Monday, December 31, 2012

year in review

2012 was rather cluttered with major life events and adjustments. I didn't even realize how much until I was looking back.

In May Claudio and I finally got divorced. The vast majority of the delay was on me; I didn't want to be available. I didn't want to be expected or able to date again, because it was safer to treat my house as a little convent and resign myself to solitude. I was quite sure that, at thirty-five, your choices are either settle or be alone, and I wasn't going to settle. It was easier when I could respond to my friends' queries about when I was going to start dating by saying, "Well, technically I'm still married." But eventually I realized this had to be dealt with, and I managed to trust my friends enough to respond to the question with, "Possibly never, because the prospect terrifies me." (And, of course, there was the part of me which didn't want to give Claudio what he wanted. I can be self-sabotagingly petty.)

All year my little VW was a money pit, and in August it finally died. I retrieved the absurd muscle car from Claudio, and then got broadsided by a twenty-year-old in November, and spent the next five weeks driving a rental. The Mustang is home now, but it was not a good year for vehicles.

Appliances did not fare so well either. The year began with the furnace giving out (easily fixed by the repairman removing the tonnage of dog hair clogging it) and ended with the washing machine going kaput. In between the dryer also gave out, after waging a long and hard war against the aforementioned dog hair. I have new adorable little versions of washer and dryer, so all is well.

On the cancer front: in March the MRI showed unmitigated good news; in September the mammogram provided mitigated good news. I am very nervous about this coming March, when I will have both a mammogram and an MRI to investigate the worrisome spots. The irony, of course, is that the more worried I am the less well I take care of myself (more TV-watching-paralysis and nervous eating; less exercise, meditation, and general optimism). So I am working on that.

And, of course, I fell in love, which has been blissful and frightening and ridiculously easy. We live seventy miles apart and there are going to be challenges in changing that, but it's all been so natural and simple. Two hours after I arrived home from our first date, I found myself fretting slightly about how long I should wait to call him, and instantly the phone rang; he wanted to tell me what a wonderful time he'd had. Since then I have had my little moments of fretting, of not feeling good enough, but those moments are mostly swallowed up in the comfort of knowing that he feels the way I do.

The year was, in many ways, how I predicted it would be. There were days when the vet's bill was massive, when the car didn't start, when I hated my body. I completely gave up on the idea of living without cheese: my skin does look better when I'm not eating dairy, but it's not worth it. I occasionally had caffeine and was an entertainingly crazy person for it. There were days when my envy returned and took away all the grace I possess. There were, thankfully, no days when a drink seemed like a good idea, and I celebrated seven years sober in October.

There were court dates and arguments about money; and there was the fact that Claudio and I were in hysterical giggles when we filed for divorce due to the misspelled and grammatically incorrect signs at the courthouse. Couldn't have predicted that.  

I didn't predict at all that there would be a handsome bearded man with a delicious baritone. I didn't predict there would be dancing.

I said last year that I knew 2012 wouldn't be a fairy tale. But it was: it just wasn't the ending. It was the part with the trials and the thorns, because that is what life is, and there is magic in those parts as well. And 2013 will be like that too.

There will be days when a bill is larger than expected, and days when it's less. There will be stressful medical appointments, but with fantastic people. There will be Handel and Bach and Mozart; bluegrass and loud girl-pop shouted in the car; tea and chocolate and oranges. There will be laughing until I cry with friends old and new, and stompy boots, and the two most wonderful dogs in all the world. There will be the days I love my bones. There will be the mornings when being thirty-six means one of my knees wakes up saying, "Nope, not today." There will be books and books and books. I hope there will be more writing than there has been lately. By my door a few sea roses are still hanging on, stubbornly, among the thorns.

There are trials ahead, but I'm not afraid of the forest. I'll pull up my hood, gather my wolf*, my woodsman, and my brindle familiar, and see where the path leads.

A very happy New Year to all.

*Darcy is not really a wolf, but you wouldn't know that from looking at him.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


It was an exquisite Christmas.

The family was scattered hither and yon - not in a bad way, as everyone was in their own house and no one had to travel. And there was much texting, with pictures of Christmas trees and meals and presents, and Skyping with parents, and none of this involved having to put on shoes, so I was pretty happy.

Berowne drove up the night of the 21st, so I could subject him to the reading of A Christmas Carol. He turned out to be a willing participant and we enjoyed it immensely. For five days we read, and ate, and watched movies, and slept late. He's a magnificent cook and handled Christmas Eve dinner (I did the dishes) and Christmas Day breakfast. We built a chair barricade to keep Darcy out of the kitchen when meat was cooking. On Christmas each of the dogs got a little piece of bacon to celebrate.

Reading-wise, I continue to slog through The Count of Monte Cristo, which is so odd and unsatisfying and yet I can't quite discard it; and finished All That is Bitter and Sweet, a memoir by Ashley Judd about her work with AIDS prevention organizations in Asia and Africa. It's not bad, albeit overlong.

But I confess I didn't throw myself into reading over the holiday, though there was plenty of lazy time on the couch. I received an obscene amount of books as presents and will have to pick up my pace in 2013, but I don't regret taking it easy. There were blueberry pancakes and dog walks and general snuggling, and those are very important things. The dogs haven't yet destroyed their new tug-toy, which is some kind of record. Berowne gave me a cookbook based on the life of a cannibal, because he gets me.

On Boxing Day I told anyone who would listen about how five years ago Claudio and I went to the animal shelter and found only two puppies left after the Christmas spree, and one was the cutest thing imaginable, and the other was gangly and manic and bit me on the chin and had the most amazing brindle coat I'd ever seen. Five years later, Bingley's filled out but is as manic as ever, and in my unbiased opinion is the cutest thing imaginable.

This morning I was gearing up to return to work, a tiny bit cranky about it, and took a few moments to hug Darcy and rub his chest, telling him over and over how much I love him, and his huge fluffy tail went wooshwooshwoosh through the air with delight. A sweeter sound than any carol, that.

I hope all of you felt as peaceful and as grateful as I did this holiday season. Best to all.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Once again I disappear for ages and re-emerge with nothing much to say. Pathetic!

There is a massive project at work, which means I am working longer hours than usual (and working through my lunch break instead of reading), and coming home exhausted and sitting tuber-like in front of "Castle" episodes. There is the fact of my decision to re-read The Count of Monte Cristo, for which Dumas was paid by the word and the result is not quite as delightful as when Dickens was paid the same way. There are feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, with which I will not bore you, taking up a lot of my emotional energy. There are horrors happening in the world which I cannot get my head around. It's all a rich tapestry.

In breaks from slogging through Monte Cristo, I have also read a couple other books:

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, by Gary Krist. I've already forgotten most of what I learned from this book. It was ostensibly about twelve days in 1919 which tested the government of Chicago by featuring a blimp crash, the kidnapping and murder of a small girl, and race riots. However, it was actually about the mayor at the time, his rise to power, and the workings of his inner circle. The opening chapter, about the blimp crash, was pretty neat, but the narrative lost momentum immediately after that. The child-murder and the race riots were sandwiched in between long chapters about political machinations, which didn't interest me very much.

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, by Christina Thompson. This is a memoir about Thompson's falling in love with and marrying a Maori man when she was a grad student in New Zealand, and the challenges of building their life together; it's also a very informative study of the Maori culture and the history of its interaction with Western peoples. I really liked it, and Thompson's willingness to look honestly at her own prejudices were fascinating to me: she discovered that she had no prejudices about race but had plenty about class (she comes from wealthy, educated New England stock, and her husband has a high school education and is a laborer), and then has to look both at those biases and at how race and socio-economic status are entwined.

