his idea). He was a nature photographer and talked the entire time about his travels and aspirations.
  2. In Appearance: A bony Francophile I dated for a couple years who wore many scarves and talked about himself in the third person.
  3. In Essence: The Spanish foreign exchange student that Linda briefly dates at the beginning of Singles. He tells her his visa is up and he has to return to Spain, thus inspiring a fling he leads her to believe will turn into something more upon his eventual return to America. As a token of her devotion, she gives him her coveted backup garage door remote. Days later she sees him at a club, a scantily clad woman hanging off his shoulder. From a distance he shrugs at her as if to say, Sorry, babe, that's the way love goes.

None of these men (least of all the one that doesn't exist) have caused me a lasting degree of bitterness, but have evidently left a lingering repugnance that would cause me to so suddenly bristle at the idea of Yves, who is so definitively in my mind a particular breed of infantile, emotionally-unaware garbage.

This is not meant to be an attack on the real Yves, who may be a decent person. I mean to call into question the false heroism bestowed on certain kinds of men. When I try to imagine that same commercial with a woman in it, going through Yves's motions, I cannot. Either a woman would not behave like that, or an advertiser would not frame a woman in such a way; I do not know which is more likely or true. Perhaps women have to try so hard for their work to be considered important that they don't dare exude the assumption that it is.

Yves may be only part of my aversion. To a lesser extent, this is a stab at the practices of television streaming, which subject viewers to the same tiresome advertisements to a degree that could (and perhaps, should) drive anyone into a state of agitated scrutiny. Even a single hour-long episode of a television show is often interrupted 4-5 times with the same commercial—enough to render it meaningless in the way saying the same word over and over makes it sound absurd. Is this effective advertising? Is the effect subliminal? Is my agitation and ultimately this public response considered a positive outcome for an advertiser, because I'm responding at all?

I return to the ad for clarity. Over the course of 15-20 additional viewings, my agitation passes through a kind of numbness and I arrive eventually in a sort of non-gravitational super-consciousness, like the ether inside Don Draper's brain. From this place, Yves is a tiny felt puppet and Microsoft is an omnipresent superpower peddling the humility of its technology and the humanity of its mission. The ad closes with the Microsoft logo over the tagline "Empowering us all," as though tenderly stroking our powerlessness. I begin to wonder if Yves is an artificially intelligent replicant, or if our world has been destroyed and we're already living inside a universe constructed of artificial intelligence and this is ad is an SOS sent from underground rebels. Are you reading this? How do I find you? How do I join the movement against artificiality?

Come to think of it, though, this may all stem from the fact that I'm a Mac user.

The Shape of an 8

shape-of-an-8.jpg

I have, since the dawn of my handwriting career, drawn the number eight as a continuous line. I begin at around 2 o'clock on the the eight's upper curve, wrap counter clockwise around its head and down into the southern hemisphere, reverse direction to cradle its bum and sweep back up to swing just past the starting point in a bit of unintentional sloppiness. Recently, while logging a stack of handwritten checks at work, I came across one of those unconventional eights I see every now and then: the circle on circle eight. This eight is like the wheat penny of eight-making; I typically see one and think, huh, neat, and move along. But this time I was struck by its playfulness. The writer had even left a little gap between the two circles, inviting in a kind of animation, like its two halves we're saying, "Yeah, we're not touching. What of it? You still get the point." That eight was a fuck-you to number-making. And I wanted to follow it to whatever party it was headed to after this one.

Until now, I've had no cause to part with my eight—a surprise considering the carefully coordinated stylistic changes I've made to other characters in my personal font. I've had two separate stints with the closed-top 4; a brief period with the straight-tailed y; an even briefer one with typewriter a. I never did the saccharine hearts over i's, but I did commit to a hollow circle dot from about ages 10-12. The most recent change I've made is adding a horizontal lines to my 7s, in order to distinguish them from carelessly executed 1s.

It's worth pointing out that most of this formal experimentation happened before I exited the halls of adolescence. Middle and high school—at least, in the pre-digitized 1990s—was a time when one's penmanship was regularly put to use: workbooks, dittos, group projects, handwritten notes, in-class essays. (Who knows if this stuff still goes on? I assume high school students do everything on iPads, smart phones, or, at the least, sticky desktops. My high school had approximately one computer for every 100 students.) It was also a time when defining yourself was a task of great social import, and every shred of your puny existence mattered. I wanted a messy ponytail, but only if the lumps along my scalp were uniformly haphazard; I preferred my Chuck Taylors dirty because it meant I wasn't prissy; I wouldn't wear jean cut-offs until the first wash and dry, when their fray was in fuller bloom, as though its volume said more about me than my obsessive exactness.

Handwriting signified something more intimate than physical appearance, something that couldn't be as easily manipulated. Like our awkward locker room nudity, our handwriting hinted at the truth we were trying so desperately to conceal. Many girls settled on a safe, bubbly font, some wrote on a slant like their mothers, some—like my sister—wrote like nine-year-old boys (still does). My handwriting was large and erratic with a hint of femininity that had gone awry, like a doll left out in the yard all winter. My hand struggled to keep up with my thoughts. Letters rushed past each other like people lining up in at an airline terminal. This is still an issue. Sometimes I try to write neater but by the time I reach the end of a document I realize my writing has ended up back at a jagged mess of cross-outs and inconsistencies.

The least I could do was manipulate the styles of individual letters and numbers. I don't remember why I chose those particular modifications listed above; I must have been thinking: I want to be the type of girl that uses a closed-top four. I have no recollection of what type of girl I thought that was. Sophisticated? Artful? Quirky? I know only that it seemed imperative that I alter my 4 if I wanted my true self to be represented.

And now I am faced with the stacked circle 8, whose radicalness is blinding. I experiment with a few on a post-it; the act feels dangerous and fresh and exhilarating, like the way marital affairs are portrayed on television. I sense the approach of that familiar awakening: that this was my eight all along, and will bring me closer to my arrival as a complete person.

Am I foolish for chasing after the empty, temporary empowerment of self-reinvention? Will I look back and see this as the nascent stages of a midlife crisis? What's the difference between a new 8 and a new car/spouse/job/city/set of boobs? (That's rhetorical.)

Perhaps this quest is not adolescent or midlife, but humiliatingly ongoing. I have filled the years since my number-revisions with the continual pursuit of self-translation: the rectangularity of my glasses, the way I sit before yoga class begins,  the introduction of the word "likewise" into my conversational lexicon. I'm forever curating an imagined version of myself that remains one unrealized detail away, neglecting to recognize that a self is both fixed and fluid, malleable and inescapable.

For someone to even notice my new eight, they'd have to know I had a previous eight, and I cannot think of a single person (including intimate family) who is familiar with the nuances of my handwriting. Even if someone did notice, I'm (mostly) aware that the shape of an 8 cannot communicate anything valuable about my life. A half-hearted google search teaches me that engineers and architects often use the stacked circle eight to adhere to technical lettering styles. One message board calls people who use this eight "the scum of the earth" and equates them with serials killers. A woman named Alice confesses on Quora: "I saw Robin Williams do it in Mrs. Doubtfire and I loved it. Been writing this way ever since."

Like Alice, my circle eight infatuation is harmlessly self-serving. Trading eights is like putting on a sexy pair of underwear that no one will ever see, but that just makes you feel sexier. The new 8 is a catalyst whose greater purpose is to tap into my finite, dormant reserve of recklessness. For a minute it will make me feel wild and fun (or perhaps like an engineer serial killer) and will just as soon lose its luster. I expect to return to the old eight out of familiarity or novelty or sensory memory, and it will take me back with benevolence, wise to the ways of my transient appetites.

A Woeful State of Planning

passion-planner-red.jpg

I have a problem with planners. Last year I purchased three, and none during Planner Season (November through January), when one has their pick from a bounty of pre-dated agendas that make you think: Yes, now I can confidently conquer this calendar year and emerge a better, more goal-oriented version of myself. I waited until March, when all that's left is florally bullshit or planners with no dates. Obviously, I opted for the latter.

The first was a 5x8, teal specimen made by Ardium. I probably fell victim to a facebook ad in a moment of organizational vulnerability and was appropriately punished for my spontaneity: the Ardium was charming, but too stiff. It wouldn't stay open on its own, which made it challenging to do all the tedious writing-in of dates required in a dateless calendar. I used it for three weeks. It had to go.

