Plague Diary, Part 4: “Don’t call me at home, ’cause I won’t be there.”

April 24, 2020

I sit in my car, parked in the middle of the bustling grocery store parking lot. I’m trying to gather the motivation to actually get out of the car and walk into the building, grab a sanitized cart, follow arrow stickers on the floor through a maze of one-way aisles crowded with strangers who, like me, are trying to social distance but also actually find all the shit they came here for.

Through my windshield, I watch a young woman in a lab coat stand in an empty parking space, eating a chocolate bar. A standard disposable mask hangs down around her neck. Standing in front of her is a guy, the very image of a Parma, Ohio bro: branded T-shirt and ill-fitted jeans, his black Dodge Neon from the early ‘aughts parked behind him. He hugs the woman close, embraces her tightly against his chest in the middle of the empty parking space. They kiss. It’s romantic. After the kiss, he buries his face in her neck and keeps holding her for a long moment.

They part. He gets in his car. The young woman stands watching, bites the chocolate bar, calls out “I love you” at his open windows. He says I love you back. When he starts his car, a song comes on at full volume, something about shaking that ass. The woman laughs and the guy waves to her, stretching his arm out the window, reaching backward as he pulls away.

. . .

            When I visit my grandma, I pace the bottom step of her porch while she stands behind the screen door. A few times, we walk a few blocks through her neighborhood, matching pace on opposite sides of the street while talking on the phone with each other. She hasn’t left her house, save for the walks, since early March. She watches Mass on a live stream and takes her Silver Sneakers workout classes over Facebook. My mom shops for Grandma’s main groceries, and I venture to another store for Grandma’s coffee pods and other various items.

But she’s bored, antsy to get out of the house, even though she knows it’s not the time yet and might not be for a while. A long while.

On her Facebook, she re-posts: I’d rather miss my family and friends for a few months than never see them again! Share if you agree!

Before the virus, we often had lunch together at her kitchen table, chatting about anything and everything. Now, I still try to visit in the way that I can, and I tell her about my adventures in the outside world. I describe to her the various makeshift PPE I’ve seen in the public: a man in a painter’s mask and gardening gloves, a woman with a tissue over her mouth and taped to her cheeks, a tall guy with a dishtowel wrapped around the bottom half of his face and secured with a chip clip.

I really want to hug her. But I can’t risk it. For now, I have to settle for making her laugh.

. . .

My grandma says that when this is all over, she’s going to get up early and go to Aldi. Then she’s going to have breakfast at a restaurant. She’s going to sit down and eat in. Next, she will go to another store, then to lunch, and then she’s going somewhere to walk around, and then to dinner.

“I told your Mom,” she says, “when this is all over, you better be calling me on my cell phone. Don’t call my house, ‘cause I won’t be there.”

. . .

            In the grocery store parking lot, I watch an older, barrel-shaped man in a tracksuit and gold chain necklace push a cart into a light pole. His face is covered from his chin to the bottoms of his eyes with a medical mask. He leaves the cart and returns to his car, where a woman holds a wet wipe out the passenger window, like an old-time lady waving a handkerchief to her lover. He takes it and wipes his hands, and gets in.

. . .

            After I get home and put away all the groceries, Patrick and I decide to have a fire out in the backyard. The evening draws down around us, cool but not cold. Deer skirt the wooded edge of our yard, nibbling emerging leaves, eating up seedlings.

Out in the world, the now-vague somewhere beyond this yard, people gathered on capitol steps to protest the quarantine.

I tell Patrick, “I wish I could just go crazy and riot. Not like these people, not for the economy or anything, just in general. But I don’t want people to get infected.”

“I know,” he says.

I hunch toward the fire on my tree-stump chair. Sitting in firelight, nearly crouching, I feel like a cowboy, or someone from a time even longer ago.  “But if the virus wasn’t going on? I mean, I’m bored, and I’m pissed off,” I say. “And I’ve always kind of wanted to partake in crowd hysteria.”

“Um, why?” Patrick has been reading The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. Sometimes he reads me parts of it that strike him, which as it turns out is a lot of the book. “This reminded me of you,” he says, and reads me a part about the kind of people who join riots, who revel in chaos. “The author says a lot of those people are artists,” Patrick says. “But not like, successful artists—”

“This reminded you of me? Ouch,” I interrupt, half-joking.