Thompson's attempt to equate the history of the Maoris to the history of the Native people of America doesn't quite work, for some reason; I think the analogy is valid but she hesitates to commit to it and to the conclusion that her ancestors were complicit in eradicating a native population. Other than that I found it a very good book. (The title comes from what a young Charles Darwin was told the Maoris were shouting at an English ship which approached their shore.)

I'm going to try to make some time in the next couple weeks to take stock of the year, which was an overwhelming one in ways both good and bad, and post about that. Hopefully my schedule will permit. Hard to believe it's already been a year since this.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

love and demons

So I read Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. It was recommended by various funny bloggers who were taking down the awful Lifetime movie, and the library had it, so... no, I don't really have an excuse.

I find Richard Burton mildly interesting. I don't find Elizabeth Taylor very interesting. And the book came off as if the authors felt the same way, although I think the actual issue was that it was written while Taylor was still alive, and so they were walking on eggshells about her and didn't go into her as a person at all. Which had the accidental result of this being mostly a biography of Burton with Taylor appearing as a bland cypher, and the reason for his obsession with her is never made clear. The authors also don't want to say anything bad about her: for example, they keep mentioning that it was impossible for Burton to stay sober as long as he was with Taylor, but then they try to gloss over her enabling / encouraging behavior (apparently she would tell him how boring he was when he was sober, which is pretty much the worst thing you can say to an alcoholic).

I found this book depressing because of Burton's self-loathing, and also because I don't like the idea that the louder and more destructive a love is, the more passionate (and hence truer) it is. I don't like identifying two people who cheated on their spouses and threw things at each other as the Lovers of the Century. It's very juvenile: both their behavior and society's exaltation of it. I have never understood the phrase "can't live with you, can't live without you," except in the period when I was trying to figure out how Claudio and I could continue to pay the mortgage if he moved out, and that wasn't, technically, living without him so much as it was living without his income. At that point we were both damn certain that we didn't want to live with each other anymore, and our fights (though, thankfully, no one ever threw anything) did not end in exciting bed times. (Do people really use fights as foreplay, as this book constantly said Taylor and Burton did? Really? Having someone shout at you makes you want to take that person's pants off? When a man shouts at me I just want him to go very, very far away.)

I like being in love to be quiet. Quiet and calm and fierce: fierce in the sense of I am holding onto this. A joy that almost pierces and yet leaves you more peaceful than you would be without it.

Things I am in love with in that way:

How Bingley runs to the back door and lifts his nose to the doorknob when he wants to go back in. Another blogger recently mentioned the first time her new dog did this, and how that means he knows it's his home. Bingley's done it for years but it never stops wringing my heart.

How Darcy looks at me with his huge golden eyes full of trust and love and (because I anthropomorphize) humor, when I am being tragic. Bingley is all too empathetic, and shakes and frets if I am crying or storming, but Darcy looks at me with a spark of "...really? you could be rubbing my belly, you know," in his noble face, and I usually end up laughing at myself.

Getting a complicated, difficult program or report to do what I want it to do. (I know, you often forget I'm in IT, given the grade-school-primitive look of this blog, don't you?) I feel so ferociously competent when I manage that. It's especially satisfying because I have no computer background and not much training, so I've mostly just figured out this stuff by plugging away at it and trusting my own intelligence. As someone who often doubts her intelligence (oh, I could write a whooooole long post about that alone), it's good to be reminded of what I can accomplish when I trust it.

Books, naturally. My to-read list. Knowing there will always be more to read.

And, of course, Berowne. I'm very wary of raving about him in this space, both in terms of tempting fate and in terms of coming off as adolescently, embarrassingly gushy. I'm smitten to the bone and there's no point in pretending otherwise, but I can presumably refrain from going on and on about his eyelashes and his kindness and his manly beard. All I have to say is that there aren't any dramatic or tortured stories about us meeting; there isn't the tale of how we couldn't stand each other at first or we were with other people but the chemistry was overpowering or he was allergic to big dogs or whatever. There's just the fact that we met, and very soon realized how right for each other we are. No one's going to write a book about us. Thankfully.

Something happened the other day which made me feel bad about my lack of accomplishments thus far, about this blog, about not being good enough. I am not in love with that feeling. It brought up a lot of pretty rancid stuff which is inevitable in the psyche of a perfectionist who was expected to excel at everything. I've squashed most of that stuff flat under the weight of 180 dog-pounds and a couple pairs of stompy boots, but it proves surprisingly elastic sometimes. (SPROING! YOU'VE FAILED!)

When it pops up, I get crazy-hard on myself for not being one of those women who has the energy to work full-time and go back to school in the evenings and stay up until midnight when she gets home working on her crisply intellectual novel. (Often she has small children as well, because she's just that awesome.) I have accepted that that's not who I am, that's not who I can be, and that sometimes it takes all I have to just be okay for an evening - I've accepted it, but I haven't forgiven myself for it. I haven't stopped believing that it denotes some awful weakness / failure in my personality. That if I were a better person, I could find that energy somewhere. Hell, if I were a better person I would want to go back to school, instead of knowing that that isn't for me.

There is a mildly rational part of my brain which knows it isn't a competition, and I hung onto that part for dear life that day. I went home, and did yoga, and laughed with the dogs, and bounced around to silly music, and made a healthy dinner, and took a bath. I even sat my butt down in front of my laptop and wrote. My demons haven't been evicted, but we've established some house rules. You can make me feel embarrassed about reading a trashy celebrity bio. You can't make me do anything else. 

Note to self: keep stomping.

Monday, December 3, 2012

a little history, and a little winter

It is the most wonderful time of the year! Yesterday I had to visit a store which shares a parking lot with a Christmas Tree Shop. I would rather tackle the Donner Pass in a stagecoach than do that again; presumably the Donners had fewer offensive bumper stickers.

But I do love the Christmas season. We even got a little snow on December 1st, and I set up my hilarious little fake tree and listened to carols and stockpiled some crack tea and pondered whether I want to make my annual egg nog purchase, of which I always take one sip, make a noise of delighted disgust that goes like, "Bllleeeayyyeah," and then leave the container in the fridge until March.

What have I read lately?

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss, which popped up on a library search and I didn't even realize it was by the same guy who wrote The Orientalist, which I really like. This was also very, very good. It's a biography of General Alex Dumas, the half-black father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, and it's also a portrait of a rapidly changing racial society. I had no idea that the ideals of the French Revolution incorporated radical racial equality, or that even before the Revolution eighteenth-century France was an almost race-blind world. Dumas rose to military success at a time when in any other country he would probably not even have been allowed in the army, and in fact when his regiment arrives in a little French village and he falls in love with the innkeeper's daughter, her father's only condition for their marrying is that Dumas obtain a higher rank than his current one. That blew my mind. It's 1789, and everyone is fine with an interracial marriage. Apparently that's just how France was, although at the time the country also owned more colonies dependent on slave labor than any other nation. Reiss mentions this repeatedly; apparently the idea of "French soil", on which any man could be free, and the economic reality of colonization, were able to exist simultaneously.

Anyway, Dumas became a general and trounced France's enemies and was eventually captured in Naples and imprisoned under horrible conditions for two years (his son would use this as fodder for The Count of Monte Cristo). While he was imprisoned Napoleon rose to power and racial equality in France went down the tubes fast. Upon his return, Dumas could not get his pension, and he died young and left his family in poverty. It's a sad story but a fascinating one; I learned a great deal and Reiss' style is exuberant and intelligent. Highly recommended.

Of course I started re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo after this. I'd forgotten how slowly it starts, so I'm puttering through a chapter at a time while I read other stuff, but I'm looking forward to it getting fun.

Then I fluffed through another Ruth Rendell, Not in the Flesh. It was fine; not particularly challenging and I figured out the solution before the characters did, which is always a little bit irritating. But it's got a thoughtful subplot about race and immigration in England and I enjoyed reading it for the most part.