The second was a Passion Planner, which I read about on Esmé Weijun Wang's blog. It was stunning: large, pliable, strategically interspersed with goal-setting guides that would naturally stand in as life coaches, zapping me throughout the year with volts of inspiration. At the back, a stack of crisp, blank grid paper waited to be messily polluted with ideas. I made lists of albums I wanted to buy, sketched the blueprint of a coffee table I'm unqualified to build. From April to September I carried the Passion with me everywhere until one day at Barnes and Noble I spotted a

Red Moleskine Pocket Planner. I've always wanted to be the kind of person that keeps a planner in the back pocket of her jeans! And a red one, no less: a color that would fool strangers into thinking I'm more exciting than my wardrobe suggests. I used it for exactly two months because tiny planners are meant for tiny people with tiny ideas and I am neither.

Disillusioned, I went back to the Passion. It made the most dimensional sense, and also I couldn't live with having wasted upwards of $70 on planners I didn't use. The benefit of a dateless planner is that you can break from it for any length of time and have wasted no space. The dateless planner is like an obedient dog waiting outside the convenient store while you decide whether fingertip Bandaids are worth the extra two bucks (they are). The dog doesn't care; it'll be there waiting when you come out with your fancy butterfly bandages.

The planners of my past faced much less scrutiny. Aside from a diehard At-A-Glance phase, I have often used whatever planner was supplied to me by an educational institution. The last planner I purchased before this period of turbulence was a sort of travel-themed chunky number with little sketches of bicycles throughout; I decoupaged its mediocre cover but over time grew fond of its cutesy insides with their quotes about wanderlust. I used it to capacity and even got a little sentimental at its passing.

Here's what I think changed: most planning has moved to the web. My work meetings appear on a dreadfully utilitarian Outlook calendar, my personal stuff on Google, and local events stay in Facebook, where I will be periodically reminded of their impeding occurrence. ("Why don't you just put everything on your Outlook calendar?" my boss asks. I look at her as though she has asked why I don't buy a pair of velcro power-walker sneakers.) I balk at web calendars but keep them active because, as a person existing in whatever this era is called, that is expected of me. By this point I should have distilled all matter of my existence into one device that never leaves my person. Its constant companionship provides me with immediate access to meeting times, phone numbers, birthdays, recipes, library due dates, and lists of whatever junk I currently need from Target. This is, admittedly, convenient, but also epically dissatisfying and un-fun.

And—cloud or no cloud—I'll never believe the stuff of my phone has any degree of permanence.

But this is not quite about my luddism. On a luddism scale of 1 to 10—one being the kind of person with a smart doorbell and 10 being that guy who lived in isolation in the Maine wilderness for 27 years—I'm somewhere around a 6.5.  I own a smartphone, but won't use Siri. I'm appalled at the discontinuation of things like the headphone jack and the optical disc drive. The thought of getting an entire uncooked meal delivered to my door feels no different than paying a homeless person to shine my shoes. And I just referenced Siri though have no idea if that software is still relevant or if it's even referred to as "software."

This middle-of-the-road modern luddism is not a simple curmudgeonly refusal to embrace new technology; it is a terrible in-betweenness, a sticky tar of romance and nostalgia. I buy into specific technologies when it becomes clear that it is harder not to, but until then, I exist in this liminal space darkened by the presence of useless objects whose former relevancy lingers like a sad ghost.

The planner, I suppose, nearly lost its place in the hierarchy of needed objects but was resurrected, much like vinyl, by those of us unwilling to accept its ruin. It has been reimagined as something artistic and inspiring and fun, like that cool girl you meet at a party who wears overalls and plays clarinet in a marching band (consequently, this was me at 13, and back then it was far from cool—what changed???). Planners are a quiet riot against the onslaught of digital organization, a reminder that crossing things off an actual list will always be more satiating than its modern counterpart. (If you're not convinced just watch this FUN VIDEO.)

And yet, I am still woefully dissatisfied with the state of my planning. Given that plans predominantly come to being on the web, maintaining a planner is now a chore of copying things into reality. I prefer paper but also prefer a life in which I don't have to work so hard to exercise this preference. My struggle to find the perfect planner is actually a struggle to deny the planner's evolution, to stave off a future in which planners go the way of 35mm film. This will be a sad, colorless time built on the precariousness of a digital fantasy.

In the meantime, I return to my Passion Planner and its tangible heft, its expansive white spaces hungry for my ink and my dates and my ambitions. If I forget to update it, I write reminders on post-its that I stick to my laptop. The whole cycle is a masterpiece of mixed-media, guiding my voyage through whatever this era is called.

No Photos, Please.

koudelka-2.jpg

On a recent trip to Los Angeles I attended an exhibit at the Getty Museum featuring the work of Josef Koudelka, whose photographs mostly depicted gypsies and impoverished people in mid-century Romania and Czech Republic. I don't know much more because I don't spend much time reading the labels. An art history professor of mine in college frequently and vehemently chided museum-goers who believe they're learning more by reading the wall captions than they would looking at the art. Every time he said it I felt shame for ever having bothered to read a caption at all, and henceforth spent my museum time looking hard at the art, holding my gaze for longer than is comfortable. Careful, though, not to stare past the point of social acceptability, because almost as bad as the label-readers are the art hogs who look for so long they make everyone else in the room feel as though they're missing something. I had never heard of Koudelka and was taken by his photos, enough to want to kick all the other tourists out of the room so I could be alone with the images (is there any better way to experience art?) and was even scolded by a suited security guard for taking a photo of one with my phone. "No photos, please!" he yelled, but there were photos everywhere. We wouldn't be here if someone hadn't seen something and thought, I must photograph that. The others snapped their necks at me and lost interest just as quickly.

I could easily have found the same photo online (which I have, above), but the one on my phone reminds me that I saw it in person, that I was there to see the result of Koudelka actually having been there, to witness these elegant contrasts: the girl's youngness against the finality of a wedding day, the white of her dress against the crumbling wall, the bitterness in the face of the girl in the window behind her against her own expression of annoyed impatience, as though she is saying, Do we have to do this right now? Adolescence is the same across time and space and understanding. I take great comfort in that—it makes me feel human. And if that is not at least one of photography's promises, then I have learned less than I suspect, or than I've hoped.

Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

smoke-gets-in-your-e69f1ba.jpg

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) Caitlin Doughty’s memoir begins with an elderly man and a pink plastic razor. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” she writes. “It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity.”

Doughty is a Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist. She best known for her organization and blog, Order of the Good Death, described as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Between that and her YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” she is widely recongized as a vocal proponent of demystifying our collective cultural experience with mortality.

Doughty’s debut memoir is an unapologetic account of the intimate (and often graphic) experiences of her first few years working in the American funeral industry. She focuses mainly on her job at a busy San Francisco crematory, where she began as an inexperienced 23-year-old fascinated with death. Carefully balancing a razor-thin line between humor and vulgarity, she recounts everything from moldy human remains to cleaning up molten body fat to loading stillborn babies into the crematory retort. “Appalling? Absolutely,” she writes. “But if I let myself be sucked into the sorrow surrounding each fetus—each wanted but wasted tiny life—I’d go crazy.”

While reading, I often found myself unsure whether to laugh or cringe—and that’s the point. “There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies,” Doughty writes. “What happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.”

With this book—and her efforts with Order of the Good Death—Doughty hopes to help “pull the shroud off our death ways.” The goals are to make death more a part of life, to reintroduce the concept of families taking care of their own dead, and to develop healthy, secular ways to deal with our mortality. Her writing evokes both the bluntness of Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, and the dark humor of Mary Roach’s 2003 Stiff, while taking the informally-designated “death” genre to the next level with a blend of history, personal narrative, science, humor, and advocacy.

“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death,” she concludes. “Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

Here Lies #1: The Green Suitcase

green-suitcase.jpg

I recently read a Huffington Post blog about de-cluttering, the kind that makes you feel ridiculous for having clung onto the variety of crap that weeds up tiny apartments: memorabilia, kitchen gadgets, archaic forms of media. The reading propelled me into a jettison frenzy, combing the house for stuff. Stuff I haven't worn since two apartments ago. Stuff I never read and—let's be honest—am never going to make the time to read. Stuff whose initial freeness convinced me that I could find a use for it. An expedition permeated with moments of waving an object in the air and asking, "Why do I have this?!?" before shaking my head and dropping said trash into a recycled paper bag. It's liberating. And because it's so liberating, I've kept that Huffington Post blog an open tab on my desktop for three weeks so that every time I open my laptop I am reminded to throw something away. I have since parted ways with the following items: a stack of paperwork pertaining to a defunct 401K account, two pairs of unworn earrings I found tucked into my checkbook wallet, copies of my grad school application (on paper and compact disc), a box of < 500 since-updated business cards, that backup bottle of eyeglass spray cleaner, and a package of don't-actually-hold-your-hair bobby pins.