But he goes on to explain that it’s the people who are frustrated, deeply frustrated, by the fact that they can’t create the art or the reality that they want. Even if what they create is good, they don’t see it that way. Nothing lives up to their ideas, their expectations. So what’s the point? Burn it all down. Start from scratch. Or just keep burning and burning and burning.

And I have to admit that I can see why that part reminded Patrick of me. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be caught up in a crowd like that, throwing bricks, smashing glass, flipping cars. The violence of crowd mentality isn’t appealing. But the freedom to finally express, wildly, all the pent-up emotions a person can feel—that’s what I fantasize about.

Maybe, really, I want to be caught up in a dancing plague: whirling and swaying and leaping, more and more people joining in the wild, senseless, tireless dance, until someone decides there’s no choice but to play music to go along.

I realize that I’ve accidentally imagined the scenario backwards. In this daydream, I am not caught up in the crowd—I am the first dancer in the plague.

Plague Diary, Part 3: “I heard another beep. Who just joined?”

April 12, 2020

Patrick has been working from home for almost a month now. I’ve gotten used to waking up to the smell of coffee already brewing, the lights in the house already turned on, music or a podcast playing from the dining room. Patrick has set up his workspace in there: a laptop, a wireless mouse and keyboard, and a monitor he took home from the office. He didn’t bring his office plant home, since his boss told him not to make a big deal out of the work-from-home. Maybe it would only last a week. Maybe most people would still come into the office.

Now, a few weeks in, it’s obvious that hasn’t come true. So Patrick messages a co-worker who also has an office plant and, more importantly, makes occasional stops at the office for tasks that can’t be done from home. She promises to water his Christmas cactus the next time she’s there.

    . . .

            One morning, as I sit in the dining room drinking coffee, Patrick has his weekly conference call. “It’s starting,” he says, shutting his music off.

“Should I leave?” I ask.

“You don’t have to. I’m gonna be muted.”

“Oh, sweet. So they can’t hear us?”

“No. But I do need to, like, pay attention.”

“Ok.” I lean back in the rocking chair and continue sipping while the call begins.

People call in one by one, each with a beep that sounds like a walkie-talkie. Most of the voices are male, older, and somewhat gruff—unless that’s just another walkie-talkie effect.

One says, “I had trouble calling in this time. It had to call me like five times before I went through.”

Another: “The system. I think it’s overloaded. It takes forever sometimes.”

The voices identify themselves by name and location.

“Wait, that’s Tim, not Jim, right?”

“Correct.”

“Wait, I heard another beep. Who just joined?”

Patrick sits in sweatpants and a T-shirt from high school that says Nosotros hablamos Español. ¿Y Tu?  He glances from his phone, where the call is taking place, to his laptop, to his monitor screen and its wide display of endless spreadsheet columns and rows.

“Some of ‘em are moving their numbers around,” says a voice from the call. “They’ll make it up in May, June, July…”

“We all lived through 2008, 2009. But this just has a different feel to it.”

“The bottom just dropped out.”

Someone says, “We do have a lot of customers that are running hot and heavy.”

“I wanna be locked and loaded. I want everything rolled up as tight as we can.”

They call interns and employees bodies or heads. As in, “we need less bodies” and “how many heads can we cut?” They say “correct” instead of “right” or “yeah”. Patrick takes notes on a legal pad, bouncing his knee as he listens. Sometimes he highlights a spreadsheet column.

A voice crackles through. “Looks like they’re short another million dollars. I mean, somebody jump in here.”

. . .

            We did live through 2008 and 2009. I was only a teenager then, at the mercy of larger, mostly inscrutable forces—banks and my parents. I remember those years in hazy pieces. Watching a leak in the corner of our dining room ceiling form and grow, the rain funneled through a black trash bag to dribble into a bucket. Wondering when we’d get the foreclosure notice. Saving babysitting money in an envelope, counting all of it out every time I added more. Getting the foreclosure notice. Burning decades’ worth of random papers in a fire Dad built in the metal tub from our old washing machine. Packing up all our stuff. Throwing stuff away. Mom had us drag big items to the curb at night, as if the foreclosure was a secret.