Nearly done with a semi-trashy biography of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (no, I don't really understand this choice of mine either, but there it is). The snow has all melted. Things aren't bad.

Monday, November 26, 2012

have been on a journey, read a lot

Hello, dear readers! I am sorry for the long silence, but first I was preparing for vacation, and then I was on vacation, and then I was standing in line to have my dogs' picture taken with Santa. It's very glamorous being me.

There has been a lot of reading in the meantime. I will try to sum up:

When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. I continue to love Atkinson. Her books aren't really mysteries; they're character studies, and absorbing as hell. And in this one the Patented Atkinson Dog Fatality gets out of the way in the first seven pages (it's awful, though) and then we can all move forward.

Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines, by Julia Blackburn. This is a very strange biography of a very strange woman, who did in fact live among the Aborigines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but who lied about so much of her life that no one really knows who she was or what was going on in her head. Blackburn accordingly writes this as mostly a dream-like first-person narrative with an extremely unreliable and grandiose narrator, and I kept forgetting that it was non-fiction. I found it pretty interesting, though.

Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley. This was my Early Reviewers book and the latest in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, about an eleven-year-old chemist in 1950's England. It was quite charming and quite melancholy, and a return to form after the disappointment of the previous one in the series, a flimsy Christmas story. I look forward eagerly to the next.

Rebel Angels, by Libba Bray. This is the sequel to A Great and Terrible Beauty, which I liked a lot despite its flaws (neither the rules of the magic nor the geography of the magic realm are clear; a protagonist who by birthright is the Chosen One always interests me far less than one who has to struggle). Both the charm of our heroine's realistic sixteen-year-old thought process and actions, and the aforementioned flaws, continued in this book. The geography in particular got even more confusing, and the book definitely didn't need to be almost 600 pages long. But I liked it enough that I'll read the third.

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, by Nora Ephron. This made me laugh occasionally (and cry once), but I was definitely not its target audience.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island, by Andrew Motion. The premise of this is that Jim Hawkins' son and Long John Silver's daughter team up to return to Treasure Island and retrieve what was left behind. This was a good, fun book despite the fact that I didn't understand some of Motion's choices and the ending was narratively messy. Also I think we might be expected to believe that two eighteen-year-olds who fancy each other and share a room go a night without anything happening. Uh-huh.

Murder Being Once Done, by Ruth Rendell. An Inspector Wexford mystery. The mystery was a really small part of the book; it was slow-moving and, while not quite boring, didn't keep me awake on a plane. But I'm not sure I wanted it to, so that's okay.

Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson. The latest Inspector Banks novel. It's pretty weak: the villains are two-dimensional and the title character's transition from "charming" to "emotionally abusive" happens in the space of a paragraph and the girl with him totally goes along with it. "Oh, you were praising me two seconds ago and now you're telling me all my clothing is hideous and my makeup makes me look like a slut? Great! Let's go shopping for new stuff! This doesn't send up any red flags!" We're supposed to believe she's emotionally fragile enough to get into this relationship, but also that being called "slutty" by the man she worships is something she can shrug off. Not likely.  

And I tried to read Railsea, by China Miéville. I really did try. I've never read any Miéville, but everyone I know raves about him, and the premise of this book was steampunk Moby-Dick on trains, and really how can you go wrong? Well, it turns out you can, and I'm not entirely able to articulate why. The scene-setting was pretty decent, but the writing style didn't grab me and the characters actively repelled me, in that I simply couldn't care what happened to them no matter how hard I tried. I made it forty percent of the way through before I decided my vacation reading was not allowed to be a chore.

I think that's it, for now. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday!

Friday, November 9, 2012

books about disturbing people

So, re: the last post, I think I realized something else about why I might not be considered an introvert: I had politeness drilled into me so thoroughly from such a young age that I always knew my shyness wasn't an excuse to make others walk on eggshells around me. That it was incredibly rude to be visibly miserable at a social gathering, because that makes others uncomfortable. And that's a huge part of why I can play a people person on TV at parties. It's the polite thing to do.

Thanks, parents! And I'm not being sarcastic when I say that.

On the other hand, I'm now comfortable enough with myself to, when making plans for a weekend, tell a good friend, "I can't do [x] on Sunday because I already have plans all day Saturday and I'll be socially burnt out." Many of my friends are also introverts, and understand the need to have one of your two days off be about regrouping privately, and at this point in our lives we're not pretending with each other. Which is also very good.

In other news, I was in a bad and terrifying car accident this past weekend. It was completely the other driver's fault, which made me feel immensely put-upon, and by that I mean it made me feel put-upon not later, but as my car was doing a 180 and bouncing over a curb. When the other car struck me, as my car spun out I wasn't thinking, Dear God, I'm going to die; I was thinking, For crap's sake, now I have to spend my afternoon dealing with this. This is true. I felt the terror much later; at the time I felt solely irritation.

But everyone I've dealt with - insurance people, tow truck drivers, jovial mechanics who were deeply amused at the discrepancy between my appearance and the type of car I drive - has been utterly charming and I trust it will all be resolved at some point.

On to the books!

Since last posting I have read:

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, by Harold Schechter. This was my Early Reviewers book and I think it should be repackaged with a less salacious and problematic title and cover (the cover features a giant skull with red eyes), because it was fairly restrained and well-written. Schechter's premise is that some killers who are very famous in their time then disappear from the folklore, while others (like Lizzie Borden) remain infamous, but he doesn't really have any theories as to why this happens, which would have been interesting. The chapters are just recaps of the crimes, with a little bit of chronological context, but I found it a compelling bit of bathroom reading (what? they're short chapters). And I do appreciate someone smacking down Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Whoof. This is the obnoxious memoir I mentioned in my last post. Strayed is the type of person who would legally change her name to "Strayed", and that sort of tells you all you need to know. The basic plot is that Strayed's mother dies and she then cheats on her husband and does heroin and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and is hot. There is an utterly absurd and soft-core-porny section near the end that exists only because Strayed wants to make it very clear that after months on the trail she was still effortlessly hot enough to pick up a random guy in a bar* who then talked for two days about how gorgeous she is, and she's going to write down every word he said for posterity. The tone of the whole book is like that: I Am A Unique Snowflake Because No One Else Is Hot Or Tough Or Beloved Enough To Do This. Quite literally in places: see the chapter about being "the Queen of the PCT" because everyone wants to do things for her.

The thing is, she was twenty-six when she did this. Twenty-six-year-olds are obnoxious. But she didn't write the book when she was twenty-six; she wrote it in her early forties. (I don't at all doubt there is hard-core self-loathing about aging behind the constant emphasis on being the most beautiful woman in California.) When you read Julie & Julia, for example, you come out of it thinking, "God, Julie Powell's an obnoxious twenty-something," but that's what she was when she was writing it. It's perfectly possible to write a memoir looking back on your early twenties and detail that you were a hot mess, and why, and do it affectionately. There's no insight in this book. It's as if Strayed can only see the timeline of her mother's sudden, early death and the events that followed; she doesn't see any causation or feel the need to get into it if she does see it. For a book in a self-reflecting genre, it's bizarrely lacking in any actual self-reflection. She tells a story about being too cool for therapy because there's nothing "a man" (her words) can tell her about herself, and for three hundred pages she treats her readers like that therapist (I know everything about my own psyche, so I don't have to tell you, and I don't sleep around because I have daddy issues, I do it because I'm so beautiful, and did I mention that my husband on whom I cheated drove 1700 miles to rescue me when he heard I was doing heroin?**). I haven't the faintest idea why I finished this book.

ANYWAY. Then I read two more Gillian Flynns: Gone Girl and Sharp Objects. The latter was her first book and is unsurprisingly much weaker than the other two. Still creepy, but not nearly as compelling. Whereas Gone Girl: aiiiiee!