In an effort to keep this going and make it more entertaining , I've decided to post about every moderately significant object (in size or merit) I discard. This is both an exercise in letting go and a testament to the wisdom that writing is the best form of remembering. In this case, not remembering the object as much as its history, or sometimes my history of believing in its necessity.

Here Lies #1: The Green Suitcase

The green suitcase is the first suitcase I ever owned. I purchased it from Target in 2005. My choice was based on its shade: an electric neon green, the same green of a pair of shoelaces I had cherished in high school. I was twenty-four, living in Rhode Island, and preparing to travel south to a wedding in North Carolina with my then-boyfriend and a handful of his friends that I didn't really care about who didn't really care about me either. Five of us left at midnight and drove the twelve hours in a minivan with a little television mounted to the ceiling. It was June and we hit hot traffic in D.C. I leaned my head against the car window, watching steam rise from the pavement and make Monets of the landscape.

Our hotel had a pool and my boyfriend had disappeared to attend to wedding party responsibilities. I happily spent an afternoon reading The DaVinci Code on a complimentary towel. One of the friends said, "I'm just not into popular fiction." I defended my book choice by saying that I was taking a summer art history course. We gracefully fulfilled every stereotype we had assigned each other.

unctreesThe wedding was held in a swank ballroom at the University of North Carolina. Finely framed portraiture scaled the walls and the sounds of a live string quartet came from somewhere unseen. The brides maid dresses and groomsmen ties were the same shade of green as my suitcase. This made me realize, for the first time, that weddings didn't need to be stuffed full of unjustifiable and painful tradition. The whole event was a confluence of tattoos and old money, swirled in this surprisingly tasteful fashion.

A beautiful Southern porch stretched off the building and faced an immaculate lawn shaded by oak trees. I spent much of the evening out there, sipping something nonalcoholic, leaning against a stone railing and staring at the campus, thinking about being someone else—a bridesmaid, a UNC student, a banquet waitress. I didn't have it bad; I just had it bad enough to be curious.

*

The green suitcase occupies half of the top shelf in my hallway closet—prime real estate in a three-room apartment. It is on wheels but at some point lost the feet that counterbalance its weight; now one must lean it against a thigh or a counter for stability. It has since been relegated to relocation purposes, carting DVDs or audio equipment from one apartment to the next. It's green still glows from among darker closet hues, but that is not enough to necessitate its stay. In its absence, that green will remain—in a dish towel, a vase, a set of nesting measuring bowls—tracing a neon stripe into the future.

Blood Test

blood-test.png

I am supposed to be fasting but wake up with hunger crawling up from below against the rawness of morning throat. Two hours until the lab opens. Maybe I can lie, I think. Or maybe it doesn't really matter. I make a cup of tea and dip my fingers into a canister of roasted almonds. "You have to fast 12 hours for accurate fasting blood test results. If you fast four hours or more the fasting blood test results may be accurate," says the internet. In my search for validation I find only the guiding principles of a pervasive framework poised to inspire shame.

I go anyway. The sun is coming up and the parking lot is already full. A woman behind the counter hands me a sticker with my name written on it. "This will be your name tag. Wear it while you're in the building and hand it back in before you leave." What kind of a system are they running here? I sit across from a patient in the waiting area who looks like Johnny Sac's wife from The Sopranos. She scrolls her iPhone with two hands, long curved manicure grazing the screen. I pick up a newspaper and read an article about the FDA changing nutrition labels, making calories more prominent and clarifying serving size. "Most of the nutrients are listed in grams, a basic unit of the metric system. People don't really understand what a gram is."

A technician calls my name and I follow her down labyrinthine hallways to a windowless room. Her hair is in tight rows and she sports a pair of outdated Nikes.

"Let's see what we got here," she says, looking at my sheet.

"I can do everything but the fasting tests. I didn't fast."

"Do you want to just come back and do them all at once?" I tell her I'm already there, so we might as well do the ones we can. She doesn't seem to understand my logic, but concedes. Tourniquet, prick, drain. We make that warm, temporary conversation people make over medical procedures. My boyfriend passed out the last time he had blood drawn. This makes her chuckle and arrive at the conclusion that all men are wimps, a generalization I don't believe, but she is filling numerous vials with my blood, and I want to bond on some level.

She hands me a urine sample cup and leads me to a nearby bathroom. "Don't worry about that sign that says don't flush," she says. "It's because we also use this bathroom for drug testing." I lock the door behind me and look for the sign that says not to flush. I find only a xerox that says "IF YOU URINATE ON THIS SEAT YOU WILL HAVE TO CLEAN IT UP YOURSELF." There is no sink.

When I return she's on the phone tracking down a stool sample kit. "Should I give her the one with the orange lid or the gray lid?" I think about how there is really no graceful way to give a stool sample, how shit universally levels us.

She dumps me back in the waiting room and disappears into a door marked BIOHAZARD in search of my colorfully lidded sterile cups. Ginny Sacrimoni has been replaced by a bald guy with a tribal head tattoo. All the magazines are from 2011 and I find myself staring at a wall mounted photo collage of lab technicians, little portraits cut into perfect rectangles from Kodak 4x6s. They all look so nondescript. Are dull people drawn to lab work or does lab work suck everything interesting out of your life? Two women come out of the BIOHAZARD room laughing. "Just cleaned out my locker and found a wedding invitation from 2009," one of them says.

The technician returns holding a brown paper bag. Inside are three color-coded vials filled halfway with unidentifiable liquid, and some foreign object she calls a "hat."

"The hat fits right into your toilet. You poo into it and then use the little spoons to scoop out samples for each container." Her voice lowers for the word poo. "Do you want the blue lidded cup, too?" She asks in such a way that implies I understand the significance of the blue lidded cup.

"Sure." Can't hurt.

She pulls a blue lidded cup out of her lab coat pocket. I like her, the way she prepares for all possible outcomes. She smiles and asks for my name tag. It makes a soft fabric hiss as I peel it off my coat.

It's going to be a sunny day. I cradle my shit sample kit under my arm and the tinted automatic doors exhale me into morning.

Review: What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?

woman-president.jpg

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) In her introduction to this collection of interviews, Marianne Schnall admits that her endeavor began with a slightly different question—one raised by her then 10-year-old daughter, shortly after Obama was elected: Why haven’t we ever had a woman president? “It is these types of questions, often out of the mouths of babes, that can wake us up out of a trance,” writes Schnall. “Many inequities have become such a seamless part of our history and culture that we may subliminally begin to accept them as ‘just how it is’ and not question the ‘why’ or explore the possibility that circumstances could be different.”

Schnall confronts these cultural assumptions by posing a series of provocative questions to a series of equally provocative subjects—Maya Angelou, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, to name a few. She includes men and women, democrats and republicans, and a variety of races and ages—a selection which illustrates the importance of framing the lack of American women in leadership roles as a humanist issue, not just a concern specific to a portion of the population, even if that portion is more than half. “Women bring a different perspective to each and every conversation because we have a different set of experiences,” says journalist Pat Mitchell, who points out that global issues are “too complex to expect men to figure it out all by themselves.”

Despite the diversity of Schnall’s interviewees, they unanimously agree that all women leaders face the same set of challenges, namely an unforgiving media, a lack of role models and resources, and the influence of a society that frames self-promotion and drive as unattractive, unfeminine qualities. “Women have to be taught that ambition is ladylike,” says Senator Clair McCaskill. Or better yet, that antiquated ideals of what is “ladylike” or feminine need to be redefined—a process that starts at home. “Most girls don’t grow up thinking that they want to be out there in the rough-and-tumble of politics,” says political strategist Donna Brazile. “You’ve got to give women the tools they need in order to believe that they can be successful when they get there.”

The general consensus is that we are on the brink of huge shift, one largely foreshadowed by Hillary Clinton’s primary race in 2008. Much of the book actually reads like a love-letter to Hillary, one that both reveres her courage and begs her to run in 2016. The interviews are bound by this underlying sense that Hillary made a huge crack in the glass ceiling, allowing most of those interviewed to believe a woman president can and will happen in their lifetimes.

“Are we ready for a woman president?” Schnall asks each of her subjects. A resounding: yes, but not without action. “I feel hopeful that you and I will act,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s not automatic…It means recognizing that the voting booth is the only place on Earth in which everybody’s equal—so using it.”

