Monday, March 31, 2014

Mondays on the the - oh frig it, I'm just going to say some stuff

Photo from Flickr. By Tristan Nitot.
I was going back to the gym today. In January I don't go to the gym. I used to keep trying, but there's this thing where I stop being able to visualize myself doing something, and then I can't do it. I would think "tomorrow I'm going to work out and then get groceries". Then I'd wake up in the morning and a metal perimeter security barrier would slam shut in my mind and I'd be paralyzed until I thought "okay FINE, I'll just get groceries and then I'll walk on the treadmill" and my brain would un-vapour-lock my body.

I know, I know. Whacksack of nutjob with sprinkles.

This period of gym-not-sium extended until the end of March this year because of sickness and a slightly delayed winter depression. I keep the membership because it's a few dollars a month and I always know I'm going to want it again for most of the year. So last night, as I surveyed my arm flab in the mirror, I thought that I would get up bright and early today and hit the gym and get groceries.

Then I woke up at four a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep.

TOO EARLY AND NOT BRIGHT AT ALL, STUPID BRAIN.

So I slept in. And I felt crappy. And I got my hair done yesterday, which is all well and good, but the first few days after I get my hair done are always a grab-bag of hair weirdness, and hair weirdness always seems extra bad when I'm going to the gym, although that's kind of dumb, surely people at the gym are going to mock my out-of-shapeness or lack of coordination before my hair.

Anyway. I had to take Angus to an orthodontist appointment after lunch and I was all poised to just chuck it and wait for a more auspicious day.

Then I didn't. I took my weird hair and my running shoes and my lock, the combination to which I wasn't even sure I remembered, and pumped so much iron that I'm typing this really fast in the few remaining minutes I have before my arms stop working totally. And this really hot chick in a racer-back tank with fabulous curly hair caught me catching her yawning and smiled the greatest smile at me. And I did the pull-up push-up machine and at the end I actually did that thing where it's so hard to do the last rep that you have to make a noise, which is kind of embarrassing but also makes you feel kind of badass.

Then I came home and I had time to shower and eat lunch and pick up Angus, and they told him he's getting his braces off next month. Then we went to my mom and dad's house to pick up Eve and my dad was happy because it's sunny and warm and he made me a giant gin and tonic and the kids ate ice cream. Then we came home and I showed the kids the tall black boots with the higher-than-normal-for-me heel I bought last month because they were ninety bucks on sale for twenty, and I bought them even though I wasn't sure I could walk in them, and we all tried them on (including Angus, as far as possible) after struggling like crazy to dig out the foam crap that was jammed in them to keep the shape, and Eve hobbled around in them instagramming herself and swearing that she was stealing them as soon as they fit.

And there was laughter and rejoicing in the kingdom.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mondays on the Margins continued: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This was my friend Lynn's comment on yesterday's post about Vampires in the Lemon Grove:

OMG, I READ THIS BOOK. It's quite major for me to be discovering I have read something, in the recent past, that other people are actually reading too! I AM RELEVANT.
That said...I did not love it. I really, really WANTED to love it. This is exactly my kind of author and my kind of writing. And I agree, the Antarctic story was divine.
But I think I have some sort of personal failing when it comes to short stories. I just always feel like I'm left wanting more. Like there was some deep and mysterious point I was supposed to get, but did not. I always feel left at loose ends, like there was no conclusion and then I wonder if I missed something, and then I feel dumb.
I especially did not like the last story, the one with the scarecrow. It was just so, so horrifying to me, the way they treated that boy and then were only punished in the vaguest of ways, and even then, only the one boy seemed to care. I just can't enjoy tales of callousness like that.
I am going to give Swamplandia a try (next year, when I get around to reading my Book Of The Year) because I am sure I will like that much better. In the meantime, I think short story collections are just not for me.
This is the thing about books. They hit everyone differently. And I think that we should drop the notion that if we don't like a book that a bunch of other people like it's because of a 'personal failing'. I used to feel this way about Alice Munro - as she goes, so goes my nation, and I would always feel like a slightly backwards dunce going "Um, I don't really get it". Then I realized that I actually love her early work, and some of her later stuff, but there are certain stories of hers that I just don't like - I feel like she's worked so much on not being plot-driven that they're not actually comprehensible without a whole lot of hard work, and I don't always want to work that hard to understand a story, and if I have to maybe it's the author's failing as much as mine.