The story: Amy has gone missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. Nick, her husband, is the prime suspect. We get alternating chapters from the two points of view throughout the book, Amy's first in the form of diary entries and later as, well, I'm spoiling it already. They're both terrifyingly awful people. This book is both so thrilling and so real, in terms of two people falling out of love and dealing with infidelity, that I wanted to read it all in one sitting and physically couldn't. Amy narrates long chapters about being the Cool Girl when she met Nick, all up-for-anything and always-has-a-sense-of-humor and so on, and about discovering his affair, and even though she's an unreliable narrator (as is Nick) I sometimes thought I was going to scream during those chapters. The whole thing is amazingly written and just brutal. Flynn is crazy-talented. I can't wait to see what she does next.

*As a human female who has been in bars, I have to snort a little when women hold this up as an incontrovertible example of their beauty, and a lot of female writers do.

**Does Strayed realize that this is almost certainly WHY she did heroin, and made sure he knew about it: to manipulate him into saving her? No. No, she does not. Every time she references her drug use in the book she says she doesn't know why she did it. YOU'VE SPENT FORTY-FOUR YEARS THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOU DON'T KNOW THIS? Or, which is possibly worse, she does know but refuses to admit anything negative about herself, and assumes her reader is too stupid to figure it out.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

on shyness

This post brought to you by Trying Not To Think About The Election. Length ahead.

As the first anniversary of this blog approaches, and I read an obnoxious memoir (of which more in a later post), I have been thinking about the culture of exposure and the fact that, no matter how much we may deny it, all personal bloggers are hoping on some level to be "discovered" and to be offered buttloads of money to talk about ourselves, as a reward for the hard work of talking about ourselves for free. I'm not going to lie: I'd write a memoir in a second, and of course I think it would be better than most of the memoirs out there, and I would try not to make it obnoxious but there's a good chance it would be.

I started this blog as a place to publicly shame my husband and wallow in self-pity. The book reviews were an excuse because reading is pretty much the only thing I do with my time. (This is why I say that my memoir would have a good chance of sliding into the obnoxious zone: I like to think of myself as a mature and gracious person, but at thirty-four years old I still wanted to throw myself a pity party and talk about a person I once loved as a two-dimensional villain. I would need a very stern editor.)

Berowne refuses to classify me as an introvert because of this blog. And because the second time we met I just marched right up to him and started talking, wearing my interest on my sleeve. That was one of the bravest things I've ever done, quite frankly, and without seven years of practicing the art of social functioning I wouldn't have been able to do anything but sit across the patio and blush in his general direction (as it was, after two seconds of silence I panicked and launched into a ten-minute story about my family while leaving out the only fact which gave the story any point at all).

I'm shy. Very, very shy; in a slightly later era and with different parents I would probably have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder around the time I started school, and been on medications who knows how long.

As things stand, I don't have a mental illness diagnosis which requires medication or regular therapy. I don't have any trouble reading social cues: I'm in fact hyper-sensitive to them. But for the first eighteen years of my life I could not talk to a stranger. I just could not do it. It was the most terrifying thing imaginable.

Then I discovered alcohol. And I didn't drink because I wanted to be the party girl. I drank because without alcohol I literally could not talk to someone I didn't already know extremely well. I could not function at a party without it. It was basic self-medicating.

So when I got sober, I was looking back at twenty-eight years of non-functioning socially. I had to learn how to function, the way you would learn to ride a bike or speak a new language. My theater experience helped immensely, and I was determined and observant, and learned quickly that if you are a youngish woman with a decent smile, you can get away with listening a lot and speaking a little (the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that Expert Guys will sense you from six rooms away and swarm like bees). But I am still terrified every time I land in a social situation with people I don't know. I can hide it, I can get through for a couple hours, I can think of it as a role I am playing. I can translate in my head the way you do when you're not fluent in that second language. I'm exhausted afterwards, but I can do it.

And when I was suddenly living alone, I had to learn to be able to pick up the phone and call to order the heating oil, the take-out; make my own appointments; deal with store clerks and repairpeople and neighbors. If I didn't do these things, they just wouldn't get done. So I do them. If the person on the other end of the phone is a jerk, I'll still get off the phone trembly and tearful and brood on it all day, but I can make the call.

I end up liking lots of people once I meet them, but I'm scared of almost everyone initially. I'm scared of women who are more glamorous than I am (that they'll pity my attempts to look good). I'm scared of women who don't feel the need to be glamorous (that they'll scorn me as shallow). I'm scared of good-looking men (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt) and men to whom I'm not attracted (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt). I am terrified to trembling-point of the woman who in another age would have been called the Vivacious Dame: the one whose physical appearance doesn't even matter because she is so outgoing and fun, the center of the room, the one with the loudest laugh and the most friends. The one who can dance and drink until three in the morning, never getting sloppy or maudlin, and meet you at brunch with bright eyes and a hug for the diner staff, because of course she knows them all.

I am terrified of that woman for two reasons: the first is because I believe she makes me disappear. In a sense she literally does; Berowne has yet to host a late-night party since I met him, but I know he does such things, and I know that around midnight I will pumpkin the hell out and scamper away to bed, leaving him to the Vivacious Dames. I don't fear that a Dame and Berowne would get up to anything untoward, mind (Dames are very capable of platonic friendships with men and Berowne is trustworthy). But the Dames get those hours, get those laughs, long after I've either stopped trying to contribute to the conversation or have literally left the room. 

The second reason for terror is that I can't be a Dame, and that makes me feel not-good-enough. I can stand my ground on, or shrug off, anything else that frightens me, because I know that for the people who matter in my life I am attractive enough, I am intelligent enough, I am interesting enough. I don't need to have everyone agree I'm the best at everything; don't need that universal validation at parties anymore. But the second a Vivacious Dame bombs into the room, drink in hand and energy ricocheting off the walls, I am reminded that no matter what else I do I can't be that. I can be the prettiest, smartest, nicest, wittiest woman in the room (if you pick the right room, of course), but I will never be the most fun woman in the room. I will never be the Cool Girl. (I am reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which there are passages about the Cool Girl which are so painfully close to home that I have had to physically walk away from the book on occasion lest I scream.) You can love me enough to think I'm the smartest woman in a room full of Ph.Ds, or the prettiest in a room full of supermodels. But no one is ever going to think that I'm the most fun woman in a room full of extroverts.

Lamenting that is like being in the hypothetical room full of supermodels and lamenting that I'm not the tallest. It's absurd and pointless. I have to stop assuming that everyone I love will eventually love a fun woman more, just because one person did it. But I've always felt inadequate because of my introversion. Felt that I wasn't normal, that there was something wrong with me, that it shouldn't be this hard. And when my boyfriend tells me he doesn't think I'm an introvert, I panic, because I think, What happens when he finds out I am? It's my very own Romance Novel Heroine's Terrible Secret! ("But when Vivienne Pomplemousse tells Ravensdric, Earl of Manmusk, that she is socially burnt out after only two hours at the party, what will become of their love?"*)

Blogs became a thing when I was in college (I was actually at college with one of the first personal bloggers). I didn't grow up with blogs, but as a twenty-year-old surrounded by similar people and faced with this phenomenon, I didn't see a paradox in the fact of shy or socially awkward people writing about their lives for public view. I still don't. I assume, as I think many shy bloggers do, that the people who are interested are going to read, and that they are interested because they find something applicable to their own lives here. Extroverted people assume that the interest is universally there. An introverted blogger is placing his/her thoughts in a place where those who have the interest can find them. I have about eighty readers, the vast majority of whom know me in real life. That makes sense to me.