Tricked Into Believing You Are Starting Something New

street-view.jpg

Up before dawn with trazodone’s thick fog crushing my face. A vague light glows through poorly closed curtains. 6:23 am. Boyfriend rolls over in the lust of normal sleep. Only sixteen hours to fill before a semi-respectable bedtime. Coffee. I microwave the milk in the bottom of the mug before adding the caffeine so the whole mess stays hot a little longer. Laptop makes the kitchen glow like TV. Email, facebook, other email whose inbox receives messages from Tripadvisor and Goodreads and my mom, work email, weather, calendar. I spend some time obsessing over a recently created profile on a “the world’s leading site for online work.” No leads yet, but I’m optimistic. Decide to take a formal test to rate my English grammar skills: 82 of 100, top 30th percentile. The sentence structure test doesn’t fare so well because I have no idea what an adverb subordinate clause is. I quit at 12 out of 40 questions. If you leave now, you can’t retake the test for fourteen days. I mock this out loud into an empty kitchen.

Oatmeal’s in a bowl and I relocate to the green chair in the living room. 8:15, boyfriend still asleep. Read Cloud Atlas in front of a space heater until I have to pee and then I just take a shower because I’m already in the bathroom. At its hottest our water is still at least two degrees cooler than I prefer. I want to exit the shower with heat welts on my shoulder blades. I blame this lack on my neurotic landlords, convinced they have tweaked this lukewarm purgatory to their benefit.

Boyfriend wakes up and eats a bowl of cereal. We both work from home. “Will it distract you if I do tae-bo?” I spend an hour with a DVD I had my brother convert from VHS when I was twenty-five. I know every scream and grunt and motivational exclamation. I curse Billy Blanks only twice. Crumbs from the rug embed in the sweaty small of my back.

To the market: bread, bananas, milk, chocolate bar, dinner? The country observes Veteran’s Day and a middle school band marches around the store playing some recognizable unnamable song. I want to take their picture with my ancient cell phone, but they’re moving too fast. I cannot BELIEVE you are missing this. Send picture message without picture? Yes.

Lunch is a tuna sandwich. Boyfriend works from the kitchen table today so I move back to the green chair and write for a couple hours. It's like putting a puzzle together, searching through nearly identical pieces of sky for the one that fits until your brain feels light and you move onto another section, tricked into believing you are starting something new. I break to pirate latest episode of Fringe and watch wrapped in a blanket, toes tucked into the gap between cushion and chair. I think about how I wish my hair was as long as Olivia Dunham’s, whose real name I can’t remember without searching imdb, but I’d rather accept the gaps in my memory than rely on technology to keep filling them.

I move to the couch for a change of scenery and struggle through the intro of a Q&A I’m putting together for a magazine. Certain assignments evoke the stilted torture of writing high school term papers. I look to other Q&As for inspiration but feel like a thief without an original idea in my head. Get lost in thinking about how all artists borrow from each other and are connected in an endless invisible network of influence.

Boyfriend leaves to go for a run. Q&A on its way to the editor and I reward my efforts with an apple. The sun reflects off dew clinging to the kitchen windows. We have a moisture problem. The neurotic landlords blame it on our hot breath. “Have you ever slept in a tent?” the wife asked, implying that I compare our apartment to a canvas teepee in the woods. Her tone suggests she believes this is the most logical explanation. I cannot argue with belief.

Lock up and walk through the old cemetery behind our duplex. Trying to find the oldest birth date; so far: 1807. It’s November and summer’s corpse spreads itself over the northern hemisphere. Various shades of orange and brown blanket the walkways. Newer headstones feature etched portraits of the dead. Mental note: etched portrait phenomenon seems exclusive to first generation immigrants. Warrants further investigation.

The dewey apartment welcomes me home. Daylight savings has pushed the afternoon into darkness. I move through, turning on the lights, then pause in the center of electric yellow for minutes, staring, wondering what to do next. My sock is bunched inside my boot. Princess and the pea.

Boyfriend watches football on his laptop, periodically fielding calls from his father, who also watches football in a city 3,000 miles away. I decide to read and then I change my mind and write until my face is pressed against the cold levee of imagination. Retreat to dinner: pasta and greens from a bag. Pre-washed but who trusts that claim. I rev up the salad spinner and let it go, shooting spinach water against skim milky white plastic; it sounds like an engine dying. The most gratifying kitchen experience. One more spin.

We eat touching knees under a tiny kitchen table and talk about writing. Some nights this feels like monologues sharing a stage. Alone, together. How much can you ever truly know about someone else’s work? Tomato sauce stains our lips. I illustrate the puzzle metaphor with my hands. He nods. He’s heard this a thousand times. We touch fingertips between empty bowls.

The Plaid Pantry appears to be out of dark chocolate Reeses peanut butter cups. “Maybe they’re discontinued,” I worry out loud. A hooded man slinks by whose movements echo those of an ape—hulking, dragging, dark. Boyfriend discovers desired candy in an unsuspecting spot. We buy it from a girl who doesn’t say hello back and divvy our treat outside on the gummy sidewalk. “I thought that guy was a gorilla,” he says, shoving the whole cup in his mouth. I eat mine like it’s a delicacy, making it last two street blocks.

At home we get under a blanket and watch part of a Harry Potter. Boyfriend has to explain what’s happening between each scene because I’ve never read the books and there are more characters than a Tolstoy novel. Sleep crawls into my peripherals. I lean my head on a shoulder that smells like wet. “Are you falling asleep?” he asks. I am and so I forget to answer.

“Babe?”

I am in bed first, every night. Crawl into the cold shell of sheets, glasses off, body tucked into a ball, long, deep breath. I find my way to the puzzle, putting words and sentences together at the edges of consciousness. Every idea feels alive, ingenious. Sleep is at the door, and the ideas become a train I am not on, leaving a station. I reach for one and repeat it over and over in my head.

Let me remember this tomorrow.

Kate Zambreno's Heroines

tumblr_mctnbsmtob1rzrndt.jpg

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) Kate Zambreno has declared herself the “literary executor of the dead and erased.” Zambreno’s blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, is part of an online discourse around how women writers have been historically perceived. Her latest book, Heroines, is part memoir and part encyclopedia of these forgotten women writers, a union in which she believes herself to be a part.

Zambreno’s narrative is a series of fragmented histories. The bulk are rich and devastating biographical accounts from what she calls her “invisible community,” comprised of women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, among others. While Zambreno has a soft spot for the “erased wives,” she constructs a broad community built around women writers whose legacies were repressed. “Who gets to be remembered?,” she asks. “Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?” Her intent is to illuminate these writers’ achievements, otherwise buried in the shadows of a husband, a mental illness, or a suicide.

Zambreno takes us inside the unique struggles of women writers and ultimately reveals that little has changed. The skeleton of this book is her own literary identity crisis. “I have two selves too,” she writes. “The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” She struggles throughout to reconcile her marriage to a writer with her own writerly goals, affirming that love and ambition are often doomed to a perpetual binary.

Duality seems to be at the core of Zambreno’s text: husbands and wives, writers and characters, novelists and novelties. She takes the corset off a world in which women have historically been expected to be muses instead of artists, often ostracized or ridiculed for attempting to cross that divide.

One of her central arguments is that there is a critical bias against women who write autobiographically. “Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided content,” she writes. The charge is often narcissism—one rarely leveled at male writers of the same genre. “he can write the autobiographical, but his work is read as aspiring to something greater.” Zambreno disputes these claims and encourages women to embrace the literary self-portrait, if anything to claim ownership of themselves as characters before someone else takes that liberty.

Toward the end the autobiographical takes a backseat and Zambreno speaks frankly to her readers, advising them to tell their stories in any format available. “The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves.” This book will leave you with a sense of urgency to preserve your own fast-disappearing history.

A Pintervention

c8087_pinterest.jpg

Pinterest revealed itself to me much like the popular-girls club that convened around the make-out rock at recess: elusive and invitation only. The friends who mentioned using Pinterest were girls who spent hard time on the internet—the same girls who casually slipped verbs like tweet into every day conversation. I knew little about it other than that it was a domain where people I knew had discovered DIY crafty ways to reorganize their lives. Baby mobiles made out of Tolstoy novels, that kind of thing. I didn't beg for an invite. Pinterest sounded enticing in the same way of a new neighborhood bakery: a doorway to temptation. Life seemed to grow increasingly cluttered as the list of logins and bookmarks and security questions compiled, and I already worried about spending too much time admiring others' ideas rather than executing my own. But actively creative people I knew and trusted seemed to place their faith in this pinning universe, so when I was offered an invite, I accepted.

