Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days



With any luck, this photo of me will get picked up as a current pic and everyone will think of me as 27 forever.

This was taken at the party for my Master’s defense.

I was beyond happy to be done, but it was bittersweet because I was supposed to have gotten a PhD. I spent six years, did all of the course work and all of the research for a PhD. And left with a Masters.

The same degree another guy in my department got for one year of histological work.

I’m pretty much over it now.

We watched “Dark Matter” last night, which has multiple resonances for me.

The movie (spoiler alert) is loosely based on what happened at the University of Iowa when Gang Lu, a Chinese grad student in Physics, lost his nut in 1991 and went on a shooting spree that included his graduate advisor. I’d been a grad student in Neurophysiology for three years at that point and had been shut down on my Masters bypass. Many were the jokes told that day about what we’d like to imitate.

By 1994, I’d made the decision that research wasn’t for me. They’d beaten it out of me. I cut bait, snagged a Masters for my trouble and worked on being a writer. At least the Masters got me a job with a decent salary. In 1996, I published my first essays and was part of a writers group, which included a gal who’d graduated from the famed Writers Circle MFA program at Iowa. Her good friend, Jo Ann Beard, wrote an essay in 1997 that was published in the New Yorker and then in her collection, Boys of My Youth, about Gang Lu and what happened. Jo Ann had been an administrative assistant in the Physics group and only missed being killed because she called in sick that day.

Dark Matter isn’t exactly that story. The way Jo Ann told it, Gang Lu was always a difficult, even scary, personality. Liu Xing, in the movie, is brilliant and misunderstood. Some critics have complained that the movie took the story in a different direction, because one of the writers drew on his own grad school experiences to show the other side of this kind of story.

The whole bit about how they beat it out of you. Liu Xing is not a team player and most grad advisors really hate that.

Looking back, I can see that my advisor and I were a bad match. From the begining, he didn’t like the way I worked. He had particular rules for how everything must be done. He was a manic/depressive Hungarian, so those rules changed. I was his first grad student and not a good rule-follower. He set out to prove that I could not succeed doing things the way I did and he ultimately proved his point.

Looking back, I could have done a few things. I could have recognized that I could never shine in that situation. I could have left. But I didn’t meet David until 1991. So I can’t wish that one away. At one point, a female professor on my committee tried to intercede. She got my advisor to agree to giving me a “Plan B” PhD, where I’d write a paper and go.

I was stubborn.

This is a theme with me and one my advisor and I frequently tangled on. I didn’t want Plan B because I thought I’d be doing a half-assed job. He retorted that I already was doing a half-assed job. Which only stiffened my resolve to see it through and do it right. Which didn’t happen.

So, I don’t have an actual PhD. But I never went on a shooting spree.

I try not to regret what I invested in those years, because I deeply believe all our efforts are for a reason. The lessons all feed into something. Even if it seems impossible to discern what that might be.

Looking back at this picture, I see I was young. I had been full of ambition and hope. Like Liu Xing, I fancied I’d win the Nobel Prize. It’s probably the slap all young, hopeful and ambitious people must take. A slap that academia and graduate committees feel duty-bound to deliver.

Maybe the trick is to find a way to keep the hope and ambition, even after they beat it out of you.

Joy and Other Indoor Sports

I love this image.

One day I’d like to journey to the remote part of China where this cliff-carving is, just to see it for real.

What I love is how the sculptor(s) capture the sense of movement and joy. The Bodhisattvas, though captured in stone, are dancing.

To me, that’s what life and enlightenment are about: being so filled with joy that it moves you to dance.

Lately I’ve been feeling sensitive to anger. Maybe it’s just a symptom of bad economic times, but I’m noticing so many harsh responses on a variety of fronts.

I’ve been noticing writers criticizing other writers in mean ways. Or making lists of things they think writers shouldn’t do.

One of my favorite bloggers, Heather Armstrong, finally listed with ads all the hateful comments she receives, figuring that if people are goling to pour out that kind of hate, she could at least get revenue from it. I notice she’s taken the page down now. I read a bit and felt so soiled by the things people said that I couldn’t bear to keep going.

A colleague sent a “funny” email to me that was a collection of pics of office refrigerator notes. Again, the parade of passive/agressive rage at people who took or molested food from the communal fridge only left me feeling sad.

Granted, I’m not good with anger. I’m one of those people whose parents never fought in front of her, so she doesn’t like to see people fight. When I hear people yell in anger, I physically flinch. I feel emotionally slapped, even if it’s not directed at me. I’m a big believer that you don’t talk when you’re mad, because once something is said, it can’t be unsaid, regardless of apologies.

