Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Tao of 2017

I've written about poop before. I will not write about poop again. Not here. Not now. Though there has been plenty of it, and it all factors in.

No, this post picks up on another familiar thread, related to poop, biological imperatives, and Taoism; and that is, taking care of sick and injured animals.

If this year has taught me anything, it has taught me to pay close attention. You know what I'm getting at--that tired contemporary saw (I roll my eyes with you) mindfulness.

You're soaking in it.

Or at least I am.

But chances are good that you are, too. I mean, on a political level at least, you either had the rug pulled out from under you, or you're beginning to wonder if you made a huge mistake. Is PODUNK a mad genius or just mad? You're paying attention, trying to figure out what happened, or what is happening, or both.

But let's put politics aside for just a sec.

I generally like to listen to music in the car while I'm driving. But lately, I drive without music, without the pleasant diversion, because I may need to remember something important.

Yesterday, at six AM, I walked my injured mare from the barn through a patch of mud in the dark to the trailer that she, with her injured leg, limping, had to step up onto. She had to agree to do this, and she did. Because she trusts me.

I take that trust very seriously, white-knuckling every mile of that 60-mile journey; stopping, turning, merging, etc., as gingerly as possible. If Belle fell down in the trailer, that could be the end of her.

She didn't.

Turns out, part her cannon bone at the joint was stoved in, a small but very serious injury. Her chances of recovery depend on many factors, including but not limited to a strict regimen of various medications, supplements, stall rest, ice, and exercise. It will take months and months to heal. The outcome is not guaranteed. I can only do my level best.

The cat is back on prednisone. This is disappointing.

Tanner, the Palomino, is recovering from his shoulder wound. I really don't know how he did it, but we've removed all the hooks in the barn. (I have nowhere to put a bridle or a halter or a dustpan.)

It's muddy out, and Tanner rolled in it, so his sides (and bad shoulder) are caked in mud. His stitches still have to come out.  I wish he looked cleaner--for the vet, for me, and for his own self-esteem (though to look at him, you would think he didn't give a shit).

Finally, the third horse's butt is seriously mucky; a situation that could lead to infection of some kind (with my luck, his ass will burst into flames on Sunday).  I will need a bucket of warm water, a big sponge, and a patient horse to address the problem.

And there are dogs, too, aging dogs who haven't had their supplements in two days because, frankly, I'm overwhelmed.

I don't remember my life being like this before.

I have dashed all prospects of travel this summer. There is no one to whom I could hand all of this off to.

It is very squarely my problem, and the only way any of it will come out right is if I continue to pay very close attention.

Yes, I know that having horses is a privilege and, arguably, a class issue--even in the Midwest, where horses are relatively commonplace. But we all spend money and time doing things for no better reason than that they make us feel good, right?

Most of us have something that we indulge in: Beer, wine, good food, traveling, shopping, gaming...It all takes time and money.  But we do it, because it enriches our lives.

You can go overboard.  You can spend too much time and money on these things.  They can become a source of isolation, addiction, even despair. Almost anything that gives us pleasure can also do the opposite.

That's where I find myself. I'm at the point of admitting, I may have too many animals. I'm a little overwhelmed.  The injuries, the illness, the mud.  It's a bit much. (But I'm keeping all of them.)

The political situation just makes everything worse. I feel like we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in some Godforsaken place, a page in history that we remember (if we remember) as a very bad time, the stuff of nightmares.

I'm not particularly happy, and I don't expect to be.
This morning at school, my son said he loved me and I pretended I was going to yell it back to him real loud, so all the middle-schoolers within a square mile would prick up their ears and think, What a freakin' dork!

That made me happy. A little boost of oxytocin.

Discovering that my husband had unloaded all six bags of stall shavings and stacked them neatly in the barn, along with a 50-pound bag of lyme...made me briefly happy.

Seeing my mare eat the gooey cookie I fashioned for her out of cereal, honey, tortilla chip crumbs and 12 crushed-up horse pills made me happy until she decided they were gross.