Pinterest greeted me with the aesthetic sensibility of an IKEA catalog. The design is smart and simple: vertical stacks of photos mounted like polaroids floating in a digital white nether land. The photos themselves are an organized mess, but the white somehow makes everything look neat and inviting and easy.

I connected with my online friends and studied their pinning habits: recipes for vegan fudgsicles, bookshelves built out of anything you can get your hands on, huge exotic bodies of water reflecting foreign skies, handbags far outside a normal human's price range, cute dresses floating on invisible mannequins, and lots and lots of mason jars. Some of the pins offered inspiring ideas; most seemed to scream: THINGS I COVET THAT I CANNOT OBTAIN FOR FINANCIAL AND/OR TEMPORAL REASONS.

I wasn't sure where to start so I pinned the book I was reading at the time. Then I pinned an article my friend had just published, the trailer for movie I reviewed, the website of an organization I volunteer for. I went the way of the nerdy pinner whose choices suggest: Look at this neat [noun] I read/watched/absorbed/experienced/admired! My pins were mostly objects of intellectual consumption. I sought to share the joy of knowledge.

I also sought to intellectualize an internet experience that felt entirely indulgent. Pinterest induced my internet guilt in the worst way. Its white scroll functioned more like a black hole, pulling me in and erasing any time I might have used to create all the crafty ideas reflecting off my glossy pupils. I retaliated by being the most boring pinner ever. Read this book. Check out this nonprofit. This morning I pinned a link to an article in BITCH magazine about how Pinterest reinforces gender stereotypes and added the caption: "Read an article about this thing you're doing right now." My pinning habits are equally as self-indulgent, if not more so, than the average pinner; I use the site like a headboard, carving a notch for every cultural product I consume.

Pinterest could be a great platform for sharing ideas, but I worry it has become a place where futile desires go to die. Sometimes the Pinterest experience recalls the image of a child with her face pressed against a shop window, gawking at all the lovely things out of her reach. The website describes itself as a place that "lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web." Beautiful things are often those we admire and have little hope of attaining: a house made of glass in the woods, a Givenchy gown from the 1950s, the time to bake and decorate cupcakes to look like old fashioned hamburgers.

Perhaps I was mislead. Perhaps Pinterest is meant to be more of a wishing well than a leave-a-penny-take-a-penny dish. There is no harm in a collection of beautiful things. Maybe every Pinterest account is actually a personal web museum that compiles our unique palates into a carefully catalogued album of objects on white, on white. In the end it may neither be a place for things we want or things that inspire us, but simply things we think are wonderful.

We're nowhere near the end.

images.jpeg

I write this from the floor, laptop resting on the edge of a coffee table pushed into a corner and piled with rugs folded in half. We're moving and the house is the kind of empty that makes the creaks under our footsteps reverberate and the cats reluctant to move from the islands of home that have not yet become unfamiliar—stool by the window, carpeted staircase landing, bathtub ledge. I keep thinking of the last episode of Growing Pains when the Seavers share a pizza on the naked living room floor and then walk out the front door backwards. Carol leaves last and pauses in the doorway for a couple seconds before saying goodbye to her childhood home and, implicitly, her audience. I misremember her flicking off a light switch, which must have been featured in another touching series finale. I want to say sentimentality is a learned behavior. Perhaps I saw enough of it on TV as a kid to want to elevate the act of moving from one house to another into an epic change worthy of thoughtful pauses in doorways during which I visualize four years of memories in a matter of seconds. In reality, moving hardly allows for the luxury of nostalgic respite. What TV does not show us is moving's gruesome underbelly—the layers of grease clinging to the oven's hood, the awkward conversation about who bought the can opener, the lifetimes wasted on hold waiting to terminate service for the internet and the gas and the electric and the water and the trash. Art comes down off the walls and knick knacks make their way to FREE piles on the sidewalk; the familiar slowly begins to disintegrate. Your life gradually compartmentalizes into a series of boxes labeled with sharpie markers as you slip into a transient state, eating every meal with the same bowl and spoon from some unclaimed chair in the middle of an empty room, staring blankly at a rotating fan. Your home becomes an exotic shell of its former memory-filled self, the way a corpse cannot substitute for the person who once gave it life. By the time you leave one place your brain has already half settled into the next, if only to protect it from the emotional vacuum that has filled the space you have emptied. When you lock up that final time you are not thinking of your fondest memories. You are thinking: did I remember to take the shower curtain?

Of course, if I wasn't sentimental I wouldn't be writing this. But the sentimentality of moving hides in the minuscule details rather than the panoramic view of life's scattered finales. I found it while cleaning off the kitchen windowsill when I stumbled upon a ceramic eyeball that had once been attached to a novelty Halloween mug that belonged to my sister. The mug was in the shape of a head (vampire? monster?) whose eyeballs jutted out from its face on metal springs, the kind of impractical mug someone like my little sister would adore. One of the eyeballs popped off one day and we saved it with the intention of reanimation, but instead it ended up on the dusty windowsill in between an unidentifiable refrigerator part and a sun-bleached zine titled "How To Do The Dishes." When I rediscovered it I held it in my purple rubber glove remembering the mug and the loss of the eyeball; the year my sister lived with us and how she tried to persuade the reluctant cats into sleeping in her bed every night; the way we save broken objects with the intent of repairing them—a refrigerator magnet from Italy, a ring from high school with stars and moons engraved into its surface; the reality that these objects can never return us to the past they represent; that life disappears behind us like the interior of a room disappearing behind a closing door as we stand outside, staring into the fissure until we hear the sound of a bolt being latched.

When you hold these objects in your hands you are tricked into feeling connected. After Carol's weepy goodbye the Seavers close the door on their Long Island home (and their series), but Maggie rushes back into the empty house having forgotten a family portrait on the mantle. She picks it up and discovers a message scratched into the brick: MIKE SEAVER WAS HERE. She runs her fingers over the words searching for the moment in which they were engraved and hugs the framed photograph to her abdomen, savoring the bittersweet confluence of past and present before running out into an unknown future beyond the predictability of her staged living room. The camera pulls back. The score swells into a heartwrenching twist on the original theme. We are left with our nostalgia and a wide shot of a hollow living room, afternoon sun spilling onto the polished hardwoods.

If I were a Seaver I might have pocketed that eyeball, but it ended up in the trash along with a place card from a friend's wedding and a pair of worn out orange Nikes with no shoelaces and dozens of other peepholes into the irretrievable history of my life. There was a time when I was more of a Seaver, when I would have said goodbye out loud to a house that only settled in response, but that era has passed. When I exit my house for the last time I will stand in the doorway for a second, scanning the interior for overlooked scuffs, and I will think of the Seavers and of my nostalgia for a time when I was more sentimental. And then I will lock the door behind me.

Suicide in Lee Hirsch's "Bully"

bully1.jpg

[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's student newsletter, June 2012] Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully is a heartbreaking and necessary film that illustrates the impact childhood bullying has on individuals, families, and communities. Hirsch follows the personal stories of three different teenagers, revealing their painful daily struggles with mental and physical abuse from their peers. These images are both disheartening and provocative, inspiring profound empathy for these characters and frustration toward a system that seems unwilling to help their plight.

Hirsch was inspired by his own childhood experiences being bullied, and used his film to give kids and parents a voice to talk about their experiences. “Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about,” he told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence.”

That statement, coincidentally, could also apply to suicide, a subject that plays a large role in Hirsch’s narrative. The film opens with the tragic story of 17-year-old Tyler Long’s 2009 suicide. Hirsch interviews Long’s parents, who talk about their son’s childhood and his longtime struggle with bullying—the catalyst, they believe, that led to his untimely death. “We know why Tyler did what he did,” his father says. “It was the mental abuse and not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.” Long’s suicide is a prominent storyline throughout the film, along with the suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, whose death inspired Stand For The Silent—a program through which Ty’s parents educate students about the effects of bullying and what they can do to help end the silent epidemic.

These cultural connections between suicide and bullying are not uncommon. Bullying has received a lot of attention recently in relation to adolescent suicide, especially in the case of LGBT youth. Bully relies heavily on this cause-and-effect relationship to bolster its anti-bullying agenda. The documentary’s message seems to be: bullying is bad because it can have fatal repercussions. While this may be true, Hirsch neglects to address other factors that may have been present in the two suicides he references—namely depression and Asperger’s syndrome—thereby oversimplifying suicide and the variety of circumstances that can lead to self-inflicted death.