In short, I’m a total pansy about conflict.

I know that conflict is part of life and one must deal as it arises. And yet, I think there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the positive. In fact, I think it’s crucial to find the joy and not the rage. I suspect there are very few exceptions to the old rule, that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

It’s hard for me to imagine the dancing Bodhisattva’s leaving hate comments on someone’s blog.

My Old Wyoming Home


Assumptions are a funny thing.

Never mind the old saw about “assume” makes an ass of u and me. What assuming does is blind you to what’s really there. When a person assumes they know something, it stops them from considering any other options.

So, it was a funny thing: David’s previous boss asked him to spend a few days in Laramie over Christmas break to train a new guy in David’s old job. David and I cogitated on this — because of the holiday pattern this year, the first week of January would be best. But for David to fly up there — driving would really suck that time of year — stay in a hotel for a week, including meals out, would be pretty expensive. We wondered what she was thinking. And no, I didn’t want to go with him. A week in Laramie at the beginning of January? To bring out another old saw: been there, done that. Hope to never do it again.

Turns out, she was assuming we’d be driving up to David’s hometown of Buffalo for Christmas and could just stop in Laramie for a few days. Never mind that this would be an 11-12 hour drive for us now. On nasty winter roads. And that my family isn’t there. She thinks we’d do that because that’s what she would do. I think it’s hard for people back in Wyoming to understand that we don’t miss it at all.

I think sometimes that David’s family believes our move is my influence. That I’ve finally, after nearly 19 years together, wrested him away. I think they make an assumption about who I am and what I want. David’s family is large and very tight. In many ways, even after so many years, I remain an outsider. I don’t think they know that it’s been me who’s pushed him to maintain close contact with his family all this time.

And that, because I love him and want the very best for him, that I helped him find a way to get some distance.

I love this picture of David and me, because it captures so much of what we are together. David picked me because I would be this to him: someone who wanted to journey also. And we’re having a wonderful time on this new adventure of ours.

I’m sure we’ll touch base back in ol’Wyo sometime. Just not quite yet.

Deadlines and Lifelines

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

Of course you all know that’s from the opening of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a great set-up. Alice, the human, is feeling sleepy, stupid and lazy. The bucolic wildlife is racing around with important appointments.

It’s clearly unnatural, a rabbit with a watch, running late. That’s how we know the world is turning upside-down. If the rabbit was chewing on daisies and Alice running late, that’s perfectly natural.

Or is it?

Allison posted an interesting blog the other day about the struggling writer and spousal support. Not necessarily financial support, though that’s part of it. More the whole “does he support your writing” question.

And, yes, this is going to be totally about women writers and their male companions.

One thing Allison mentioned is the spousal deadline. This is surprisingly common. I can think of five women offhand whose men have “allowed” them to try the writing thing for a given amount of time, after which, if they haven’t succeeded, they must stop.

No, not all of these women are writing instead of working, though some are.

No, not all of these women are unpublished; they just aren’t necessarily raking in the money.

I suspect this comes from a number of things. Our culture and the male members of it, in particular, are heavily fixed on goals and deadlines. It’s possible these guys think they are being supportive, by helping to create an outside deadline, a framework for measuring success. I think there’s also an element of the husbands feeling like they need to curb the frivolous activities of their wives. Don’t tell me that’s not true: I’ve heard men say it.

We do it to ourselves, of course, too. One gal I know gave herself a year to become a successful writer. Yes, that’s from typing her first word. When she didn’t make her goal, in a fit of despondency she asked me how long I’d given myself.

As long as it takes,” I told her.

As I’ve mentioned, everyone right now is about NaNoWriMo. A writing friend asked me if I was participating and I told her I don’t need more pressure in my life. She said she does — she needs the motivation. She is also one who’s published with an epress, has two young children and whose husband has asked her to stop. A big craze right now is a program called Write or Die. It’s a program that monitors how fast you’re typing and buzzes you if you slow down. If you stop, it will actually start deleting your text.

It all comes down to the eternal question of how you measure success, I suppose.

It was funny to me, the friend who asked how long I’d given myself, because I’ve already acheived some writing success by several measures. Not ones that she thought were relevant, but ones that are important to me.

I live my life by deadlines. As most Americans do. My work deadlines are the kind that, if I don’t make them, I can jeopardize a $24 million contract. For me, writing is a different world from that. I can see a day when, if I’m making approximately my salary by delivering a book on time, then that deadline will matter.

Until then, I’m a fan of write and live.

Paint by Numbers

Someone called me a fashion plate last week.