My parents eventually found a house to rent, and we moved our stuff there. During the week of the move, I had one last babysitting gig at a house on our now-former street. The parents came home around two in the morning. I walked across the street to our old house, where my dad was waiting to pick me up.

The city had cut down most of the big trees on our block a few years earlier, and all the streetlights seemed stark and bright. I walked up our driveway, past the mound of trash bags and random old shit on our curb, and unlocked the side door.

The house was almost completely dark. “Dad?” I called, and crept toward the living room. One light in the kitchen was on, casting pale yellowy light that made shadows look as tangible as dirty bathwater. I found my dad half asleep on the sagging floral couch, the only piece of furniture left in the room.

He woke up and we left. But a heavy feeling followed me from that last look at the house. It was spooky, like an old mansion left to ruin—except it had happened so quickly, and it wasn’t a mansion. It was just a little bungalow in Cleveland.

. . .

On a group chat with Patrick and me, Jake texts: The economy is collapsing and I have never been more busy.

The next day, he sends a gif with flashing block letters that say BORED.

Jake: It hasn’t even been a month yet. Feels like an eternity.

Patrick: Life is just an endless string of days with the only difference being whether or not I have to sit at my computer and work most of the day.

Jake: I miss being able to go to a different building to look at the work screen.

The conversation quickly turns to people we know who have been laid off or furloughed. Patrick’s salary has been cut, but not too badly. We won’t have to move; we have groceries and all the other necessary things; we’re still healthy. We try not to worry.

In those years of waiting for foreclosure, I used to dump my change jar and count it obsessively. Since then, I’ve done the same when I’ve been sleepless, wired, frustrated, at the frayed edge of anxiety. Late nights have found me on the floor, sorting coins into dollar piles. The chink of quarters to pennies is tangible. As if thirty dollars in change will stave off financial ruin, the jar’s total is always both meager and soothing.

I haven’t done this during the pandemic, though. It feels like whatever is coming will come, and it won’t be something we can save up for.

Plague Diary, Part 2: “Don’t come crying to me for any fish”

April 10, 2020

The first couple weeks of quarantine, I went out in the woods every day. This isn’t something specific to the pandemic; whenever it’s warm, I walk the parkway path to a patch of woods and murky creek near my house. I track deer, sometimes working my way close to the group of does that congregate down the hill every afternoon—a fact I learned a couple of years ago when I first started hanging around this part of the woods. Only one of them stomps, swings her head up and down at me; the rest stay where they are, legs folded, lying under low trees they stripped of bark in winter’s hunger.

In the woods, everything is normal. The rest of the world doesn’t exist, or appears only in trash clinging to branches and rocks in the creek. Everything back here has always felt post-apocalyptic to me: many parts of the Cleveland Metroparks were formerly landfill, and vintage shards of glass and china plates push their way up through the soil just the same as roots and reeds.

In the woods by my house is a spot I call Trash Bend. The creek twists away from the houses on the opposite hill and pushes against the property line of a nearby church; here, the garbage of the past is abundant. Big fragments of blue and white enamel mock the dull, overcast sky as they decay in the creekbed. Brown and green and cloudy-clear bottles litter the soil, accidental terrariums of moss and worms. Bricks lie helter-skelter, wedged into the mud. Half submerged in the creek and overgrown with thicket brush is a green car, vintage, crushed and busted. The taillights stare at me like fish eyes.

. . .

            One week into the social-isolation-shutdown-situation, my dad knocked on my side door. I opened it and he said, “You want a fish?”

“What?”

He walked toward his car, and I followed. He was parked at the end of my driveway, the trunk of his powder-blue Mercury already popped. He pushed it up, rummaged in a bundle of plastic shopping bags, and pulled out a fish.

It was two feet long, fat and shimmery, with a streak of blood running from its mouth down the length of its pale belly. Even in death, it looked stunned: wide eyes, open mouth.

“So?” Dad prompted.

“Uh.”

“You want me to put this in your freezer?”

“Honestly… No?”

“No?”

“I don’t know what to do with it,” I said. “I don’t know how to like, cut it up and cook it.”

Dad shrugged and tucked the fish back into the bag. “OK then,” he said. “But in two weeks don’t come crying to me for any fish.”

“Why in two weeks?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Usually I don’t keep. Just catch. But there’s no meat in the stores.”