This perspective is a bit cursory and a whole lot potentially hazardous. The film repeatedly implies that suicide was the single reason anyone “took notice” of the bullying issue, and that it requires something as extreme as a suicide to affect change. These presumptions could lead Hirsch’s intended adolescent audience to believe that suicide is the direct and ultimate result of bullying, a way to get noticed, and a way to solve the problem.

Various scholarly studies have established a link between bullying and adolescent suicide, but not without acknowledging that bullying first inspires anxiety, depression, and aggression amongst its victims. Hirsch’s film shows this, but neglects to say it—a technique that may communicate the reality to adults but would likely slip under a teenager’s radar. The most telling moment might be when Alex, a 13-year-old boy who is relentlessly abused by his peers, talks to his mother about his classmates. She asks if it makes him feel good when they punch or kick or stab him.

“Well, I don’t know,” he responds. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”

A statement like that should pave the way for a discussion about depression, but the film avoids the topic, despite many obvious indications.

Bullying is clearly a serious and under-represented issue that deserves attention and respect. Hirsch’s intentions are admirable, and the film will likely educate a variety of people about the severity of this issue, with which adolescent suicide is legitimately bound. Bullying was likely one of many factors in these suicides, and turning a tragedy into an educational tool is not a bad impulse—one often used within suicide prevention—but doing so without taking into account all of the factors is disadvantageous and, at worst, harmful. On the upside, two of the characters’ stories end on uplifting conclusions, leaving the audience with some hope. Overall, the film carries an optimistic message: kids should rally together against bullying, stand up for themselves, and support each other. Hopefully this message speaks the loudest and inspires the positive change this film can achieve.

How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of a Neurosis?

images-11.jpeg

One Sunday when I was nine or ten, in between afternoon HBO movies, I unrolled a fruit roll-up and adhered it to the side of a vinyl-laminated cabinet that housed part of our VHS tape collection. My intention was to lick the delicious fruity square until all that remained was the residue of a childhood anomaly. I can't remember what inspired this undertaking, other than the epic boredom that descended upon many of my childhood weekends. I began licking at the beginning of whatever movie happened to be screening, and the task took almost the entire 2-hour duration. If anyone was home, they either didn't notice or didn't care. I considered abandoning the endeavor a couple times, but that seemed more ridiculous than going on, so I stuck it out. In the end, my jaw was sore and my face felt like the lid to the Aunt Jemima bottle, but I was incredibly satisfied. I have always thought this anecdote was particularly revealing. Initially, it appears to be of the ilk of childhood memories that involve activities only someone who hasn't yet taken algebra could justify—like pooping in a bucket in the backyard (age 7) or riding your bicycle around for hours in a circle half the size of a cul-de-sac, fantasizing about Dr. Alan Grant being your real father (age 12. and 13). But the fruit roll-up incident doesn't only encapsulate the unselfconsciousness of life before junior high; it hints at the humble beginnings of a person. Something about this memory screams: That is so Candace!—at least, enough for me to feature some abridged version in the anxiety-provoking About Me sections of various online profiles. The story strikes me as (in order of importance): weird, witty, and subtly sexual (although using it on OKCupid elicited some undesirable responses), a mix of qualities that seem to speak to my personality. I have a history of being weird and I'm not afraid to admit it. I pride myself on my disclosure and my knack for unearthing from the annals of elementary school such a poignant moment.

Despite my relative openness, I have neglected to admit the truly revealing aspect of this episode, which I'm not sure I fully realized until the other day when I was peeling the skins off a can's worth of chick peas. In an effort to make a creamier batch of homemade hummus, I reluctantly took the advice from at least 18 websites that instructed me to individually remove the slimy outer shells of my garbanzos before dumping them into the Cuisinart (I am still convinced there is a simpler method, but perhaps that only exists in the technological efficiency of a restaurant-grade kitchen). I poured the beans into a colander, rinsed them under the tap, and proceeded to squeeze the first victim between my thumb and forefinger until it slipped out of its suit into something more comfortable—the smallest of my set of Pyrex bowls. I was surprised to discover how easily the skin ejected its innards. Just one little press and the bean flew out of its casing like a birth control pill out of a foil pack. I laughed at my five-mintues-ago self for thinking the operation would be trying and, six to eight beans in, settled into a natural state of bliss.

Turns out I derive an envy-provoking pleasure from the kind of tedium that would drive others into fist-clenching frustration. It took about seven minutes to undress that entire can of beans, but I would have happily tackled a dozen of those cans, pausing only to stretch my fingers or slide the growing pile of translucent skins from the counter into the compost bin.

People who know me will read this and say, "Uh, yeah, I know this about you," which is what my boyfriend said while I stood over a bowl of naked chickpeas talking about how much joy I found in that repetitive undertaking. I suppose it has become rather obvious that I gravitate toward the painfully intricate. I have been known to enjoy any assignment that involves a ruler or a magnifying glass and often entertained fantasies of growing up to be an archaeological excavator, a piano technician, or a mosaicist. At many of my many jobs, the adjective most often used to describe my performance has been "meticulous." Some of my fondest on-the-job memories involve hours spent alone with my organization—filing hundreds of spools of thread with names like "champagne" and "tigerlily" into a rainbow at the fabric store or lining delicate miniature tarts into a perfect chevron on the top shelf of the bakery pastry case. My favorite part-time job was a stint working at a slide collection where one of my responsibilities was to remove slide photographs out of their old cardboard frames and snap them into new plastic frames: glorious.

I have always known that I enjoyed things like precision and organization and the mind-numbingness of repetition but was embarrassed to admit it because it's not cool to be fastidious as a child. The cool kids were careless and easily annoyed with the concept of accuracy. They colored outside the lines while I scrupulously dragged my crayon around some printed black perimeter, aspiring to photo-realism. Exhibiting conscientiousness before the age of twelve was as socially detrimental as crying when you fell hard on you coccyx.

My apprehension easily segued into adulthood, at which point "precise" translates into "neurotic," and I don't want to be considered neurotic even though I probably am in the technical sense. In my mind, neurotic equals desperate and fun-less, and I directly connect that concept to one of my childhood friend's fathers. Let's call him Martin. Martin was a severe man who wore solid cardigans and perfectly pleated pants. He swept the puddles from his driveway after rainstorms and dustbusted the bottoms of our sneakers before we got into his car. I have a sharp mental image of walking in on him on his hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing in between the floor tiles with a toothbrush. He looked up from his chore and asked me, very earnestly, to please use the other bathroom. When I told my mother the story later on that night, she shook her head and said, "That poor man is so neurotic."

For the record: I am not fun-less and I have never cleaned a sneaker. I may be slightly neurotic, in that I occasionally feel a tinge of anxiety when the results of my efforts are not as exact as an architectural blueprint. But I am not inspired by compulsion as much as repose. The monotonous handiwork and uniform pacing of certain tasks sharpens my focus in a way that I would describe as meditative—perhaps my only vehicle for reaching such a state. I am not one to easily meditate. I have trouble with things like "letting go" and "being in the moment." When I am told to "focus on my breathing" I turn into Ray Stantz, trying to empty my mind only to think up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Breathing is too abstract, too essential, too endless. A whole lot of pedaling and going nowhere. But put me in front of a ceramic pig and tell me I need to hand-glue individual pink sequins to its entire exoskeleton (age 19), and I am rapt.

The difference between breathing and glamorizing a pig is that the latter obviously shows evidence of progress. I am not only working but working toward an end, which, albeit at a sometimes painfully gradual pace, reveals itself in the foreseeable future. Even though I am light-headed from forgetting to open a window and the skin on my fingertips slightly burns from the cyanoacrylate in the adhesive, I can look at that partially-sequined pig and think: I am halfway there.

The fruit roll-up incident is unique because it is reductive. I plowed away at that dried square of fruit concentrate and corn syrup with no imagined masterpiece toward which I could direct my attention. I would be left with nothing to show for my efforts. There was little precision or accuracy required. My mission was to eliminate by means of controlled patience, driven by the desire to test my dexterity. It is also, without question, the work of a weird and listless child. I couldn't have imagined I would one day reference that experience to illustrate the intuitive joy I find in certain measured labors, but—not unlike my efforts to affix the contents of my penny collection to the interior walls of a bookshelf (age: last month)—the allegory is almost perfect.

