Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Procrastination

I continue my unflappable adoration of President Obama. His speech at Tucson was moving and pitch-perfect. In the State of the Union speech, I heard the same voice, message, and spirit that I heard at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The Republicans made a decision not to work at all with Obama and the Democrats. They didn't want to give even the smallest bit of support to any of their bills, from Health Care to Financial Reform for fear that the Democrats would label these bills as "bipartisan." The Republicans wanted their hands clean from these bills. And politically, their strategy worked: Republicans swept the midterm elections, and Obama saw his numbers drop throughout the year, though they remained pretty stable considering the state of the economy.

Joshua Green has a wonderful article in the Atlantic profiling the new Republican Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. It describes McConnell's plan to frustrate the White House through delay and obstruction on even non-controversial issues: "Obama could not evolve into a post-partisan leader, because McConnell wouldn't let him. He pegged Obama as either too narcissistic or to naive to recognize that his promise of a harmonious new age was beyond his capacity to deliver."

Once the Republicans won their election, they were more free to compromise in December, from the 9/11 First-Responders and Don't Ask Don't Tell legislation to the Start Treaty. Suddenly it seemed our government could function again! Obama's numbers began to rise after this "lame duck" session. That reinforces the fact that the Republican party had the right strategy, politically. But that strikes me as disgusting, for lack of a better word. They absconded their responsibility for two years in order to gain power in the next election! That might be a simplistic reading of the situation--after all, if I see everything Obama does as correct, then I have a biased view of his opposition--but seriously. Seriously!

Green raises those questions at the end of his McConnell profile, asking if "a party has any responsibility to address society's problems in good faith." But it seems as if this strategy of obstruction will be effective so long as the electorate rewards them for it.

Okay, back to writing. I promised myself I'd get to 8200 words on my would-be novel by the end of the week, and right now I have 7700.

Edited to add: I don't think everyone should unflappably adore their president. I'm glad they don't! We need people to challenge and criticize from the left and right in order for our country and our democracy to thrive. I'm just a cheerleader with purple pom-poms standing on the sidelines.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nana Story #1: 1942

Before Barbara followed the “Uncle Sam Wants You” sign into an army-recruitment office, she’d already been a waitress, a cashier, and a bank teller. She’d been earning money to buy her own clothes ever since she turned seventeen, and before that she’d sold magazines with her siblings to get tires for bicycles that their dad would make out of spare parts. She’d been raised by Chrystella, a true pioneer who grew up on a mountaintop and was self-sufficient to the core, and by Frank, an alcoholic, who sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.

Barbara didn’t plan on enlisting when she walked into that office. She just wanted to check it out, get some information. But the sergeant was so good-looking; he was one of those guys you don’t want to give a wrong answer to for fear that he’d drop his smile or be disappointed in you. So she signed the papers and took the oath, not thinking about the sister with whom she shared an apartment or how this impulsive action would shape the rest of her life.

That evening she went to her mom and dad’s house and invited them into the living room. They probably thought she was going to announce she was pregnant. She said, “I’ve joined the army.” Her dad replied, “Why couldn’t you have joined the navy?” They were in San Francisco, after all, and the navy had a large presence. But Barbara didn’t have a college education, a prerequisite for the navy at the time. She hadn’t given the navy a second thought. Then again, she hadn’t planned on the army, either. Her mom was ecstatic, though; she could put another star in the window (two brothers had already enlisted).

The train ride from Oakland, California, to Arkansas for training took five days and five nights. Nearly seventy years later, certain memories of that trip stand out to Barbara: coming over Donner Pass and seeing snow for the first time, eight feet of it; getting off at Ogden to buy tee-shirts because the girls only had the clothes they were wearing, along with tooth brushes and combs; going through Moffat Tunnel, a six-mile stretch underground in a chug-chug train that filled the compartments with so much soot they could hardly breathe; and arriving in Arkansas, feeling so scared. Until that point, she had never been away from home.

“You can’t imagine what it was like,” she says today, almost ninety. “You don’t have anyone you can talk to; you don’t know anyone who’s with you.”

After basic training, Barbara was sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she would meet my grandfather, ultimately leading her to Ohio.

(Tonight I'll share this in class, getting feedback and suggestions for revision. I'll be interested to see how all of the pieces fit together once I've written six or seven of these.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Term, New Excitement

A week or so ago, I had a school dream. It was the first day of class at the nursing school where I used to teach, and I was running around frantically trying to get ready. I was inside an unfamiliar building, not sure where to go, and I didn't have lesson plans or a text book. After hunting down someone to show me how to get to my classroom, I discovered that the stairwell was blocked. I climbed over it and woke before I saw my students.

