One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

This morning, on the way back from the rec center, I saw a gull and a crow meet in the middle of the road. In the parking lot to my right, a murder of crows milled about. To the left, a flock of gulls circled the greening field. The two seemed to be ambassadors meeting in neutral territory, stark black touching beaks to snow white. They scattered when I drove through. Another delicate negotiation disrupted by encroaching technology.

David is staying home sick today. Unfortunately a woman in his lab was in Texas last week, in the Austin/Houston area, and is now sick with a severe respiratory flu. She came to work anyway at the beginning of the week, though the manager has now asked her to stay home for the rest of the week.

We don’t know that it’s swine flu, but we don’t know that it’s not. She says she doesn’t think it is.

Scientifically, it’s interesting to watch a pandemic begin. And they’ve caught this one pretty early, so we get to watch the spread. I’ve been taken aback the last few days at the extreme measures being taken: New York closing schools, Texas cancelling the end of year athletic events. They’re concerned, David says, because of the way the virus is mutating. Maybe so fast and in such a way that many people’s immune systems will be unable to handle it.

We’re so blase about flu now. It comes and goes. Maybe someone really old dies from it. It’s easy to look on the statistic that the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed about 50 million people worldwide and think of that as the bad old days. They were ignorant then, and had nothing compared to the kind of health technology we have now. Maybe there’s something to that. If medical help is gotten.

I remember when I was in grad school, a college student died in her trailer of the flu. Just an ordinary flu. But she lived alone and didn’t tell anyone she was sick and the fever killed her.

This situation is not an ordinary flu either. What a virus “wants” is to take over your cells and use them to manufacture a whole lot more of itself. Thus killing the host is not in the virus’ best interests. But a new virus is like a rampaging toddler — a newly mutated virus tends to kill its hosts through sheer clumsiness, if you will. Over time, the virus adapts to merely using and abusing the host until it’s run its course.

That’s where we are right now with this new pandemic: the terrible two’s. But it looks and feels just like pretty much any other flu on the surface.

Maybe what she has isn’t swine flu and she hasn’t infected everyone in her workplace with a highly virulent and contagious new flu. The thing is, we’re always scanning the sky for the glamorous terror, the obvious threat. Sometimes it’s just quietly puttering around your feet.

Bob-bob-bobbing along

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The Robins are really going crazy right now. They sing late into the dusk. Their shrill whistles pierce the pre-dawn sky. Robins hop around in the muddy gutters and in the birdbath filled with snowmelt. Everything is ready to pop. All we need is a few straight days of warm weather and the buds will explode into leaves and petals. This is how we go from winter to summer, in one fell swoop. The robins know it.

Really, it’s early yet to expect much. We can get snow all through May and into the first week of June. Yes, we’ve gotten snow after that, but it’s a remarkable occurrence. But everyone is getting restless here, wanting the warm weather. Like the robins, students crowd the university open spaces, determinedly wearing shorts.

People look around and want more. Fancies are turning not just to thoughts of love, but to dreams and desires. This is the season for graduation, for spending tax returns, for making plans to fill the long summer months ahead, thinking that this year they won’t vanish in a blip.

This is the time of infinite possibility.

A Murder or an Exaltation?

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

I caught this pic from the Laramie webcam yesterday morning. And right away thought of this stanza from Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I referred to this poem before on Easter, though it was stanza V that time. (I don’t have to tell you there are thirteen stanzas, right?)

Why do stanzas from this poem flow into my head? I don’t know.

In this case, I love the phrase “the bawds of euphony.” I’ve never had much patience with that type. I once gave a friend of mine a copy of Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour” to read and he came back with “don’t you think it’s kind of, well, dark?” Yes. Yes, it’s dark. And dark things are beautiful, too. Euphony is overrated, in my book.

These are vultures.

Turkey vultures, actually. Many people think they’re eagles when they see them circling overhead, broad golden-brown wings angled to catch the rising thermals. Nothing so noble. We don’t have blackbirds here, like Wallace Stevens had in the low coastal farm country of Connecticut and Pennsylvania. We have crows and grackles. And the black silhouettes of vultures circling overhead.

Sometimes the light is decidedly green.

“More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination,” says. Maybe that’s why I like his poems. The imagination transforms the mundane, even the pleasant into something more. Some people think that means making something up, seeing something that isn’t really there. I think it’s being able to see beyond the ordinary that seeks to distract you with its daily dose of dullness.

Go prostitute your euphony elsewhere. I’ll take the vultures.