Of course, I’ve also been called a trophy wife, which is even farther from the truth.

An actual “fashion plate” was the illustration placed in catalogs, newspapers or magazines, from the days when pictures were carved into metal plates and the image transferred with ink to paper. These then were the ads for clothing — the example of how something could look.

It’s easiest, when you first start trying to dress nicely, or more stylishly, to simply copy the images. Look at how the pros assemble an outfit and show your sincere admiration by imitating away. This can be daunting, however, unless you have an unlimited budget. That’s when you have to get creative. Not necessarily Molly Ringwald, I-can-sew-a-gorgeous-prom-dress-out-of-this-cheap-nasty-one-and-that-vintage-one creative, but being willing to play with clothes.

It’s really about being willing to try stuff out, being willing to take a risk. Combine separates and accessories in way that comes from your own head and not from a picture. And the thing about taking risks is that sometimes other people won’t approve. Much like being perceived as a trophy wife.

It was an older woman who called me that — in her late 50s/early 60s and frumpy with it. I mentioned that David is older than I am (by seven years) and that my stepchildren are now grown and I skipped the having babies part (but I helped raise them since they were five and seven years old). She looked at me — and I was dressed up for the conference, with my eye-catching dress and black wide-brimmed hat — and declared: “You are a trophy wife!”

Arm candy. Oh yeah.

The thing is, people are going to apply their labels regardless. For all that, maybe “fashion plate” is a decent one to get.

Twixt Thee and Me

It’s always interesting to me which posts get people’s attention.

Or their responses, at least. Which I tend to assume is the same thing and that may not be necessarily so.

But my last post stimulated quite a few reactions. Several people commented. More sent me IM or email notes. The general consensus among my support network is that I was grumpy and had been on the road too long. Reading back over it, I suspect it was my tone that came across grumpy more than the content.

Be that as it may.

It was funny to me yesterday, as I took my three plane flights home, wending my way back west, that the messages and comments on my blog post (including one from my mom showing that Barbara Kingsolver took seven years to write her latest) were comingled with a discussion thread on one of my writers’ loops regarding this article which trashes Dan Brown’s new book. And someone else contributed the Wikipedia link to Literary Criticism of The Da Vinci Code that trashes Dan Brown in general. And an address by Stephen King where he implies that Dan Brown is the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Stephen King has been cutting a bit of a wide swath lately, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s ironic to me that he feels comfortable making pronouncements on who writes well and who doesn’t, when I’ve often heard King’s success held up as the perverted triumph of genre over literature.

I know you’ll be shocked, but I don’t have much of an opinion there.

I’ve read a bit of King and didn’t love it, but then, I don’t really read much horror. I have never read Dan Brown, but I liked the movie fine. I liked Meyer’s Twilight books — I thought she did interesting things with the stories and she kept me hooked.

What I see happening is the “win by putting others down” trend. Also known as, for those of us who labored under grading curves, “it’s not so much that you succeed, but that others fail.” We’ve all known people like this. People who attempt to pump themselves up by putting others down. If King can sneer at Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer, then he’s clearly not part of their club. I remember a while back when Anne Rice was big on letting people know that her books were being taught in schools, as a way of legitimizing them.

Keena commented on my last post that it’s the genre writers who become literary giants in later generations and she has a point there. Think Jane Austen, Tolkein and Arthur Conan Doyle.

And we’re witnessing a battle now: the literary writers facing precipitously declining sales, fighting to assert that THEY are the true writers, and the genre writers, fighting amongst themselves for the best seat at the mad tea party, all the while pretending they don’t care what the literary types think, yet secretly wishing to have that level of validation.

In the end, I don’t think it matters if you take one month or ten years to write a book. Your process is your process. What matters is what you’re trying to do. If you want to bring in the money, ten years is a stretch unless you’re living on decent royalties. If you’re going for art, maybe you don’t believe a few months is enough for that to occur.

But I’m pretty sure you won’t sell more books by trashing other writers. Just sayin’.

NaNoNoMo

Three things.

Mary Karr, who used to be one of my writing heroes, until I wrote to her, sent her MY memoir/essay collection shortly to be published, and asked her for a blurb, and she didn’t bother to answer. Of ALL the people I asked for blurbs, she was the only one to totally blow me off.

Not that I’m bitter.

At any rate, I felt special because I loved “Cherry” as much as “The Liar’s Club” — and I think I’m about the only person on the planet who did. But did Mary care?

No no no.