(Although, whew, I'm glad Lynn liked the Antarctic Tailgating story).

I think overall I liked St. Lucy's slightly more than Vampires in the Lemon Grove - there were more stories that were marvelous. There are two stories that have no magical elements in them at all and I adored both of them: In The Star-Gazer's Log of Summertime Crime, a boy on an astronomy vacation with his father and sister runs into the school bully and gets swept up in a "Comical Ironical crime ring". The rendering of his appalled need to be liked by the charismatic sociopathic bastard while knowing everything they're doing is horribly wrong is painfully accurate. The crime is ring is rounded out by Marta, who happily calls herself the bully's bitch, and Petey, a mentally handicapped man. The boy says of Petey: "The worst part is, I know that no matter what crimes we do to Petey, he’ll always come back the following night. Being with Petey is like being with a dog, or a mother. There is nothing you can do to make him stop loving you." 

In Out to Sea, a group of seniors who live on boats are given adolescent delinquent "buddies". It goes badly, but none of them care, desperately wanting the company - by the end, they are leaving medication out in plain sight for the drug addicts, and lighter fluid for the arsonists. My favourite image: "His amputation gives Sawtooth a flamingular majesty. He rears up before her on his one remaining leg, feather-ruffled and pink with rage.”

In from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, we're back in the American west, on an arduous journey from deprivation through hardship to possibility, except the young boy narrating the story has a father who happens to be a minotaur.  Again, it's the matter-of-factness with which Russell drops these elements into a story, and then how she deals with the natural consequences. A minotaur, on a westward migration? "…he is happier than I have ever seen him. People need my father out here. In town, there was always a distinct chill in the air whenever he took Ma to birthday parties or pumpkin tumbles, barbecues especially. But on the Trail, these same women regard him with a friendly terror. Their husbands solicit him with peace pipes, and obsequious requests:     ‘Mr. Minotaur, could you kindly open this jar of love apples for us? Mr. Minotaur, when you have a moment, would you mind goring these wolves?" 

Mr. Minotaur, would you mind goring these wolves? So polite! But he's a man with a BULL HEAD! How? What? It's just SO COOL!

*deep calming breath*

And then, my two very VERY favourite stories - Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Because the first one is about children who have sleep issues - normal ones like insomnia, teeth-grinding, sleepwalking and sleep apnea (hello!) and also Karen Russell ones like parasomnia with a co-incidence of spirit possession and being prophets of the past (dreaming all the tragedies of history) and the second one is about a school that reforms wolf-raised girls out of their four-legged snarling clawing ways in order to prepare them for polite society. BUT the first one is also about the loneliness and strangeness of adolescence, the intense friendships and shattering betrayals, and the second one is also about any daughter who finds herself having to mark out her own independence from parents with strongly-held values and traditions. But I feel like a douche even saying that, because it's like you don't even HAVE to say that, because the stories are perfect, like trees, or water, and it shouldn't even have to be said. And yet I can't seem to stop trying. 

From Disordered Dreamers: "Now Ogli and I are separated by one of the greatest rifts: campers who remember in the morning, and the ones who forget. I have never been the prophet of my own past before. It makes me wonder how the healthy dreamers can bear to sleep at all, if sleep means that you have to peer into that sinkhole by yourself. Oglivy really spoiled me. I had almost forgotten this occipital sorrow, the way you are so alone with the things you see in dreams."