Don’t Know When I’ll Be Back Again

Yesterday morning, I propped open our hotel room door to enjoy the sunshine and warm air while I packed. When I wandered out to the balcony, a crane gracefully stalked past, heading through the parking lot to the sidewalk that leads to a little lagoon. Just another pedestrian. Today, the same time of day, but 2,000 miles to the northwest and about 7,000 feet higher up, all I see is the snow falling.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s very pretty. But this time of year, during winterspring, it gets old.

I started reading Lisa Daily’s book “Fifteen Minutes of Shame” on the plane home. She gave a couple of really useful workshops on publicity at the convention. I’m also liking her book — kind of a Jennifer Weiner chick-lit deal. But I really loved that her character flew from Sarasota, Florida to Chicago and emerged into a 23 degree snowstorm in open-toed shoes, with her winter coat packed at the bottom of her suitcase. The character reflects that although she looks at the snowflakes on the weather map, she still has a hard time really believing it will be like that.

I see this a lot. Since I spend more time in airports than any human being should. At baggage claim in Denver, travelers in shorts and sandals will stand at the belts while the suitcases gaily circle around, staring in dismay out the glass doors at the snow billowing outside. Maybe not dismay, but consternation. As if they don’t quite understand how both of their realities can be true: both the one they left only a few hours before and the one they stand in now.

It makes me think air travel is fundamentally unnatural. There is perhaps something about the way we understand time and place that conflicts with the speed of air travel.

Once, when I was in college, I took a morning flight from St. Louis to Denver for a job interview. Then I flew back to St. Louis that evening, because I had exams in the morning. For a day or two afterward I felt disoriented, as if I’d lost a day. Something about the back and forth left me only halfway present, the rest of myself somehow scattered in between the two cities, only gradually catching up again.

I see there’s a new pill for jet lag. What can we do about the self-lag?

Do Blond Genre-Writers Have More Fun?

I noticed this at the RWA convention, too: genre writers are way more fun than the literary ones.

As a general rule.

Sure, there’s some competitiveness and there are the divas. There’s a bit of division between the published authors and the “aspiring” ones. (Yes, it says so on our nametags.) But the published writers are so interested to talk to the lowly aspiring ones. I just spend 2.5 hours at the author book fair, talking to everyone on god’s green earth. At least it felt like it. There were purportedly about 300 authors signing, in long rows, each with their displays and stacks of books. And nearly everyone I talked to spotted the “aspiring” on my tag and asked me what I write. In a genuinely interested way; no tail-sniffing involved.

My writer-friend, Chavawn Kelley, invented that term back in 1996 when she and I first started attending readings. We met in a class, Essays on Self and Place, taught by a visiting writer to the University of Wyoming, Don Snow, then editor of Northern Lights Magazine. And we attended a few university-sponsored events. Readings by various writers passing through, that kind of thing. At those, every other person would ask the same pair of questions: are you a writer? what have you published? Chavawn compared it to a pack of dogs, sniffing each others’ tails to determine who was alpha.

Granted the first question was necessary in that setting, since our tags didn’t say. But the second was said as a kind of challenge. A kind of are-you-anyone-I-should-pay-attention-to question.

I’ve since become better able to answer those questions. I’ve been publishing as an essayist for 12 years now. I have a certain amount of cred that keeps me from being at the bottom of the pack, anyway.

But while it’s kind of lowering to be back to “aspiring,” (RWA doesn’t consider you published unless you’re published in the genre, which I find an annoying double-standard) I love that the genre writers manage to ditch the condescension. They are enthusiastic and encouraging.

It makes me wonder about the literary clenched-sphincter.

It makes me think it’s all about money. The old saw that the fights in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low. In genre, there’s a convivial quality, an idea that the more people who are writing it, the more there is for a growing audience. The market share for romantic fiction is huge. And getting huger.

Or it could all just be that all of these people are pretty much writing about sex all the time. That’s got to make anyone happy.

Fairy Tale Evenings

The RT Booklovers Convention has been a total whirlwind.

So much so that I (obviously) haven’t been posting the last few days. RT is a different kind of writer’s gig because there are so many readers and booksellers here. Their enthusiastic presence mitigates the usual stalk-and-duck waltz between the editors/agents and the authors aspiring to be published, or just published better. The e-publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Cerriddwen, Samhain and Loose Id are very well represented here. Lots of promotional parties. Tons of shmoozing.