I don't talk about anything I wouldn't talk about to someone who asked me directly. I don't talk about my sex life, and I try to keep my body image issues out of here because I find it hard to talk about those without sounding like I'm fishing for compliments. I am upfront about being a recovering alcoholic and about how terrifying cancer and divorce were, because those are things that happen, and they haven't happened just to me, and I don't want them to be things of which I'm ashamed. And, to justify myself, they do affect my reading. Many books feature addiction, illness, and marital collapse: those are all excellent sources of drama. If I were to attempt to review a book with an addicted protagonist while pretending I had no personal experience of addiction, that would just be odd.

Also, you can be introverted and want attention. I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

But, for me, what it comes down to is that I don't hate myself any more, but I'm still shy. My lack of social functioning in the past was a combination of self-loathing (why would anyone want to talk to me? everything that comes out of my mouth is wrong) and the basic personality trait that is shyness. That trait is still there, and always will be. New people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. Period. I know I can be funny, and interesting, and say perceptive things about books, and this is an easy way to keep people updated on my life, and so I blog. And still new people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. I don't see the contradiction, I guess. The things which it may seem extroverted, or boundary-crossing, for me to mention on a blog are the aspects of myself I used to be ashamed of, and I'm just not any more. 

I don't think that with my vast readership of eighty people who already like me I'm going to change society's view of addiction (that it's about a lack of self-control) or illness (if you get cancer it's because you did something unhealthy) or divorce (if you get divorced you just weren't willing to work on your marriage enough). And I am still a private person in many ways. But the previous version of me didn't avoid these topics because they fell into a category of what I consider private, the way my sex life does. I avoided those topics because I was ashamed of them. Now I'm not. 

I don't mean to call poor Berowne out here. He's not the only one who finds personal blogging an odd hobby for a shy person. But I have had a very enjoyable year writing this blog and I intend to continue. Just don't think that means you can take me to a New Year's Eve party, because those things are the devil.**

*What became of their love: Manmusk narrowed his piercing eyes and requested one hour more. Vivienne heaved her alabaster bosom and said that was fine. They chatted to a fabulous older couple and left after an hour and fifteen minutes.

**Does anyone really enjoy NYE parties? Discuss.

Friday, November 2, 2012

in brief

Just a quick round-up, as things are rather a mess around here. Major appliances dying, dogs I have come to love through the blogosphere passing away, and loved ones getting awful medical news. Also I kind of hate Halloween, even though dressing the dogs up is always entertaining and once I get outside with them on the actual night I enjoy the walk (rather than deal with the total chaos every time someone rings the bell and the little children who burst into hysterical tears when they see giant eager dogs, I leave the house dark and walk the dogs around town until trick-or-treating is over). So it's been a rough week.

I read:

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. I have decided I love Atkinson, and I loved this despite the fact that she always kills dogs. In this one she introduced a very, very old dog whose owner had just died, so you know bad things are coming. And you would not be wrong.

Below Zero, another C.J. Box mystery. This wasn't his best. It distracted me, but I was a little disappointed.

Ned Kelly and the City of Bees, by Thomas Keneally. This was a crazy-pants children's novel from Australia about a boy (not this Ned Kelly; if it had been that is really the only way the book could have been weirder) who is supposedly in a coma but actually living with bees. I don't know how else to describe it. It's very reminiscent of the book the characters in Angels & Insects are writing.

I wish for love and hope for all those who need some, and a good weekend full of books.

Friday, October 26, 2012

the longest post I have written to date, I think

Several of these are novellas and there were two books I flat-out discarded after a bit. But it does seem like I'm getting my pacing back!

Since last posting I read Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table, by Ruth Riechl. It's a memoir ostensibly about her trajectory as a food critic, but mostly about the disintegration of her first marriage due to her numerous infidelities. There is some food involved, but very little of it is eaten when anyone's even close to sober, which has always bothered me about food writing. Riechl drops a lot of Famous Chef names, which meant almost nothing to me, and even more Fancy Wine names, which meant zero to me. And she trots out the trope that True Love means, "I can't stand this person, we hate each other, we're making every social event awkward by snapping at each other, let's make out in an elevator, because sexual chemistry only manifests itself as hatred at first". GOOD BASIS FOR A RELATIONSHIP THERE. The last quarter of the book doesn't even mention food; it's all just a failed adoption attempt and Riechl behaving inappropriately with her first husband after moving in with the second. Why would you write about doing such things? Makes me get my prude face on.

I cleansed my palate with a C.J Box mystery, Winterkill. Solid and engrossing and reliable, as his books almost always are. Enjoyed this much more than Riechl.

And then two failures:

I tried to read Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, because when I discovered Rankin has written another series I was very excited. I haven't read all the Inspector Rebus books but I do know he's apparently written the last, so there is a finite number. But what the heck this was I don't even know, other than some sort of generic "thriller" (I put it in quotations because it was completely un-thrilling) narrated by a stone-cold killer-for-hire who likes to talk at great length about his preferred brand of guns. There is a private detective who does lots of cocaine, and an obvious love interest who appears in doorways wearing only a T-shirt and with a gun that she, silly little lady, didn't even load. (It's worth mentioning said doorway is to a room that contains her father, which you'd think would induce even the silliest of little ladies to put on some pants.) I actually thought the whole thing had to be a joke which was going to go somewhere unexpected, but eventually realized it wasn't, and put it away.

Also a failure was The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber. What IS this nonsense, I muttered through the first 70 pages, while our various heroes rant objectifyingly about women, one female character who bears no resemblance to an actual human passes through, and not one but two dudes potentially on their deathbeds, five hundred years apart, decide to write down Everything (as opposed to Everything Important), which in the case of the first means providing exposition by the bucketload for the one person (his wife) who presumably already knows all this, and in the latter case means talking about the numberless affairs he's had because all women love giant thick-necked bodybuilders (I'm not making that up; apparently we do). There are whispers of a newly discovered Shakespeare play floating around, which appears to be the eventual plot, but Gruber's writing and characters were so offensive to me that I couldn't even make it to my requisite 100 pages, the usual point at which I allow myself to discard a book. I was going to try for the hundred, but then I flipped ahead a bit and read a part where our thick-necked Casanova is talking about his affair with a woman who, as he says disdainfully, "turned out to be one of those women who like to" [perform a perfectly normal sex act which could only be considered problematic by a man very insecure in his masculinity]. "Gruber, you're a dick," I said out loud. Back to the used bookstore it goes.

So many parentheses! I feel comfortable leaving them in because that is actually how I talk.

Then I read Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, which turned out to be one of the most frightening books I've encountered. The first night I started it, I woke in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom and thought, Nope, not going downstairs, you can't make me. Eventually biology did make me, but I was not happy about it. I then considered bringing the dogs in the bed, but the only thing worse than waking from a nightmare and being alone in bed is waking from a nightmare to find there's something beside you in the bed that you can't immediately identify. This book was sort of a combination of Ruth Rendell and In Cold Blood. Terrifying. Very, very hard to put down.

And then Unlocked, by Courtney Milan, a romance novella. It was fine. Not particularly remarkable or memorable, but sweet.

Followed that up with another novella, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams. I do like Johnson's short stories and cannot read his novels; more than a hundred pages of his broken characters and I start whimpering a little. So this was a good length. There were a couple supernatural bits which genuinely made the hair rise on the back of my neck, and which I did not like reading alone in the house at night. Very strongly written overall.

And then this text conversation happened:

Me: Heh, my Kindle is recommending to me a trashy romance entitled "The Boat Builder's Bed".

Berowne, who is a boat builder: You might consider it.

Me: Fantasy couldn't possibly compare to reality. On the other hand, it is free.

Berowne: Free and you most certainly can relate to the protagonist.

Me: Downloaded. You will suffer through the prose with me if it is awful.