From St Lucy's: "Our mothers and fathers were werewolves. They lived an outsider’s existence in caves at the edge of the forest, threatened by frost and pitchforks. They had been ostracized by the local farmers for eating their silled fruit pies and terrorizing the heifers. They had ostracized the local wolves by having sometimes-thumbs, and regrets, and human children. (Their condition skips a generation.) Our pack grew up in a green purgatory. We couldn’t keep up with the purebred wolves, but we never stopped crawling. We spoke a slab-tongued pidgin in the cave, inflected with frequent howls. Our parents wanted something better for us; they wanted us to get braces, use towels, be fully bilingual. When the nuns showed up, our parents couldn’t refuse their offer.”

And: "The nuns swept our hair back into high, bouffant hairstyles. This made us look more girlish and less inclined to eat people, the way that squirrels are saved from looking like rodents by their poofy tails."

And the heartbreaking: "DO YOU WANT TO BE SHUNNED BY BOTH SPECIES?"

Okay. I wanted to try to articulate what I loved about these stories. I don't feel like I succeeded, but I feel like I gave it a good go. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I raved about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in my year-end book round-up, but I haven't done a review that I felt really gave it justice. THEN I read St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves in January, mostly on my ipad while walking on the treadmill, and it was JUST AS MIND-BLOWINGLY GOOD (well actually St. Lucy's came first, so I guess I should say that Vampires in the Lemon Grove is just as good, retroactively, or something).  And I've been meaning to write this review for weeks, but I was sick, and then I was other sick, and then I was sad, and then it got to be this big huge insurmountable endlessly-deferred task, even though I'm not getting marked on it OR paid for it, and now I'm wondering if I should just chuck the whole thing.

*goes and eats oatmeal cookie*

Okay, fine, I'll give it a shot, and I'll try not to just use gushy superlatives. I felt pierced by these stories - each one was like dreaming a beautiful, strange, frightening dream that sent me back to the waking world with some new insight about, or love for, the rest of humanity. The characters are wonderfully queer and outlandish, and yet achingly familiar in their flawed floundering for love, or understanding, or attention of any sort. The titular (hee) vampire is an old man who has lost the trick of flight and fears that he is losing his wife, who has retreated to the caves high above the lemon grove. The description of lemon soothing his aching fangs is visceral. Reading this story always makes me want lemonade.

In Proving Up, a bizarre law in the Homestead Act requires that dwellings have a window in order for the family to be given title to the land - this despite the fact that "our house is a dugout in a grassy hill". The families share a window from homestead to homestead at Inspection time, so one family's young son is tasked with carrying the window, like the most precious of jewels, to another family. The pitiless ravages of nature, the mysterious figure of the "Inspector", the "crystal risk of riding at a gallop" turn the story into a sort of nightmare road trip. And it becomes this sort of multi-faceted origami structure of 'she's taken senseless bureaucratic rules and treated them as sacred. Which makes them seem even more ludicrous. No wait, does it? People are actually DYING here..." So I felt like I'd discovered something vitally important, but I wasn't sure exactly what.


Photo from Flickr. By Travis.
I think maybe my favourite story, if not the title one, is Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating. It's one of those stories that walks a fine line - a little to one side, it would be farcical, a little to the other, it would be lugubrious. It seemed note-perfect to me. From "Perhaps it is odd to have rules for tailgating when the Food Chain Games themselves are a lawless bloodbath" to "So: how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transfer what money you’ve got into a trust for the kids. You’ll probably want to put on some weight for the ride down to the ice caves; a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world.” It's humorous, and yet there is an undercurrent that is deadly earnest. And then, one almost throwaway line - Rule Five-A: If your wife leaves you for a millionaire motel-chain-owning douchebag fan of Team Whale, make sure you get your beloved mock-bioluminescent Team Krill eyestalks out of the trunk of her Civic before she takes off" -  puts a whole new melancholy, bereft spin on things. 

And now I'm exhausted and if I try to keep at this I'm going to end up demolishing that bag of snack mix (I probably shouldn't write at the kitchen table), so I'll do St. Lucy's tomorrow. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wonderful Things

I'm still feeling a little too scattered to nail myself down and do a book review post, but here is a quote that I loved from a book that I loved - Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee: 

"And you might think a name is just a name, nothing but a word, but that is not the case. Your name is tacked to you. Where it has joined you, it has seeped into your skin and into your essence and into your soul. So when they plucked my name from me with their spell, it was as heavy as a rock in their hands but as invisible as the wind, and it wasn't just the memory of my name, but me myself. A tiny part of me that they took and stored away."