I do not enjoy the same sense of well being or joy that I know I did have (or should have had) not terribly long ago...

I am now in a place in my life where I look back and think, Oh, yeah! Those were happy years.

Some years are very happy. This is not one of them. This is not a happy year.

However, it could be said (I will go ahead and say it), that from a certain perspective, life is simpler now.

In politics, it's good versus evil, just like the bad old days leading up to WWII.

And here at home, things pretty much boil down to matters of life and death.

For me, (and perhaps for you, too?) this is the year to be alert, mentally tough, and conscientious.

Perhaps more than any other year in my life, this is a time to be paying very close attention.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Very, Very, Very Long Year

Ever pick up a book at a moment in your life when that author has something to say to you, something you really need to hear?

That happens to me.

Sometimes someone gives me a book that they know I need to read, like Another Country.

Sometimes, I pick something up off the shelf at a bookstore that influences my thinking for years afterwards; like the diaries of Anais Nin, all of which I read at the outset of my adult life. (They certainly gave me a lot to think about!)

On my trip to the Women's March on Washington, I read Circling the Sun, by Paula McClain, a novel about Beryl Markham.

Markham's autobiography, West With the Night, rediscovered and published about twenty years ago, is one of my favorite books of all time.

I was dubious about McClain's novel because a) Markham's own book is incomparable, and b) the cover of McClain's book seems to suggest that I would be reading romantic schlock (which is fine for other people, but not for me). The fact that it isn't romantic schlock at all and that I was reading it in a feminist flurry of defiant resistance made me hate the cover all the more.

Nonetheless, the book is absolutely marvelous. It follows a woman of talent, character, and courage over a seemingly endless series of obstacles that she has to overcome in pursuit of autonomy and some semblance of happiness.

West With the Night spares us the full weight of Markham's heart ache and ordeals, while still holding close to the truth; but Circling the Sun tells it like it is. It's an emotionally difficult, but compelling read.

Actually, it reminds me in that way of my own book, in as much as both stories concern themselves with the question of how far the full compliment of gifts can take a person beyond one or two knock-out punches.  Inexhaustible, Fortune always seems to have one more trick up its sleeve.

So, that was interesting to read right after I'd finished my own book.

Frankly, it was humbling, and I wondered if I ought to have bothered writing my book at all, though I do love it still. I love the story and the characters--both on the page and in my life. (The story is based on the real Charlotte and Fire. Charlotte has become a dear friend, and Fire is a beloved horse that lives in my barn.)

I had the impression, briefly, that I was one of very few people to actually finish a novel. But now that I'm trying to publish it, it seems that everyone on the planet has in fact written five novels, and I have fallen way behind.

While I was still writing, I struggled to stay with it and not lose faith, but during the last trimester (which would be one year in literary time), I realized that I would inevitably finish it, and I had to finish it, and that felt a lot like being heavy with child.

But now I feel like a single sperm swimming for all I'm worth in the hope of fertilizing that one coveted egg--the literary agent or editor who's going to tell me they love my book.  I am among thousands of others, all just like me, swimming the same damn race.

I can't think of another way to describe it...perhaps one of the other sperms, a more talented sperm, could find a better metaphor.

The next book I read was Paula McClain's, The Paris Wife, which I owned already but hadn't read, and which I decided to read because I had liked Circling the Sun so much.

The Paris Wife is about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, their courtship and marriage, their early years in Paris. More pointedly, from my perspective, it's about Hemingway's coming of age as, well, Hemingway.

It was a rough read. I wasn't sure I should be reading it at this moment in my life.

Hemingway emerged out of the Midwest--St. Louis, Missouri, where he meets Sherwood Anderson, the famous author of the book, Winesburg, Ohio.  

Anderson advises Hemingway to go to Paris, and arranges for the dazzlingly handsome young Hemingway (in his early twenties) to meet Ezra Pound.

Pound befriends Hemingway immediately, and introduces him to Gertrude Stein, who becomes a close friend, and also to Ford Maddox Ford, who provides him with employment...