Berowne: I don't want to fall short of the fantasy.

Me: So far this boat builder is named "Rafe Severino" and drives a Jaguar.

Berowne: Damn it!

Me: And our heroine is trying to move furniture in a miniskirt and high heels. I do not relate.

Me: He's part Maori! OF COURSE he is. Gotta fetishize the natives! [He later turns out to be part Cherokee as well. SURE HE IS.]

Me: She's "unnerved by the waves of undiluted masculine power rolling off him". Just like I was when I met you.

Berowne: Now you can relate.

Me: He's "hurling sex all around" the room! It's like the author spied on my life.

Berowne: The funniest thing is I'm not sure you're joking.

Me: Our hero has a 10,000 square foot house. Have you been misleading me about the kind of money there is in boat-building? [It turns out that by "boat builder" the author means "owner of multimillion-dollar yacht company". No boats are built or sailed in the course of this book.]

Me: "Paddling her pert curvy butt was some consolation, but not enough."

Berowne: Paddling? Around in a big canoe?

Me: Yes, interesting verb choice. Ugh, our hero is dismayed because our heroine is a career woman and no career woman could ever want kids. He doesn't know about her Secret Child!

Me: "She admired his beautiful moonlit thighs."

Berowne: Don't we all?

Me: Not as much as we admire "the two tight creamy cheeks of his butt".

Berowne: My god, your clothes should be in a heap on the floor by now.

Me: Our hero has just announced that "keeping a woman safe is always a man's business". Infantilize me, baby. Oh lord, she's 25 and he just berated her about "ever getting around" to becoming a mother.

Berowne: Nice.

Me: But there's a Secret Child! Which she conceived despite condom use because she is so Perfectly Fertile!

Berowne: Oh my, that's arousing!

What this book mostly was, though, was money porn. Page after page of how rich the hero is, all his material stuff, all the material stuff he buys her; and she gets maybe two lines about how she wants to Make Her Own Way in life before deciding that living off him and popping out his babies (a relationship without children doesn't count, we are pretty emphatically told) is really the best thing in the world, because she can do it in a 10,000 square foot oceanfront house (he mocks her quite cruelly about the size of her apartment). The final scene is not about how much these two characters love each other, but about the size and ostentation of the bathroom in which they're having a conversation. Also there was no boat building whatsoever.

This is why I rarely read romance novels set in the modern day. Yes, this was a particularly bad one, but even the decent ones I've encountered (Nora Roberts comes to mind) are all about money. Of course period ones are all populated by nobility and our heroes are fearfully wealthy dukes and earls, but there is far less emphasis on Stuff. Every modern one I've read has lists of the Stuff the hero buys the heroine, which she is never in a position to buy for herself, and lists of his multiple cars and $500 ties, and that just makes my skin crawl because if you're pressing that money-consciousness so hard on the reader, you're making it a huge part of your heroine's decision to be with this guy. It's supposed to be part of the attraction for both reader and heroine, as if the amount of money someone has is just as important as whether he makes you laugh or whether you go slightly weak when you think about his hands which are scarred and callused from ACTUAL boat building whoa, sorry, got a little carried away there.

I know it's a fantasy. That's what makes me sad: this fixation on obscene wealth doled out by a man to a dependent woman as part of a supposedly woman-oriented fantasy. Of course there is nothing fun or romantic about struggling to get by, but no one should buy into this nonsense that the Ultimate Fantasy Date requires a private jet, the opera, and a designer gown he purchased for you without asking your opinion, and that the Ultimate Fantasy Happy Ending means that you have been swept away from your terrible plebeian working life and can now live among eternal cocktail parties and the constant nightmarish pressure to stay beautiful and thin, and never accomplish anything but being his woman! Isn't that what we all want?

If when I die I go to Hell, it will be an eternal cocktail party at which I have to be conscious of my laugh lines and have no life of my own to talk about.  

I don't deny it would be nice to not have to worry about money. But that still doesn't mean I'd want a guy to present me with diamond jewelry on the second date and take it for granted that I want to quit my job and move out of my little cottage the second I can, because ladies only work until they can catch a rich man, and how can an actual human being live in 850 square feet? The only wealth-fantasy I've ever bought into was the Beast's library in Robin McKinley's Beauty.

In conclusion: this week has contained lots of reading. Lots of laughter. Lots of irritation about books which try to tell me I should want something I don't simply because I am female. Lots of gratitude for all the good in my life. For the most part, I wish but for the thing I have.

Friday, October 19, 2012

all military takeovers, all the time

Since last posting I have only read books about dictators. Good times!

First up was By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. It's a little novella, narrated by a priest on his deathbed, about Pinochet's rise to power. Short, but intense. It reminded me of Nádas' A Book of Memories or Sebald's Austerlitz, without being as good as either (I used to re-read A Book of Memories all the time in college and have been meaning to return to Austerlitz, but I can't imagine wanting to read By Night in Chile again). There is one astonishing bit where the narrator says, "Let God's will be done, I said. I'm going to reread the Greeks." And then for a two-page run-on sentence he rereads the Greeks, chronologically, while his country falls apart, and I cannot do justice to the writing but when it concluded with, "And then there was silence. I put my finger in the book to mark my place and looked up," I let out my held breath. It's pretty amazing, but the rest of the book wasn't on the same level.  

Then I headed over to WWII Germany, with The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. At first this book totally grabbed me with its weird poetic style and the fact that it is narrated by Death, and then that got annoying, and then I liked it again. Unfortunately, it all stayed on a superficial poetic parable-level for me, so I didn't care about any of the characters, because they weren't developed people. It tells the story of one German town, and for the most part, there are only Good or Bad people in town. There are the people who conceal Jews, and the people who spit at the Jews while they are being marched through town on their way to the camps. There are boys who are evil Hitler Youth leaders and there are boys who idolize Jesse Owens, and nothing in between. And the only characters Zusak goes into detail about are the good ones, for whom hiding Jews in the basement is a matter of course. We never see any struggle, any complicity with the Nazis that comes at a terrible moral price but keeps a family safe. And so the middle part, which is mostly about a family hiding a Jew, bogged exceedingly for me, because there was no struggle on the part of the family, no doubt, no moral haziness. I couldn't retain interest in that level of purity.

The ending successfully punched me in the face, which Zusak (to give him credit) warns the reader it is going to do. I mildly resent the fact of said punch.

Then I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson. I had been warned by others who read this that it's not nearly as interesting as Larson's other books, and I had to agree. I anticipated that the American family in question would be an ordinary family, but it turns out it's the American ambassador and his family, which I suppose meant they had access to far more members of Hitler's inner circle than an ordinary family would have, but also meant they were almost entirely immune to the everyday changes taking place in Berlin. I didn't believe for a second that they were living in "terror". Larson doesn't show that they are, either; it's all parties and who the adult daughter is sleeping with (everybody). The daughter, Martha Dodd, is a huge part of the book, but the amount of page space Larson devotes to her is baffling given that he clearly doesn't like her and doesn't bring her across to the readers as a person of any interest whatsoever. The chapters on the Night of the Long Knives are quite chilling, but they come too late in the book. By then I was just powering through because my library loan was expiring and I didn't want to check it out again.

I think I will read something which is not about dictators next. Possibly a nice light murder mystery, or horror story.


In me-related news, because heaven forbid I write just about reading, the actual purpose of this blog, without banging on about myself (as a Scottish blogger I love puts it): I'm feeling a strange sense of needing a label. This hasn't happened for many years and I think it has to do with dating again, and being introduced to his friends and family and wishing there was a quick way to identify myself for them, or present them with a hobby (excuse me, avocation) more concrete, more immediately useful for discussion or explanation, than "reading".