So, here I am, five days longer than I wanted to be in a Hampton Inn under renovation in Lansing, Michigan, where I get a USA Today that I don’t want, every day outside my door. And here’s an article on Mary, and her new book “Lit.” Where she says, and I quote: “There are too many books. Most writing is mediocre. Most memoirs are mediocre. Quality is rare.”

Wow.

Thanks Professor Karr. Way to attempt to perpetuate the rule of academia. I won’t mention how EVERYONE ELSE thought “Cherry” fell short of mediocre. Perhaps that was yet another book too many.

(I could point out here that her last book was pubbed ten years ago, in 2000, but that might be petty, so I won’t.)

So, I read that this morning. And thought about it off an on all day.

Not that I’m brooding.

Then, this evening, one of my old friends posts on Facebook “Howcum I just lost interest in my own book? O. Could it be because I’ve been writing it for EIGHT years?” Old literary-type friend. From my writing group of many moons ago.

Meanwhile…

All of my genre-writing-buddies, both pubbed and unpubbed, are heavy into NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to take the month of November and write 50,000 words. Which is really novella length, but who’s counting?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’m participating. There are buddies. And groups of buddies. Word count scales, twittering and lashing one another on. The genre writers welcome the opportunity to churn out another manuscript in a month’s time or so.

I’ve said no.

Mainly, because I tried it last year and, while I got 36,000 words that I mostly like, I don’t need the additional pressure. And I’ve been telling them that I like my process.

Which is the truth. I do like my process. Which I’ve spent the better part of a decade refining. For better or worse.

As usual: I fall somewhere in the middle.

I wish to spend neither eight years nor one month writing a novel.

Sometimes I feel like a pariah from both sides of the camp, neither of which acknowledge the other. I think Mary Karr is pretentious and full of shit for saying such a thing. I also don’t believe the fast-draft process, novel in one month thing, works very well.

And someone save me from spending eight years on one book. Or worse, ten, and being snooty about it.

Coincidences and Concatenations

Two things.

We have these big windows that reflect the sky. I’ve thought about putting those silhouette dealies on the glass, so birds won’t run into the glass. But so far, only a couple of birds have hit a window and then only glancingly.

One little sparrow decided to battle his image for part of an afternoon, but I figure he has his own issues.

But Halloween morning, I was sitting at my desk behind one of these big windows, when a bird flew straight at my face and slammed into the glass. I yelped at the shock, then sat stunned as the Cooper’s hawk that had clearly been on the bird’s tail drew up and landed on the bird feeder with a few hops to adjust. He assessed the situation, then flew off. Below me, the little bird twitched. I hoped it might recover, but the arrow of liquid where it’s bowels had released pointed to a different ending.

It had broken its neck instantly, panicked to escape the hawk.

The irony to me is that it died anyway. And the hawk didn’t get its meal either.

When we picked up our rental car in California, the week before last, I commented to my colleague that, since our car was in slot B-17, that now the song would be stuck in my head.

She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about.

So I had to sing it for her. “Please, Mr., please… don’t play B-17, it was our song, it was his song, now it’s oohhhhhh-ver.” She’d never heard it. I had no idea when I’d heard it last.

Then, tonight, on my third week of business travel in a row, I’m in the grocery store at 10 o’clock at night for a pit stop with my other colleague (okay, we were buying wine) in our journey from the Lansing airport to the Hampton Inn that will be our home for the week. Guess what song comes on the background music. And I knew what it was from the opening measures.

“I don’t ehhhh-vah want to hear that song again….”

It was just too bizarre.

What does it all mean? Nothing, no doubt. We flee one thing, only to crash into another. We remember an old song and it chases us to another place and finds us again.

So be it.

Blessed All Saints Day

No trick-or-treaters for us last night. Nary a one.

Which was as we predicted, actually.

And surprisingly, it didn’t make me sad at all. Now, I’m the girl who has dreams about missing Halloween. That suddenly it’s upon us and I’ve failed to decorate. Or that it happened and I missed the event entirely. Of course, I also dream about missing Christmas and forgetting to buy presents, etc. I’ve already told you about my dreams of leaving cats to starve and die of neglect in hotel rooms. It’s easy to see where I live.

Regardless, I love the whole trick-or-treating gig.

But the new house is in the countryside where there are no streetlights. It’s dark and a bit wild, with the houses spaced far apart. I didn’t really expect any costumed visitors and wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show.

We did go hiking in the afternoon, though. A gorgeous sunny day. The pic above is of our valley. You could even spot our house, if you knew where to look. What a fabulous treat to go on a short hike up a hill, a fifteen-minute walk from our home, on Halloween.

It makes up for the year I had to wear a parka over my hula girl costume. It truly does.