And, of course, a fairy ball. After all, how often you do get to dress up as a fairy for a professional convention?
There’s also the Ellora’s Cave jungle party, Heather Graham’s vampire ball and Dorchester’s Splashing by the Shore party, along with countless mixers, pool parties and happy hours.
The challenge with a conference like this, though, is knowing when to say enough is enough. It’s possible to be out chatting people up from 7am to 3am. Maybe longer. I’ve managed not to be out and about during the pre-dawn down-time. One writer I know with a book coming out fretted that she’d “missed people” the night before by being in a less-busy location around midnight.
This is crazy-making to me.
But then, I’ve never been the girl who went to all the right parties, either. I think you can drive yourself over the edge, trying to be everywhere. Of course you have to network. You have to be visible. You have to be willing to pimp your book. But I believe you have to do it your way, as yourself. Networking isn’t just shmoozing as many people as possible; it’s making actual connections to people. And if you’re always looking over someone’s shoulder to see who else you could be talking to, then you jeopardize the nascent connection you’re creating right then.
I’m a believer that the universe will deliver what you ask for. Which is why you have to be careful what you wish for. If you are yourself and follow the patterns that are real to you, then you will connect with people on the same path. Then, whether those people become friends, readers or your agent — maybe all three — that relationship is based on something you never have to force yourself to generate.
You never know which person holds the opportunities for you. Might as well enjoy the process of finding out. And, along the way, you might find you have something to offer them, as well.

Chartreuse, anyone?

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I intended to go out and buy a new vacuum cleaner.

Yeah, in the grand scheme, it’s not interesting. But that’s what Facebook is for: daily inanity. The surprise was, as one friend commented, it became the most interesting thread on Facebook for the day. Lots of people chimed in with their favorite brands and what one really needed in a vacuum cleaner.

I bought my new labor-saving device, brought it home and completed the housework abruptly interrupted mid-carpet by the final, gasping death of the vacuum cleaner I’d been nursing along for years using, yes, duct tape. (Though I thought of it as “new,” my mother bought it for me when I started grad school, which I can’t avoid knowing was 20 years ago.) I posted a new note to Facebook that I was loving the new machine and was considering donning a frilly white apron and high heels. And I called it “lime green,” which I knew was wrong.

What I wanted to convey was the excessive fashionability of my new vacuum cleaner. In a very trendy color of green that I knew I knew the name of. My boss wears it all the time. I even Googled it, looking for synonyms for green, but couldn’t spot it. And after all, it’s only a Facebook post — who really cares if I say “lime green” or… well, I knew “chartreuse” was wrong. Ann Taylor! I thought. She’s all about this shade of green. I went to her site, entered “green” anything for a keyword to see what they called it:

Pesto. Seaweed. Pistachio.

No, really.

Is anyone else noticing a food theme here?

So, to hell with it, I posted my message about my “lime green” vacuum cleaner, not pesto, seaweed or pistachio. Then we discussed whether pearls go with sweats and no one mentioned whether my vacuum cleaner was a fashionable color or not.

Of course, I remembered it later that evening: celadon!

Which is, apparently, passe. I’m such a lousy fashionista. Celadon was probably in five years ago. But you’re talking to a woman here who thinks a 20-year-old vacuum cleaner is new. If I could wear the color celadon, I’d still have a bunch of it in my closet. I certainly wouldn’t swap it out for the more au courant seaweed, pistachio and pesto. Though, I must confess, I’d probably sneak in a few pieces of the new colors, to smarten things up.

Probably by the time this vacuum cleaner dies, 20 years from now, celadon will be in again. Or just coming into style.

I try to stay ahead of the trends.

Dream a Little Dream of Me

I dreamed about Barack & Michelle again last night.

I know — it’s so dumb. But I did. For the second time now. No, I’ve never dreamed about the President and First Lady before. I’ve never dreamed about any politician, really. Not even my friend, Pat Kiovsky, and I was her campaign manager when she ran for Wyoming legsislature last fall. All of this makes me sound like a political gal and I don’t think I really am.

Of course, I come from an Irish-Catholic family, so political arguments over dinner are kind of a staple for us. I once brought down the house when I was ten and tartly informed my stepfather that he wouldn’t vote for Jesus Christ if he ran on a Republican ticket. To which he immediately rejoined that I was right on the money. So, you kind of had to be up on things, just to hold your own conversational ground in our family. But I have a low tolerance for news. Never watch it on TV. Don’t read any newspaper. Skim the news articles online.