At this time, Hemingway has written just a few short stories, and none has been published yet.

McClain seems to suggest that Hemingway was more grounded and nicer before he was published, and that everything started to go to hell with the publication of the Nick Adams stories, and went absolutely all to hell after The Sun Also Rises came out. (Be careful what you wish for.)

I found his combination of bravado and self-doubt kind of comforting. He needed reassurance from Hadley, among others, that he wasn't just full of hot air, but in fact a potentially great writer.

But it doesn't exactly feel safe to identify with Ernest Hemingway. That could be a recipe for disaster: Am I like him in that I experience self-doubt?  Are we not all like young Ernest Hemingway, to that extent?  Self-doubt and greatness are not necessarily linked.

I'm definitely not comforted when Hemingway says, This is my one chance to make my mark--it may not come a second time.

Jesus, I think.  I too had an opportunity once before. I remember it clearly. I was 21 and working for a small weekly. I was starting to get noticed as a writer. But I left that scene to go to a publishing school in Cambridge. After that, I got a job in New York--children's books, production (couldn't have been more wrong for me).

But New York was a good place to be, wasn't it?  I met Anais Nin on a bookstore shelf, and visited St. Mark's Place, where she used to live.

Hemingway may have been equal to it, but New York proved too much for me. I felt like a ghost, walking the great streets, and felt the presence of ghosts everywhere, as though I had arrived much too late (or had been lingering much too long).

When I don't feel like a sperm, I feel like a mother with a feverish child. I need to do right by my book, and the characters, and when I consider the possibility of never seeing them walk...It's tough.

It's hard for to worry about something I love not making it in life. And this theme resonates in other areas of my life.

My horse, Belle, probably slipped on the ice that encased our area in early January, an ice that ended the lives of three horses that slipped and broke their legs. Six weeks later, what we thought must be an abscess in Belle's hoof has not resolved.  Tomorrow, there will be more x-rays. We're looking for a fracture of some kind. It's worrisome.

Our two-year-old cat got terribly ill. I thought she was going to die.

I find myself negotiating with God: Dash the book; save the cat!

Did God hear me say, Dash the horse, save the cat!...?

Two weeks ago, my Palomino, Tanner, impaled himself on a hook. At least, that's what we think must have happened; we couldn't find any evidence on any hook, stall latch, or anywhere. But, based on the relative height and position of the hooks and the injury, that is my best guess. It was gross, and alarming. It cut deep into the muscle. The vet came out quickly and stitched him up. He's going to be okay.

And the cat survived. She's good as new.

Belle's leg is still concerning.

Through it all, and into the immediate future, the fate of the book still hangs in the balance.

I do my sperm thing every day--send short stories off to contests, send query letters off to agents...
Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!  

Mostly, I feel various shades of desperate, determined, committed, and infinitesimally small.

Lately, in response to my own complaints, I hear Humphrey Bogart telling me that the problems of three small animals and a book don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed up world...Because yeah, now is really not a good time to be so self-involved.

A couple days ago when I was feeling low, I clicked on the Binders Facebook page, (Binders is a secret network of women in publishing. Oops.) and the first thing I saw was a woman saying that after a long miserable year of receiving nothing but rejections, the manuscript that took her umpteen years to write has just been shortlisted for a major prize.

I congratulated her and thanked her for sharing both the pain and the glory. I said I was at the beginning of my long hard year and her story gave me reason to be hopeful.

In another comment, someone said that she didn't get published for 30 years, not until she had written seven novels....  That I found much less hopeful.

Yesterday, having spent the day laboring over queries and submissions that may never ever EVER yield a response, I clicked on Instagram and saw that a woman I know has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  I don't know why that should make me happy and not extremely jealous, but it did. It seemed like another hopeful sign.

It's an extremely humbling process, trying to get a book published.  I am finding strategies for  remaining sane.

I limit how many times I check my email.

I accomplish my goals, and then try to step back, and write if I want to (like I am doing now) or read other people's books without worrying that their voice will infect my own.

This is the time to work up a head of steam for my next novel, which is definitely percolating in my head.