I flail about for labels when dating, because in the Beatricebrain, there is always some "perfect" match for the man I'm with, for whatever reason, and it isn't me. The Mistress was such an exact embodiment of my paranoid thinking that I still sometimes think I conjured her out of thin air. I'm leery of even mentioning the paranoid thinking I do about Berowne, lest I single-handedly create some healthfully-freckled woman with long beautiful hair who dyes her own yarn, cans her own fruit, and hasn't eaten a processed food item in sixteen years, striding up to his front door saying, "I just moved in on the next working farm over; would you like to harvest kale with me and meet my goats?"

(Nothing against women who do any of these things! I think women who do these things are awesome, frankly. I just don't have any interest in doing those things, and yet there is a voice in my head telling me I should be interested in doing them, and that women who do these things are automatically more appealing than I and if one appeared to my boyfriend he would be like, "Well, honey, there are goats. You can't compete with that.")   

If I was unabashedly urban, that contrast with Berowne's lifestyle at least might be interesting, but I'm not. I hate cities, I hate noise, I keep farmers' hours. I'm not high-powered regarding my career: I cherish being able to stand up from my desk after eight hours and go home and not check my e-mail until I am back at that desk. But I'm not at all crafty or earthy, either. I don't knit or garden or leave the house without product in my hair* and I'm terrified of bees.

Of course some of this (the label-hunting, not the fear of bees) has to do with my reading pace slacking lately. Previously when these thoughts came up I would toss my head and think, "I do so do things. I read and I write and I read and I watch documentaries and I laugh like a hyena over coffee with friends and I read." But of late I haven't been reading that much. So how do I define myself, and what do I have to offer? As if all my smarts and personality fall right out of my head if I don't study the printed word for two days. 

I think the maxim, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so," also applies to being interesting. I should stop wasting so much mental space and emotional energy on it, and give Berowne enough credit not to believe that he's walking around thinking, "She's almost perfect; if only there were goats."  

(What if there was a tiny goat? And also puppies? This.)

*Female celebrities who say of their pixie cuts that "now I just roll out of bed and go!" are huge liars. You need product, time, an extra mirror to see the back of your head, and the occasional flat iron, or you look like the lovechild of Kevin Bacon in "A Few Good Men" and Tintin.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

in which I enjoy lists


1. I have memorized my library card number, because I need to log in with it to get e-books. This strikes me as something that is as it should be.

2. It appears to have pushed my bank card number out of my brain, and I am trying to convince myself that that is also as it should be, rather than a sign of my decrepitude.

3. I was listening to Peggy Lee's "I'm a Woman" in the car this morning, and singing along to all the things she can do (starch and iron two dozen shirts / make a dress out of a feed bag / swing till four a.m., go to bed at five, jump up at six and start all over again), and then I said out loud, "I can't actually do any of those things," and laughed like a loon. I often feel less-than due to my lack of domesticity and social spontaneity (because it seems like you should do at least one of those things, right? you should be either house-proud or the life of the party, rather than reading amidst the dog-hair tumbleweeds), but some of the time I can laugh at it. And that is so good.

4. What my iPod shuffle plays when I am alone in the car: Peggy Lee, bluegrass, classical, interesting indie rock, flamenco, etc. What my iPod shuffle plays when my new boyfriend is in the car: crap 90s pop which is on there strictly for workout purposes.

5. My car is too loud for the drive-through.

6. Finished The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. It is the story of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage, told from the point of view of the wife, Hadley Richardson. I don't think McLain is a particularly amazing writer, although every now and then there was a very well-crafted phrase, and her few attempts to write a chapter from Ernest's perspective were cringe-inducing. The descriptions of expatriate writer life in the 1920s were decent but could have been filled out, and I wish there had been more about the politics of Europe at the time. Hemingway does go off and do his war reporting, but the background for the conflict is really glossed over. I found this book compelling as hell, though, simply because as a portrait of a collapsing marriage it is deadly accurate. Reading it in fact brought me back to a lot of emotions I haven't felt in a while. I know those feelings will always surface periodically, and as long as I let them pass through me instead of bottling them up, I'll be okay. In summary: Hemingway was a dick. But we already knew that.

7. Then I read Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. It's a huge sprawling book about twin boys born to an Indian mother and English father in 1950s Ethiopia, and the medical career in America one of the boys (our narrator) goes on to experience. Verghese is a doctor, and the descriptions of medical care and operations are fascinating and clear (not to mention graphic). The politics are also handled quite well, I thought. Alas, I didn't like our hero, so the second half of the book I found less appealing than the first, in which he's telling the story of his birth and childhood and he doesn't really appear as a character. Also, women are treated pretty shabbily in general and sex never ends well. For the first three hundred pages I couldn't put this down, but was disappointed by the second three hundred. I certainly understand the popularity of it, though, and would describe it as a good book.

8. I am reading three books at once right now, which I don't usually do (one is a re-read). Perhaps I am trying to make up for my lack of reading during September.

9.  I may never be either a domestic diva or social butterfly (or dance in "Swan Lake", or play the cello), but I have periodic spasms of wanting to get out the tool kit and fix everything myself. I predict this current one will end when a crucial piece of my broken dryer is flung across the basement, and disappears forever, because I thought a spider fell into my hair.

10. I cannot entirely blame #5 for this, since it happens when I am on foot as well: my ratio of "ordering decaf" to "receiving decaf" is only at about 2:1 these days. Just how exciting will my day be? I NEVER KNOW.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


September was low.

There was no concrete reason for this. My relationship is going very well, work is fine, I'm getting to see a lot of my friends, and autumn is my favorite season. But sometimes there isn't a concrete reason for a lingering depressed mood, and I need to accept that, instead of trying to find something I can fix.

By writing about being depressed, I am aware that I'm falling into the blogger trap of believing that everything I do is important. I don't think that, nor is this a post about how I'm offering myself up to let others know that they're not alone. If you have clinical depression, you're not alone, but I don't have that. I know people who do, and I know I'm lucky to be merely coping with a mood drop that lasted three weeks. This is just an explanation for the scanty reading recorded here.   

The problem, this time, was that when I realized I was going through a bad period I committed to self-care (not the problem) and then I decided to equate self-care with stagnation (the problem). So I would come home from work and think, "I have to be gentle with myself," and not work out, and re-read a Peter Robinson without even paying much attention to that, and half-ass a journal page, and go to bed; and in the morning I would sulk late in bed instead of walking the dogs and/or meditating.

And I know that doesn't make me feel better for more than a day or two. I know that nothing erases certain types of my bad feelings more effectively than a hard workout. I know I feel more engaged and curious when I'm reading something new. Comfort reading is grand for one rainy Sunday afternoon now and then. When done for several weeks straight, it actually burns me out. 

(I did, however, discover why I'd been so irritated at Robinson's "none of my readers know 'Othello'" deal from the last book of his I read: in one of his early books, the plot includes a community theater troupe putting on "Twelfth Night", and Robinson assumes his readers know the play. He doesn't explain who the characters are, he doesn't give us a Cliffs Notes of the plot: he assumes we know. Now I am less inclined to blame Robinson for the later nonsense, and more inclined to blame an editor saying, "You need to make this more accessible for the American market!" or something.)

At the end of the month, I finally found myself looking forward to coming home from work and reading something new. It is a good feeling. I think I am on the upswing.

So I did some reading. First was Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles, by Robert Sackville-West. Knole is the ancestral home of the Sackville family, the most famous member of which is of course Vita. The current inhabitant of Knole, Robert, wrote this book about the history of his family and the fortunes of the house and estate. It's mostly about the history of England, as the various Sackvilles rise and fall in royal favor. He devoted a little too much detail to Vita's mother, who was apparently a very dramatic person (and someone who left a huge amount of correspondence and journals behind her), but I didn't find her worth the amount of page space in a book that wasn't her biography. Other than that I quite liked this. Sackville-West's writing style is clear and witty, and it's a fun book for an Anglophile.