The true relevance of a Thank You note.

thank-you-cards1.jpg

My local Target showcases 68 varieties of Thank You card sets. I discover this statistic today as I stand helpless in the stationery aisle, one leg tucked behind the other, red basket in hand, staring at a wall of fluorescent-lit gratitude. I have not composed a Thank You card since I had a reason to thank birthday party guests for the "kaboodle makeup case! It's really nice!"—a task I dreaded annually, not because I wasn't thankful, but because the whole process felt insincere. We wrote the cards because our mothers made us; we all knew when we received one in the mail that a parent had overseen the process and perhaps even edited each response before dutifully licking and sealing the perfect little envelope. The only genuine aspect was the silent commiseration we may have experienced knowing we would all have to endure a childhood's worth of obligatory appreciation. I am now free from parental observation and purchasing Thank You cards because I recently defended my master's thesis, and I am epically grateful for the feedback and support I received from a variety of people along the way. I have decided that Thank You cards are ideal because the format will democratize and simplify my notes, limiting me from the ramblings that would inevitably unfold in a thank you letter. The card challenges me to the confines of space and, more importantly, theme—the ever-present THANK YOU on each card face—which governs all composition within.

While I anticipated the problem of choice, which now shadows all consumer decision-making, I find this array of options gratuitous. I search for something simple, tactful, colorful without exploiting every possible color. I rule out cards that are geared toward children, senior citizens, or people who think they have a charming sense of humor. I avoid exclamation points, smiley faces, and photography. I want to make a choice that says something between "I am so thankful I don't care about card design" and "I am so thankful I carefully considered this card design with your card-receiving experience in mind."

My eyes settle first on a cover design with simple cherry blossoms that I find aesthetically unoffensive, but the price proves my aesthetics are too in vogue. My second choice is a card whose design mimics an old airmail envelope, but something about the font doesn't feel right. An employee appears in my peripherals, straightening stationery boxes. She does not ask if I need help because my plight is not extraordinary—the wanderer stuck in the card vortex, nursing the best of intentions. I pick up some more boxes and scoff at the cacophony of each message: THANK YOU. It leaves no space for interpretation. "You," it says, "will accept my indebtedness whether you like it or not. And I will be relieved of some burden." THANK YOU. The words begin to defamiliarize themselves the way words do when you stare at them for too long. THANK YOU. I fall away from the present and recall the name of a mediocre Asian restaurant I went to once with an old boyfriend: THAN THAO. I am in a foreign land. "THAN THOU for all of your generous feedback on my thesis."

This would not be an issue, I think, if I wasn't so concerned with other people's opinions. Do I care less about expressing gratitude than I do about my vehicle of expression? I realize I want the card to say something about me. I do not yet realize that the nine minutes I spend in front of the stationery at Target says more about me than I am able to sort out. I know, beneath the fog of my indecision, that my choice makes no difference, but this thought is not comforting, it is nihilistic. I begin to think I cannot make this decision because I am actually thankless. Perhaps a truly thankful person would gloss over the selection once, eyes brightening at the obvious choice, and move on. Guilt curls up for a nap inside my gut.

The intercom projects a godlike voice over the store and I ignore the entire message except the last two words—thank you—which trigger a weird sensation and convince me, for a second, that my thoughts are so loud they have poltergeisted their way into the speaker system. I feel something between dizzy and cross-eyed and I force myself on a box of blue cards with no cover art, only huge block letters spelling out those magical words in a few concordant hues. Forthright. Transparent. Nothing to confuse my audience. Nothing for me to hide behind. All the ways in which I strive to operate.

Once I commit to that box I know I have made a bad choice, not on this style but on investing in a custom with which I don't entirely agree. It is not a bad impulse to express gratitude; it is a bad impulse to feel as though you must do so in a socially prescribed manner. Thank You cards feel insincere because all formalities feel somewhat insincere. As I load my items onto the conveyor belt I am embarrassed with my lack of ingenuity, but I don't put the cards back. I vow to redeem myself by filling their insides with candid messages that implicate me in a Wayne's-World-We're-Not-Worthy kind of way.

A girl whose face I will forget within minutes scans my purchases. I thank her. My words are weightless. Can gratitude even be expressed? It occurs to me that Thank You cards, and possibly all written and verbal forms of gratitude, may be entirely self-serving.  Am I making a huge mistake? Will these cards really be any different than the ones I suffered through as a child with my mother nearby, helping me think of adjectives other than 'nice'?

But Thank You cards are exactly that: nice. Knowing someone carved out a slice of their day to handwrite you a thank you note is nice; it makes you tilt your head and smile to yourself and consider saving the card for a few days or weeks before it makes its way to the recycling bin. These simple gestures hold an important spot in the hierarchy of correspondence. Perhaps some messages need to be nice so others can be profound. When I worry that I just wasted $4.99 on thoughtless paper goods or that my intentions lack originality and substance, I remember that by partaking in the Thank You card experience, I am helping to maintain the natural order of things.

What It Means To Be An Archie

archies.jpg

[featured in the American Association of Suicidology Student Newsletter, December 2011] The recently released mockumentary, Archie’s Final Project, opens with an upside-down home-recorded image of a sun-drenched suburban ranch house. Enter Archie, also upside-down, holding the opening titles on placards that are right side up. This scene sets the pace for the whole film: the world may be chaotic, but the message is clear, so listen.

The 2009 film, originally titled My Suicide, follows a teenage Archibald Williams as he documents his unpredictable relationship with teen suicide. The journey begins when he declares to his film class that he plans to kill himself on camera for his final project. After his bold statement chaos ensues and the typical suicide intervention protocol follows suit—removal from school, mandatory counseling, and eventually prescription drugs. Archie’s public cry-for-help opens the conversation about suicide among his peers and his unfolding documentary records the variety of ways in which suicide affects every teenager individually.

All of this is presented through Archie’s lens—both figuratively and literally. Much of the film is Archie’s footage and the erratic style mimics the random ebb and flow of adolescence. The adult figures are portrayed as insensitive and dense—a guidance counselor unconvincingly recites a standard intervention strategy to Archie and hands him a lollypop. In contrast, the kids are emotional, impulsive, and convinced the authority figures have little clue as to the scope of the problem. The dichotomy between these two groups is visceral, and in many cases, true. While the film mocks some tried and true suicide prevention efforts—including an interview clip of the late Edwin Shneidman reciting the famous “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”—it does so with a mission. The filmmakers have clearly done their research and what results is a message illuminating the tough reality that a monumental chasm often separates adolescence and everything that comes after.

In essence, this film is about connection. We see Archie transform and start to heal as he connects with people through his project—his peers, a depressed love interest, a frank psychologist who shares Archie’s fondness for film history, and a long-time artistic hero. He claims a few times throughout the film that the camera is his only friend, but the camera is the vehicle that hooks him up to the outside world; the project that threatened to end his life actually ends up saving it.

AFP has had a slow but steady influence. The film has spent the past couple years independently touring the festival circuit and picking up awards all over the world. After a recent U.S. tour AMC picked the film for distribution, which led to the December 6th DVD release, but the film’s greatest presence has been online. AFP has infiltrated suicide prevention within social media venues. The revolution began with a Miami teenager who posted a video on the film’s facebook page declaring he was an “Archie.” A slew of similar videos followed and marked the beginning of the IamAnArchie campaign, in which teenagers are encouraged to join the effort and share their own experiences and feelings through videos, photos, and testimonials posted on social websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Similar social media efforts like the Trevor Project and Postsecret are part of a new wave of virtual youth suicide prevention focused on connecting teenagers not only with support services, but also with other teenagers. What is unique to these programs is that kids are able to commiserate with other kids around the world experiencing similar feelings and struggles. The internet allows them to communicate on their own terms, and the social venues provide an infrastructure mediated by the larger organizations, linking kids to a bigger movement outside of themselves. Being an “Archie” means being part of a reciprocal message—putting yourself out there and realizing you are not alone.

Survivor D24

sq7gd00z.jpg

I currently belong to a variety of email listserves relating to suicide studies and prevention: American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Prevention Project Oregon, National Institute of Mental Health, National Action Alliance, American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, Suicide Prevention Resource Center, etc. One of these organizations recently invited me to participate in something called the "Suicide Prevention Stakeholder Survey"—the kind of study that asks you to rank things in order of importance, then rank the reasoning behind your rankings. A mind-numbing series of 1 – 10 scales. This particular survey focused on a short list of aspirational research goals under consideration for the final national suicide prevention research agenda: affordable healthcare, effective treatment, stigma, counseling, access to lethal means, biological factors, etc. My rankings were a bit out-of-whack with the rest of the group (I ranked "eliminating stigma" first;  it ultimately ranked ninth), which I expected. Despite my admirable research efforts I still mostly understand suicide from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old: a fine-tuned combination of curiosity, confusion, and disbelief.