I had a bit of anxiety deciding what piece to bring for the first meeting of my writing class, and I wonder if that had anything to do with my school dream. I've completed about a tenth of my novel (6500 of 65,000 words, ha!) but didn't want to bring an excerpt from the middle. I also thought about adapting a recent blog entry. In the end, though, I decided to bring a short piece I'd written in college about two sisters and their Wheel-of-Fortune-obsessed mother.

But I'm not going to use this term to focus on fiction. I'm finally going to write my "Nana stories" (most likely I'll post them here). I'm going to interview her about things, like enrolling in the army, moving to the Midwest, etc., and turn them into short narratives. I won't be challenging to her: I won't ask about subjects that would make either of us uncomfortable. I want them to be something she enjoys reading, as well as the women in my class.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Winter Blues and Lightness

Today is the anniversary of when I left the hospital after five weeks (it felt so much longer!) of steady recovery. Every year during these weeks, from early December to mid-January, I feel heaviness. I feel especially introspective. A lot of people get depressed around the holidays for various reasons, from the gray sky that hangs over Midwest winters to the pressures of family, but I tie my winter blues directly to that near-death experience.

But January 13th, I feel lighter. I see that trajectory toward spring, toward blue skies, toward rebirth. Finally moved and settling in, my "writing life" is finding its rhythm. Because I typically work at the library just three days a week, I have many days where I can make myself coffee, sit down at my lovely desk (see below), read the news, and then write write write. I set weekly goals for myself: so far, so good.

I also began collaborating on a project with someone I know from the library and now regularly meet with. He has an exciting idea, and my task is to turn that idea into a story or book. Thematically, it's completely different than my own work-in-progress; lighter, more playful, yet still packs an emotional wallop.

Next week I begin the next term of Women Writing for (a) Change. I'm even more excited than last time, knowing what a positive experience it is. I think of an Annie Dillard quote I've used before:
This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.
The women in my class remind me that I'm not crazy to be thrilled, rocked, and exhilarated by the words I write, because they too are exhilarated by their own.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Allow me this victory.

Not even 24 hours ago, I had my freshly-moved boxes and bags of stuff (including dozens of pens, pencils, and paper clips in at least three different shoe boxes) surrounding my chair. I had my piles, my dear, dear piles. I had my art and pictures and chargers for cell phones I used back in 2003.

But look now! Clean! Organized! Even Wally's relaxed, chilling in my chair while I take the picture.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Assigning Value

Friday, I turned in the keys for my apartment in the city and removed my last item, a twelve-speed bicycle. I had met my landlord on my lunch break and had to keep my bike with me the rest of the day, and because I never use the bike rack in my trunk--it's complicated with all these latches--I was determined to fit the bike in the back seat of my two-door Toyota.

I got the door on the passenger-side closed, but alas, I couldn't get the driver's-side door shut. In order to get out of there quickly (had my landlord noticed the basketball-sized coffee stain on the carpet?) I decided to hold the door as shut as I could while I drove my stick shift back to work. A couple things worked in my favor: 1) the apartment was less than two miles from the library, and 2) it was about sixty degrees on that last day of December.

After work I was able to jam the bike inside the car with the help of a coworker. I did have to climb in the passenger-side, but we managed to get all doors closed while both the bicycle and I were inside the car--no way I'd drive twenty miles up the interstate with only my grip keeping the door from flying open!

So now, everything is here. Me and all my stuff. I hold onto these things like they're a part of me, like without them I won't be whole. Trying to sort them and discard some has been a meticulous process. Each item I hold and inspect. I have letters from a pen-pal in seventh grade; she described swim team and raising money for a school trip. I have a dozen paintings (if not more) from a former boyfriend, an artist. I have incomplete journals and sketch pads. I have a giant stuffed penguin given to me while I was in the hospital. I have memorabilia from my first trip to France over fifteen years ago.

How can I look at or touch any of these things and not linger on the memories they evoke? And how do I say one memory's worth holding onto while another one isn't?

I see my faulty logic--throwing away a ticket stub from an Indigo Girls concert I saw with good friends my junior year of college isn't the same thing as throwing away the friends, just as getting rid of a birthday card from when I turned twelve doesn't mean that I didn't appreciate the sentiment eighteen years ago... I know that the objects in themselves don't have any value; I assign it.

My bicycle is in the garage now. I don't think I've ridden it since high school -- one of the tires is flat, the chain has come off, and who knows what damage I did by stuffing it in a compact car. It's just another one of those Things that, in their current state, don't serve any function and just take up space. But maybe in the future, I'll fix it and ride it. Maybe that card, that stub, that penguin will become a detail in a story. Maybe they'll trigger some idea and allow me to make a connection. Who knows?