This is the time to be outside of my head for a while--to pay attention to other aspects of my life and home that have fallen into disrepair.

This is the time that I promised myself I would enjoy, if ever I finished my book. (And I did! Yay!)

I haven't learned how to enjoy it, yet.  But, you know, What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

I'm reading Cleopatra for book club this month. So far, she's a teenager, living in a tent in the desert, trying to amass an army. I look forward to reading it, and hearing what she has to say (#Resist!).

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Her Beloved Minotaur

My first response to the article in the Nov. 10, 2016 Harvard Business Review by Joan C. Williams, "What So Many People Don't Get About the U.S. Working Class," was to throw a fit in the comments section where I found it, on Facebook, at the risk of offending the friend who had posted it.  

After my fifth or sixth comment, she deleted the post as a matter of containment, which was too bad, because I think we should be able to talk about politics on Facebook. That said, I do recognize that it was me who sabotaged that particular discussion with unrestrained vitriol. (Sorry.) 

But the damn article offers such a perfect example of the erosion of intellectual discourse and the justification for oppression, I could not let it go without comment.  

First of all, l did read your article, Joan, carefully and with interest.  

You write, "dignity is a big deal for working-class men," unlike the rest of us, for whom dignity is nothing, "and they're not feeling that they have it."

What would it take to restore their dignity?  Fairly paid skilled labor jobs? I could totally get on board with that. 

No, that's not what you suggest. You say that political correctness is the main affront to the dignity of working-class men. (I'm sure my Uncle Greg, once a fireman in Youngstown, would have completely disagreed with that, but anyway....)  

You say these men are sick and tired of the modern world making them feel like assholes for saying exactly what they think. (I'm paraphrasing.)

But it's a matter of perspective, isn't it?  To the men that you describe (I'm not convinced that working-class men are all of one mind), returning to "an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place" sounds ideal. 

To me, that sounds regressive and frightening. From my perspective as an opinionated woman with my own list of things to do that no one is welcome to add to or subtract from without my expressed permission, the idea of being put in my place threatens my autonomy as an adult, to say nothing of my dignity, which would take umbrage. 

From my point of view, those were the bad old days, when it was not legally possible for a husband to rape his wife. Domestic violence was a private matter, beyond the scope of law enforcement. Women and children belonged to men. A man's home was his castle, where he alone was sovereign over his dominion--which included a woman's body. 

According to your article, the dignity of white working class men depends on these few items:

  1. Having a skilled trade, and fairly compensated full-time work that allows them to be sole providers for their families
  2. Control over dependents which would include women, children, and animals. (This by the way, presumably extends to control over the environment.  So, women's access to reproductive health, employment opportunities, fair pay, and childcare are dismembered. Any tree-hugger or water-keeper that stands in the way of skilled labor interests--mining, fracking, pipelines--will get what they deserve; and... 
  3. No one is going to call them an asshole when it's done.

And what about Hillary?  You say her "mere presence" offends these men...with her "dorky arrogance and smugness" and "pantsuits."

Before she has even said anything, she has offended them by virtue of her existence.

Clearly, HRC does not know her place, since she's running for president for God's sake, and wearing pants. How is the dignity of the men supposed to survive such an insult?

"The election shows that sexism retains a deeper hold than most imagined."  

No kidding!

And by the way, how does an article in the Harvard Business Review get away with a statement like, "it’s unfair that Clinton only did so well in the first debate because she wrapped her candidacy in a shimmy of femininity...?"  

What the hell is a shimmy of femininity?  

I understand that you love these men--they're in your family, and they must have done right by you to win your affection and loyalty.  There are men in my life, too, whom I love. We can agree that men can be kind of wonderful--but that is not really how you're writing them. 

The men you describe need to be in control, but they want everyone to agree that they deserve it. They need constant forgiveness and indulgence. They're thin-skinned kings with chipped shoulders. They can't adapt. They're neither modern, nor sturdy.  

Oh, my God, they are POTUS, in fact, tattered dignity and all!