I participate in these surveys mostly because I am fascinated with anyone and everyone whose worlds collide with suicide is some way. The second part of the survey is the "Discussion Round" during which panels separated by affiliation (for example: psychologist, advocate, survivor) are permitted to discuss the rankings via some chat-board format. This allows me to scrutinize other participant's experiences and feedback. We are highly encouraged, of course, to remain anonymous in our postings, and comments are listed under one's given identification. Mine is Survivor D24.

The other players seemed shy at first, so I started the round with a general question about people's opinions on the ranking of stigma. I got a handful of thoughtful replies (not that I expected rash criticism, but imprudence is common to such a venue) followed by a couple of educated and obviously professional replies from a Survivor D22 concerning the dangers of stigma among the suicidal.

Of course, I am curious. Who is this Survivor D22?

Six days after my post SD22 started an expository thread loaded with psych-jargon about the newest research into the causes of suicide. Very informative and cutting edge, even spotted with a term I didn't recognize: idiozimia, defined by SD22 as "the disconnect with self" and followed by an extensive quote about the condition from a very recent (2010) book about suicide prevention.

It's not often I come across an unfamiliar term in suicidology, so I googled idiozimia and found it only within several publications by the same psychologist who wrote said book—sold as a "neuropsychological approach" to suicide and prevention. Idiozimia's credentials are ambiguous, though, especially considering the writer openly coined another term in the book's introduction: aftoktognosis, a lovechild from the Greek words for "suicide" and "knowledge." The writer describes this aftoktognosis as the exploration into everything suicide, a journey toward the unthinkable. I suppose if one considers  aftoktognosis a condition, I am afflicted. I am curious and I could have spent my morning reading the whole thing on Google Books, but I ordered it from the library instead.

SD22 is either a huge fan of this psychologist's work or particularly horrible at remaining anonymous. Perhaps I should quote some of my writing on the Stakeholder Survey Discussion Board. My estimation is that this would not go over well. On the spectrum of self-interest my writing is generously more introspective, but I may, at the least, possess slightly more tact than Survivor D22 in my survey etiquette.

In all fairness, I am probably the only person googling idiozimia and then aftoktognosis and then trying to come up with my own Greek hybrid of "suicide" and "obsession" and arriving at aftoktideolipsia.

Grief by Numbers.

empty-desk.jpg

Sample Death Notification Statement for Students: It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, ________, has taken [his/her] own life. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

A suicide death presents us with many questions that we may not be able to answer right away. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors you may hear. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Suicide is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

Each of us will react to ________’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known ________ very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness. Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction.

We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss and to enable us to understand more about suicide. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

(From: AFSP & SPRA: After a Suicide | A Toolkit for Schools 2011)

*

Children coping with suicide are like human palimpsest: fragile, impressionable, and rewritten. In the wake of adolescent suicide every peer becomes a potential statistic, and adults scramble to deal with the aftermath while straddling the thin line between respectful condolence and unintentional glorification. In this chaos the victim loses all personhood and becomes one or both of the following: a symbol and a tool.

There are no nationally implemented guidelines for schools dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, a period referred to in the world of suicidology as postvention. Schools often have something called a crisis-response plan-of-action, which supplies at least a framework for the immediate disorder. These plans usually operate on an individual school-by-school level and flex to meet the needs of the community or, more often, the victim’s family. In an effort to help guide schools in crisis and universalize school-based postvention, in 2011 the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) along with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) collaborated on a user-friendly guideline called: After Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, which details step-by-step instructions for dealing with post-suicide pandemonium.[1]

After reading through this document I concluded there is no correct, simple, or entirely fail-safe way for schools to deal with a student’s suicide. Trying to prepare for such capricious conditions is like packing a suitcase for intergalactic travel. Under these circumstances the adults are likely as confused as the teenagers; the only difference is that adults are slightly more aware of the immediate and foreseeable impact. Documents like this come from a place of fear; the greatest concern after an adolescent suicide is the very real threat of contagion, which the toolkit defines simply as: the process by which one suicide death may contribute to another. Since teenagers are highly impressionable by nature, the objective of these guidelines is to lasso their collective shock into a place where their every move and emotion can be monitored. Grief by numbers:

One: Number of ways in which schools should approach a student’s death. “It is very important that schools strive to treat all deaths in the same way. Having one approach for memorializing a student who died of cancer or in a car accident and a different approach for a student who died by suicide reinforces stigma and may be deeply and unfairly painful to the student’s family and friends.”

Four: Number of times the above instruction appears in the document.

Zero: Number of assemblies schools should hold to address the matter. “Schools are strongly advised to explain [to parents] that this is not an effective approach to suicide prevention and may in fact even be risky, because students who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues may hear the messaging very differently from the way it is intended, and may even become more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts.”

Between one and five: Percentage of suicide deaths annually attributed to contagion effects.

At least five or six (but no more than fifteen): Number of administrators, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and/or school resource officers chosen to serve on the Crisis Response Team responsible for “effectively managing the situation.”

Three: Number of “Sample Death Notification Statements” to choose from:

Option 1: When the death has been ruled a suicide;

Option 2: When the cause of death is unconfirmed;

Option 3: When the family has requested that the cause of death not be disclosed.

Five: The suggested number of days during which memorialization is acceptable. “Since the emptiness of the deceased student’s chair can be unsettling and evocative, after approximately five days (or after the funeral), seat assignments may be re-arranged to create a new environment. Teachers should explain in advance that the intention is to strike a balance between compassionately honoring the student who has died while at the same time returning the focus back to the classroom curriculum.”

Innumerable: Number of times I felt the toolkit implied directly to me: Life Goes On.

The benefits of having encountered suicide as a thirteen-year-old include the ability to read documents such as the above toolkit with the eyes of both an adult and a child. As an adult, I see the great care and effort exerted in creating these step-by-step instructions whose main goal is to help children deal with the messiness of their grief and prevent them from imitating their peers' actions. I see an opportunity to educate kids on the realities of mental illness. I see the underlying social responsibility woven through in an attempt to de-stigmatize suicide and lessen its shameful implications.

But as a child I see Brian turning from a human into a lesson plan. I see his desk being filled, his locker being cleaned out, his peers moving on and his memory being completely erased.


[1] Much of this suicide-specific toolkit borrowed from the rather comprehensive parent model, Postvention Standards Manual issued in 2003 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which illustrates general postvention for all sudden child/adolescent deaths.

From Dusk Till Dawn

1230.jpg

[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's June 2011 Newsletter] On a sunny Saturday in New York, more than two thousand people gathered in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza waiting to commence the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Overnight walk. The crowd was suited up in pale blue personalized tee-shirts, each memorializing the person—and the reason—that brought them there that day. It was hard not to stop and read the back of each shirt, facing constant reminders of the cause that drew them all together.

"Tonight we bring a different energy to New York City, the energy to end suicide," AFSP Executive Director Robert Gebbia told the enthusiastic crowd before sending them on their all night journey. "We are walking tonight because we won’t allow suicide to be kept in secrecy."

AFSP has been hosting the Over-night for seven consecutive years. The primary walk moves to different major cities across America each year, while numerous local chapters hold smaller community walks over the course of the summer. The walk benefits research and education programs to prevent suicide, increase advocacy, and assist survivors of suicide loss.

The Overnight raises awareness in the cities that host the event. As the event unfolded, New Yorkers were obliged to engage with AFSP’s presence; Cadman Plaza was decorated with signs educating the public about the realities of suicide statistics and prevention. Walkers, too, served as emblems of their cause, often stopping along the eighteen mile route to explain the Overnight’s objective to curious residents who crossed their paths. The trail wove around Manhattan into the night, cutting through the city with the marvel of an unexpected parade and stirring affection and enthusiasm all along its path.

Many of the Overnight’s participants and volunteers have walked multiple times and find in the event an experience to reconnect with a national community that has bonded over this cause. Their combined energy and positivity seemed to prevail over physical exhaustion as the procession moved closer to dawn. While the first walkers finished as early as midnight, the majority arrived back at Cadman Plaza closer to four o’clock in the morning, when participants began to reconvene in front of the towering Korean War Monument to watch the closing ceremonies. Personalized luminaries lined the monument’s steps, illuminating dim beginnings of the sunrise.

Gebbia stepped back up to the podium and thanked the sleepy walkers for their dedication and support. "Because of you, we will never forget those we have lost," he said, as the night faded into a new morning.