“Yeah, I know.” I crossed my arms in the chill. My dad was layered in fraying flannel, cargo pants, and a cap, as usual. A toothpick hung in the corner of his mouth, poking out beneath his gray cop mustache. I reminded him, “There’s more ways to get protein than just meat, you know. Anyway, you wouldn’t, like, die after two weeks as long as you had some kind of food.”

Dad shrugged again. He mostly subsists on hard boiled eggs, smokies, and sludgy bowls of pork and beans. Sometimes he eats a spoonful of mustard and turmeric and admonishes me that it’s good for the heart and that we should all be doing the same.

“Well,” Dad said now, “I guess there are plenty of wild critters we could eat. The deer in my backyard? I told your mom I’m gonna get my crossbow, and”—he squinted and motioned as if loosing an arrow—“phew!”

“Great.”

“Hey,” Dad asked, “You got a gun in the house? Patrick have a gun?”

“No.”

“Hm.” He glanced around. “We’ll have to fix that.”

           . . .

            My dad’s grandma would have known exactly what to do with a fish. In her postage-stamp yard, my dad says, she’d grown an abundant garden of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In the fall, she’d take fish guts from my dad and his cousins’ catches, sprinkle them with lye, and bury them in the garden rows. She knew how to dress, butcher, and cook any wild game the boys brought her, mostly squirrels and rabbits and unlucky mourning doves, the meat of which—my dad told me once, extending his thumb to demonstrate—is only so big. “But still,” my dad had said, “they’re good.”

The same afternoon my dad told me about the mourning dove meat, I wandered through cattails by the river and almost stepped on a dead deer. At first I jumped back because my foot had almost touched its open, exposed ribcage. Then I noticed it had no head.

I ran out and called Dad over to look.  “Do you think it was coyotes?” I asked.

“Ehh.” He leaned over it. I stood back so I wouldn’t have to look at it again. Sometimes my dad showed me cicada husks, flies keeled over on the windowsill, a monarch butterfly that had flown into our basement and died, wings splayed open, behind the computer desk. This time he didn’t force a closer examination. “Could be. Or people.”

On our way out of the woods, he showed me how to walk quietly on the twigs and leaves by rolling my footsteps from heel to toe. We practiced, listening to the noises of the woods around us and the distant swish of traffic along the parkway.

Something darted out from beside me: a rabbit. My dad leapt back. As the rabbit fled, I noticed he’d drawn the pistol he always carried on his hip. “Startled me,” he said.

. . .

Plague Diary, Part 1: “I hate this timeline”

April 3, 2020

“You look like you’re in some future cyberpunk gang.”

I am dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie, an oversized flannel jacket, and a pair of Docs caked in Cuyahoga mud. My hair is uncombed and dip-dyed a hue that I swear is blue but that my husband, Patrick, says looks more like green. Around my face, a bandanna is tied spaghetti-western style: my COVID-19 mask for the day. I put on blue sunglasses and relish how disguised I feel. I know that I probably do look ridiculous, but I say: “This is the cyberpunk future.”

“So you’re gonna, what, hack the mainframe?” Patrick jokes.

We walk away from our house on the corner of the street. We are heading to the gas station a couple of blocks away, on a mission for beer and a change of scene—brief and uninspiring as it may be.

“OK, maybe not cyberpunk.” I pull the bandanna down so it hangs around my neck. My husband keeps his on. It’s from his Halloween costume; he’d dressed as Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I say, “But this is some kind of weird sci-fi future, I mean, right?”

“Why did you take yours off?” he asks me instead of replying.

“I’ll pull it back up when we get close to people. There’s no one around yet.”

“Yeah, but if you wait until we get close to people, they’re gonna think it’s rude, like, you’re assuming they have it.”

“Maybe I want to be rude,” I say. Mainly, though, I don’t want to breathe my own damp breath through a cotton cloth. My bandanna is worn thin; it once belonged to my dad’s grandma. I wonder what she would have thought of all this. I think to myself that I would give anything to have some advice from any predecessor of mine who had seen worse shit.

. . .