I think this is a lovely description of how people really grow into their names. And why it seems so weird that we get to pick names for our babies. And why it's so jarring when someone changes their name. 

A couple of weeks ago, when I was stuck in a deep hole with nothing but dirt and black water everywhere I looked, Clara sent me a card with a chickadee stamped on it and said nice things about my writing and made me cry cleansing tears while smiling. Clara is beautiful and smart and articulate and has a finely pointed and delicately skewed wit, and the fact that she considers me a friend makes me feel rich beyond measure.

During March Break, Nicole sent me chocolate covered pineapple daisies and strawberries because she knew I was feeling down. My kids said "why did your friend send these?" (around a mouthful of chocolate and strawberry) and I said "duh, because she's freaking awesome. She can put both legs behind her head and make cheese out of cashews". They were suitably impressed.

This brings me to my mini-epiphany which plunked into the middle of my mini-breakdown like a gold nugget into a mud puddle. I was in that joyless place where every time you read about something great that's been done or happened to one of your friends, instead of just feeling happy for them, you wonder why on earth they still associate with such a complete waste of breath and skin. I was on the verge of shutting down my Twitter and Facebook accounts and crawling into the downstairs storage closet with a blanket and a box of Joe Louis. Then I paused (and not only because I would have had to clear out thirteen pairs of outgrown running shoes, a stack of Eve's old paintings and a never-used sewing machine in order to make space for myself in the closet). Hmm, I thought. These people are awesome. These people all like me, unless they are remarkably accomplished liars. Maybe I'm NOT a complete waste of breath and skin. Maybe I'M awesome and I'm just not able to see that right now. 

Either that or I'm some kind of group charity case, and hey, I'm comfortable with that, if it makes them feel good about themselves. 

Yesterday I went to shelve books at the library, but all of my kids' former and current teachers kept coming into the library and I was so busy socializing it took me twice as long to get all the books put away. When her French teacher, a gay French man that all the kids adore, had a heart attack and was out for a few months when Eve was in JK, I sent him a get well card and a book. I had no idea if he'd ever read it, but books are kind of what I do, so. A couple of years ago he came up to me while I was working the book fair and said he wasn't sure he'd ever thanked me, and he hadn't read the book yet but had lent it to several friends and they all said it was wonderful and he should. Yesterday he said he had started reading it and it was kind of making him confused, but he loved the young girl and the relationship between the old men and was sticking with it. Then we talked about books and book clubs, and then we talked about Katy the library tech setting him up with her daughter's boss who's an allergist, and asked if he had allergies and he coughed theatrically. I said he should fabricate some severe food allergy so it would be an emergency, and he pantomimed fainting into the doctor's arms. It was fabulous, especially because I always think that when a lot of these teachers see me still there they must think "does she not have a job YET?"

Look at me, looking on the bright side of life. *blows kisses to all of you*


Monday, March 17, 2014

JUST #$@@!! WRITE SOMETHING!!


Pam and I went to The Works for lunch today. This was the sign outside.

We were cowards.

************

Okay, so I've got this lingering tubercular cough (a guy in one of my graduate seminars called me Violetta or Camille interchangeably for one whole semester). I can't really use my CPAP when I'm coughing. My husband took off for San Francisco for March Break. And it's fucking cold.

So much for the suckage. Here is the good stuff:

I watched the hilariously inappropriate and inappropriately hilarious movie The World's End with the kids. Once Angus knew it had people from Shaun of the Dead in it there was no other movie happening that night. It was awesome. Please don't tell Children's Protective Services.