The first dream, I was part of Obama’s team. I was riding around with him in a limo, taking notes, coordinating vague but important things. It felt good to be part of what he was doing. Last night, Barack and Michelle showed up on one of my work trips. I’m a private consultant doing contract work for EPA and they wanted to have lunch with me, to discuss important changes to EPA. I was excited in my dream — and couldn’t wait to call my mom and tell her who I got to have lunch with.

It might be partly because I get emails from them, Barack and Michelle. Also Joe and Cindy. More so during the campaign than now. Much has been said about the innovative nature of Obama’s campaign, how they drew us in and made us intimately involved.

I’ve always scoffed at my mother’s affection for Kennedy. Her idealism seemed part of her youthful past to me. I tired of hearing how the assassination affected everyone. But I kind of understand now. I feel so much hopefulness at the changes occurring. I enjoy the conversations, even here in my stalwartly Republican state.

I’m not much of one for idealism, but apparently I’m feeling the dream.

Compliments of the Season

“If he doesn’t cut my hair right this time,” my mother says, “then next season, I’ll find a new hairdresser.”

“Next season?” I repeat, bemused.

“In the fall,” she explains. “We can’t say ‘next year’ because that’s too confusing. It’ll still be this year when we come back.”

“I know,” I say, “but it sounds so…”



“Well, we are!” she happily replies.

She loves this, that she winters in Tucson and summers in Denver. I remember the winters of my childhood and how she hated the snow. How she’d stand at the window staring at the snow blizzarding down and give a cry of incoherent rage. She especially hated this time of year, when the wet spring snows crush the daffodils under their weight. This has been her new husband, Dave’s, greatest gift to her: the freedom to both live in the city of her birth and to escape the winter that comes with it.

Last year she and Dave came back to Denver too early, so they’re hedging their bets and staying in Tucson until June 1. Some Tucson neighbors do it by the thermometer: on the first day over 100 in Tucson, they pack up for Michigan. On the first day it hits 32 there, they pack up for Arizona. Our own neighbors, the elderly couple across the street, used to drive their RV down to Arizona just after Christmas and return like robins in the spring. But she has Alzheimer’s now, so they stopped going. David’s folks are the same: no longer making the annual RV trek to Yuma because their health isn’t good enough for the drive. And their pride is too great to let any of us take them down. Instead these snowbirds are grounded in their winter homes.

I think about these people, who spend the winter of their lives in the winter climes. I know it’s hard on them. Two winters ago I sprained one ankle severely and the other mildly (falling down a flight of stairs in front of 200 people — don’t ask). I felt so fragile on the snow ice, so afraid of slipping, of the pain, of the danger of further infirmity. For the first time I really felt in the skin of someone less than robust health and it was a scary place to be. The winter is colder, too, every year, and I’m only in mid-life.

Some of it is money, sure. But a lot of it is flexibility, too — the willingness to move away from family, away from the familiar and to make a new home somewhere else. Maybe it takes more than some people have. It may be easier to give in to the winter, to stand at the window and glare at the snow, than to fight and escape.

But then, there’s always next season.

You Never Write, You Never Call…

Okay, the heady romance is over. I confess: I’ve begun to cheat.

It’s not that I was ever completely monogamous, especially in the beginning. You know how it is: in the begining you’re still trying each other out, not ready to fully commit. I’d kept reading a hard copy book or two, would keep a book with me on the plane, in case the flight attendant decided my Kindle was an electronic device that must be shut off. (Incidentally, no one has made me shut it off through about 10-15 take-offs and landings. I wonder if this is because they don’t know what it is or it doesn’t look all that electronic?)

But I had committed. All of my recent book purchases were on the Kindle, either via the Amazon store or through other ebook sellers. Then, last night, I put the Kindle in the drawer and started a hard copy book. It felt good, too. Like coming home to an old love. It felt right to be holding my book, curled up in the armchair while the snow fell.

I confess, the in-laws soured things for me recently, what with the Amazon “glitch.” I really hate that Amazon may have been censoring and sanitizing, a serious development given their stranglehold on book rankings. I hear people saying they’re giving their business to Powells, which has ebooks, too. I might have to see if their formats are Kindle-compatible. Not every ebook is, it turns out. I suspect this situation will continue to improve over time. It seems like new tech starts out very specific and proprietary at first, but then natural market forces move everthing to intercompatibility (is that a word?) over time.

Maybe it’s good for us to have a little time apart. It’s okay for my Kindle to be just one part of my reading life. I’m beginning to think that any monopoly can’t be a good thing. In nature, diversity wins.

In love, I’m a one-man woman, but in this way, at least, I’ll continue to play the field.