Months before all of this, a scene that now seems mythical: Sunday evening, dark already, the Browns game going to shit as usual on a row of TVs behind the bar. In a wood-paneled booth, Patrick and I sat across from our friend Jake. Supposedly we were watching the game, but it was mostly an excuse to hang out and drink. Afterwards we figured we might watch the Cavs game, too, on the patio of another bar that was lit with fat Christmas lights all year round.

Typing this makes me nostalgic. But enough of that.

Jake stacked his empty cans of PBR into a tower as we discussed whether or not life is a simulation.

“I don’t wanna believe that,” I said. “It’s depressing. Like, none of us are real?”

Patrick tipped back the last dregs of his Jameson. “We live in the bad timeline, whatever it is,” he said.

“What about, you know, the basilisk thing?” I ask.

“The basilisk?”

“Roko’s basilisk.”

“What about it?”

“Like…. What is it?” I asked.

Jake teased, “You want us to mansplain Roko’s basilisk for you?”

“Yes.” I swigged my beer.

“It’s this theory that like, AI is testing us. To see if we’ll help it or hinder it. And if you don’t help it, then you get put in like a hellish simulation.”

“So did we already fail?” Patrick asked.

I said, “So it’s basically God, but with a more tech-y backstory.” I pushed my empty glass to stand next to Jake’s PBR tower. “If you do what it wants, heaven. If you don’t, punishment.”

“Basically,” Jake said.

“Fake,” I declared. “And even if not. Fuck the basilisk.” I flipped the bird to the ceiling as if the AI were watching us from the clouds like the God that all three of us had grown up with in Catholic school, and about whom we were now sometimes prone to gossip.

“It still might be a simulation,” said Patrick.

“OK, but that’s the thing,” Jake said. “A friend of mine has this theory, kind of a mix of simulation and alternate universes and, I don’t really know for sure what else.”

I piped in, “Which friend? Ben the stoner?”

“Not Ben the stoner. Different friend. You guys have never met him.”

Patrick nudged me with his arm. “Let him tell us the theory.”

“My friend explains it better,” Jake said. “But I’ll try. So, say everything is a simulation, but there’s multiple simulations, like multiverses. And whenever someone dies in a simulation, their consciousness, or whatever you wanna call it, just instantly jumps to another simulation where they’re still alive.”

“That’s comforting,” I said.

“Yeah, but I mean, everyone else in the simulation where the person died is still there, and they still experience the person being dead.”

“Oh.”

Jake continued, “But the thing is, you remember 2012?”

Patrick and I said we did.

“Has anything ever been, like, normal since then?”

“It really hasn’t,” said Patrick.

“Exactly,” Jake said, leaning forward. “Nothing has been normal since 2012. And you know why? Remember how the world was supposed to end?”

“What if it did end?” Patrick said, catching on.

“Dude, that’s the theory,” Jake said. “The world ended in 2012 and we all died, which means all of us got instantly transported to a simulation where we didn’t die. But it was too many people at once, and the, like, server or whatever couldn’t handle it. So everything is crazy now because it’s overloaded. It’s not working right anymore.”

“I believe this theory,” I said.

“Me too,” Jake agreed, in his ironic yet serious tone, the fuck-it-why-not acceptance that I often envy. “It’s the only theory I believe.”

. . .

“I hate this timeline,” Patrick says as we continue our walk to the gas station. We’re passing the Taco Bell now. Security cameras in the parking lot wink down at us in the evening sunshine.

I haven’t thought of the theory Jake told us in months; haven’t thought about the basilisk or the nature of reality or anything to do with the year 2012. I haven’t even particularly been thinking about God. Instead, I’d spent the past couple of days googling Catholic saints.

Narrow search by patronage: against plagues, against pandemics, for the protection of lungs. Patrons of doctors and nurses. Patrons of the sick. Patroness of holding your mental health together. Patron of hermits. Patroness of the impossible. This idea was based on the Holy Helpers, a group of saints collected by patronage and venerated as a group during the Black Death. Anything that helped people back then, I figured, might be just as useful now.

I printed and cut out images, taped them to a cereal box I’d cut in half. Each half was gently folded like a book, so it could stand, and over the remaining cardboard and the plastic tape, I brushed gold paint. I lit candles: a tall, white pillar between the panels of saints, flanked by two small votive candles that illuminated hackneyed Latin phrases I’d written on notepaper: Defendat, Curare. Defend, Cure. 