We went tubing to the same place we went last year. It was a little warmer than last time so the tubing conditions weren't as perfect, but we still had a blast. I love how our giant boys turn totally goofy on the hill. I loved less when I heard my friend's son coming up the hill saying "let's get Mom and Allison, they'll make us go faster!". Humph. It was so warm before lunch that we were all stripped down to t-shirts and tank tops, desperately looking for a good place to wire our tags to because wearing jackets was unbearable. As we were going in for lunch, Eve said "I don't care, I'm taking everything off when we come back out", and Collette and I did a hilarious "naked tubing? Awesome! Maybe leave on your hat, it'll make it easier for us to find you. And socks? The snow will be cold on your feet" routine that Eve didn't think was fun at all - she said she hated us and stomped away. These are the moments that warm a mother's heart. Our friend Dave is also an awesome tubing companion - he's tall and big, and he pushes really well and then jumps in his tube or just jumps on top of everyone else, and it all generally ends in snowy ridiculous carnage. 

We went to see Spamalot at Centrepointe Theatre. It was snowing all day, and in the afternoon my father called to demonstrate his love and concern by saying "It's absolutely stupid driving anywhere in this weather". So if you talk to my parents, we didn't actually see Spamalot at Centrepointe theatre, because we wanted to be smart and stay safe, even though it's only about a fifteen minute drive and it was really just blowing snow, the roads weren't all that bad at all. At least that's what I heard.

We went to the dentist. It was uneventful, except when I opened my wallet to pay I had no credit card or debit card because I had stuck them, along with my driver's license, in Eve's jacket pocket for tubing. You know, so I wouldn't lose them. Except now I didn't know where they were. The receptionist was really nice, she said just to call from home once I found my credit card. We went out to the van and they were lying on the console above the radio. Then I went grocery shopping and totally forgot to call, and come to think of it, I'll be back in a minute.

Eve went skiing with friends on Friday. Angus and I hibernated - he seemed to really need a break this week, so I didn't bother trying to excavate him out of the basement too much when we were home. 

I'm not sure what happened on the week-end. Matt got home and then it was all a blur. I slept and read a lot and continued to not-blog.

Okay. Now that we've established that I can still type, I will try to come back tomorrow and talk about some issues and be coherent and analytical and shit. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Marginal March Monday

I tried. I really tried. I kept my head up through January. I couldn't get to the gym, but I walked my little walks on my little treadmill and shoveled the driveway without complaining and then it was February and there was Eve's birthday, which was good, then a bunch of throwing up, which was bad, but then I was better, so last Monday I cleared off a bunch of crap from the coffee table behind the couch and sorted and recycled and jettisoned and I was all set to keep going, and then I got some kind of coughing death plague so clearly the universe WANTS my house to keep being a tip and now it's motherfucking mercury-plunging nipple-scraping goddamned cold again and I'm DONE, winter, DONE - consider the white flag waved.

I told both my instructors that I was sick last week, and they both gave me extensions on my assignments, which I ended up not needing. I had another one due yesterday, though, and this time I took the extension, for I think the first time ever. And I don't really care. I guess I waved the white flag on that one too.

I hung my white flag on this bush. Oh, you can't see it? I WONDER WHY.
We haven't all eaten at the table together for almost two weeks now due to either sickness or crap piled on the table due to cleaning or me frantically working on an assignment through dinner. Look to my kids next week if any liquor stores get knocked over.

Rampant hooliganism. So sad.
BUT, last week I also cleaned out the bottom kitchen drawer where the dish cloths and tea towels live (does anyone else call them tea towels? We always called them tea towels growing up, but I don't really understand why). I thought we just had way too many dish cloth-like things that I hadn't weeded out properly, but there was an unbelievable amount of totally unusable crap in there, including ugly embroidered table runners that I wouldn't use in a hundred years and a pair of little boy's training pants. Also, way too many dish cloth-like things that I hadn't weeded out properly.

And now I can close that drawer all the way, with a satisfying little thump, for the first time in roughly four years.

And at least if I need a white cloth to wave, I can quickly lay hands on a neatly-folded, tidily stacked one.

I'm at a low, low point, you guys. I'll take my tiny victories where I can find them.