Then I read my Early Reviewers book, The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens. Set in 18th century England, it is the story of a young nobleman wrongfully imprisoned and his friends' struggle to free him. Baltakmens is a Dickens scholar, and is obviously parroting Dickens' style as much as possible. This sometimes produced enjoyable metaphors, but I didn't get any sense of Baltakmens' own voice, and our hero is dumped in prison before we get to know him at all, so I didn't have any emotional investment in him securing his freedom. The book in general was over-long and the beginning too truncated; I would have expanded the pre-prison bit so that there is a chance to develop the character and then show how prison changes him (all the changes prison wrought on him were told to the reader, not shown), and trimmed some of the later stuff. It wasn't bad, and I didn't object to reading it, but it never sucked me in.

I am about halfway through The Paris Wife, a novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife. I have mixed feelings about it as a book, but as a portrait of a marriage falling apart, it's painfully mesmerizing.  

But I'm reading! This is good. And don't worry, I shall be back to all mirth and no matter soon enough. You should have seen the havoc the dogs caused their first weekend at Berowne's house. When Darcy's housetraining fails him, it fails spectacularly.

P.S. Berowne said a glorious thing lately: that when he wishes me to have a wonderful day, he means that literally: a day full of wonder. And since he said that I have been going through my days looking for sources of wonder. They are everywhere. Living where I do, I get to see both the sunrise and the sunset over the ocean (if I walk two blocks and go upstairs, respectively). When I come home from work or errands or the clothesline, I am greeted by two dogs who are wagging themselves sideways in their delight to see me. Sometimes, in the midst of a hard workout or yoga or Zumba routine (haters to the left), I feel fully in my body and utterly gleeful at the things it can do. This past Sunday morning I found myself sitting in a rustic kitchen with my dogs at my feet while a handsome bearded man made me breakfast, and if finding yourself in a Nora Roberts novel isn't cause for wonder I don't know what is.

I said I wanted the word for 2012 to be "delight". No reason there can't be two words for this year, which has surprised me pleasantly in so many ways.

P.P.S. A brilliant description of the adulthood blues.

Friday, September 21, 2012

saga of a mammogram

Yesterday I had my annual mammogram. It was actually my first since the diagnosis, as my first post-treatment screening was March's MRI.

Berowne was with me Wednesday night and Thursday morning, which helped with the panic enormously. I had asked him to be there, which is fairly huge for me - I have a very hard time asking for help, and if through no fault of his own he hadn't been able to be there the disappointment would have been disproportionate and I would have beat myself up for asking in the first place. Because I should accept that I am the Spartan boy and cancer (or divorce, or body hatred, or whatever) is the fox and I will just let it eat me alive, because THAT IS WHAT STRONG PEOPLE DO. Right?

Not right. Hence blogging about my various foxes. And asking my boyfriend to come over. As I said, that was absolutely the right thing to do and it meant I headed off to the hospital feeling pretty good emotionally.

I was fortunate to have a wonderful tech, who was upbeat and informative and knew what she was doing, so that the intense pain was never something I had to bear for more than a few seconds. For my very first mammogram I had a tech who apparently had never dealt with larger, denser breasts before, and I had to be re-positioned and re-photographed over and over. It took forever and I was black and blue for days, and it's amazing I was willing to have another the next year. But this woman was great, and even the side-squishing-ones (I am sure that is a technical term), which involve stretching one breast so violently away from the other that it honestly feels as if the skin and muscles on your sternum are going to split, were over quickly.

Then I went back into the waiting room, because once you've had cancer a doctor reads your mammogram scans right there, and you don't have to wait a couple days for your results. I was quite Zen during this wait.

Then they called me back in for more pictures. "It's okay!" I thought to myself. "It often takes two pictures to get my whole boob!" But I noticed that the tech wasn't looking quite as upbeat as before.

She put me in a side-squishing position, but even worse than before. My chest muscles and skin were at snapping point. My breast was mashed to unbelievable dimensions. My head and arm were at weird angles.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Sort of," I said, meaning that I thought I could bear it for the length of a picture (about six seconds) without actually screaming. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, not in the sense that I don't feel pain easily but in that I am willing to bear a lot of pain if there's a reason and if I know it will end soon.

"Because I need you to hold that for two minutes," she said.

"You what now?" I asked.

"There are calcifications in your breast. If they respond to two minutes of intense pressure, we'll know they're just milk of calcium and harmless. If they don't, well."

I held that position for two minutes. "That wasn't fun," I said in a squeaky voice, when released. Spartan Boy Gets a Mammogram.

"Hmm," said the tech, looking at my pictures on the computer screen. I looked too, and saw lots of (okay, maybe ten) little white spots, throughout the breast. The same little white spots they showed me last year, when pointing out the cancer.

I was sent back to the waiting room. There was a woman ahead of me also waiting for the doctor to review her pictures, and then the doctor got pulled into a procedure. I waited for twenty-five minutes, seeing that picture in my mind's eye. Sure that my other breast (et tu, Lefty?) had cancer.

Mentally, I went through the whole process of getting them removed. Of the physical trauma of multiple surgeries and the emotional trauma of having to re-build my body, knowing my shape will never be quite the same no matter how good the plastic surgeon. Knowing that the replacement breasts will have no sensation, so my sex life will be altered on a basic nerve-ending level as much as it will be emotionally. Knowing that if I do manage to have children, I won't be able to nurse them.

And the physical recovery is not something I could do on my own. Someone would have to come stay with me: even if I ignore my own needs enough to shrug off the idea of not being able to open my kitchen cabinets or wash my hair, I can't ignore that I wouldn't be able to take the dogs out and so three or four times a day I'd need someone else there. Would I accept Berowne's pre-emptive offer of being that person? His job is an hour and a half away from my house. Would I ask one of my brothers to fly to Massachusetts and stay with me? Have my friends rotate days? Why did I park at a meter instead of the garage? I'm going to leave here with a cancer diagnosis and find my car's been towed. How do I ask for help without it being a tacit admission that I have failed at everything ever?

Most days I like living alone. Sitting in a mammography waiting room, facing surgery which would leave me with honest-to-God drains under each arm and no ability to even take my own dogs outside when they need to pee, I did not like it one bit.

The tech finally pushed the curtain aside and said, "Beatrice? Do you want to talk to the doctor?"

I gave her a puzzled look. Do I want to? Don't I have to? Surely they aren't going to let a tech tell me the cancer is back?

"You're good," she said. "Good good. But the doctor wants you to come back in six months, not a year."


She said a few more times, "You're good good," because she could tell from my expression it wasn't sinking in, and let me get dressed, and then I met with the doctor. He told me that the white spots were all proven to be milk of calcium deposits, as they reacted properly to the Torquemada Squish. However, around the surgery site on the other breast, there are spots which could be either fat necrosis - a typical aftereffect of surgery - or potential microcalcifications of the type which were previously found to be cancerous. So he recommends keeping an eye on those and re-checking in six months.

I meet with one of my oncologists next week, to discuss further. If she's cool with waiting six months, I will feel fine about that. (I will be a WRECK in March 2013, but that's then.) I walked out so exhausted from the excess of emotion that I felt numb, and found that my car was still there, and ran a bunch of errands in a dazed state, and that night was in my pajamas by five and sound asleep by eight-thirty.

My boobs live to fight another day! Once they have recovered, that is. Ow.

I am really, really lucky to have the people around me that I do. Doctors and friends and family and all. I know I'll get through whatever happens in six months, and I'll keep working on my ability to ask for help. And on my ability to maneuver my ridiculous muscle car into small spaces, so that I can park in the damn garage next time.