Every morning and night I lit the candles and prayed. Although I interlaced my fingers, bowed my head and closed my eyes, I didn’t recite traditional prayers; instead, I imagined one by one each member of my family and begged for their protection. I imaged force-fields around them, around their houses, shimmering like halos. The printed-out icons showed saints with fingers bent in blessing or a hand upturned to support a miniature church; a palm frond clasped casually at their side or their breast; instruments of torture or body parts held out placidly while their eyes turned up, rolled back toward heaven. They glowed golden and gently expressionless in the candlelight. I found this comforting, at first.

Wash hands. Stay at home. Keep a routine. Don’t panic. Video chat with friends or family. Stay six feet away from everyone. Get outside. Don’t panic. Stock up on groceries for two weeks to reduce trips into the public.

And each day, I refreshed the burnt-out votives. What else could I do.

. . .

Frenemies & an Ice Maiden Obsession: February Reads

Remember in January when I mentioned the Ice Man? Well, after that, I kind of went down a rabbit hole of ice mummies. The concept used to absolutely terrify me, after I learned about it in school via one shoddy paragraph and a horrifying photo of the preserved, leathery corpse. Now, how the tables have turned! Otzi (the “Ice Man”) is interesting and had a pretty badass existence. Before his death, he killed TWO people with ONE arrow and retrieved it both times. Bruh.

But the ice mummy that has truly stolen my heart is the Siberian Ice Maiden. Her story is fascinating, from her tomb to her tattoos to the Altai people’s fight to bring her back home to rest. There’s a mythological, almost-tragic-yet-triumphant glimmer in the Ice Maiden’s story, and I can’t get enough of it (nor can I stop retelling it to anyone who will listen…). Which brings me to the first book I finished this month, Ledi by Kim Trainor.

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Ledi is a book of poetry– really, more like one book-length poem– that weaves the story of the discovery and disinterring of the Siberian Ice Maiden (called Ledi, meaning Lady, in the book) with the story of the author’s lover who died by suicide.

I love this. I finished it in one sitting and then went right back into it for a second read. It flows so well, and captures both the myth-like aspects and the humanity of the Ice Maiden.  Emotionally, this book felt ghostly and resonant. The author also definitely did research, including visiting the mummy and the site of her discovery. There were so many details woven into this book that I hadn’t known about before. 

Now, the second book I read this month….

Um. Well, I tried.

I know, I know, only the second month in and already I’m missing the mark on my 2020 goal. But I opened, started, and subsequently quit so many books this month that there wasn’t time to finish one all the way through. For some reason, every novel that I cracked open this month seemed to have the same situation at its center: two girls (sometimes actually grown women, but most often they meet as teenagers) who become best friends, except one of them is Cool and the other one is not, due to her more shy, bookish nature, or whatever.

Maybe it’s  all my fault for being suckered into picking up all these stories– like, am I just the target demographic? I, after all, was definitely the shy, bookish teen, and perhaps in some ways am still the shy, bookish adult. (Or am I? I mean, even when I’m trying to be low-key, I end up becoming known as “the bird girl” and “the bone collector” and “oh lord what is she doing”.) But regardless of why I picked up a whole dang pile of these stories this month, my questions remain:

Why are these stories so common in fiction? And why are they always told from the perspective of the shy girl? To me, it almost feels like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except this would be, like, the… Manic Sexy Dream Frenemy. Or something.

I’m not trying to rip authors a new one over something I don’t like, but it did kind of bother me. I mean, obviously– I couldn’t finish even one of them. While reading, I kept thinking about the Cool friend of the duo, and how she obviously was dealing with some shit of her own, which is sometimes the plot of the book. In several, the Cool one is “troubled” and that’s what makes her so edgy; in others, the Cool one is effortless, popular, or rich– but still has ~secrets~. Oooh. So spooky.

There’s always passages like: How we lie. How we were once wild and now are grown up. Frenemies. Friends closer than lovers. Opposites and mirror images. Molding ourselves to become like the other. Toxic and beautiful. 

Blah, blah, blah.

I mean, we’ve all (?) had some kind of experience where we can relate to a story like that, buuut… can we at least get a new angle? And maybe I’m just becoming hyper sensitive to this, but despite these books being written by women, a bunch of them are kind of male gaze-y. Or at least they heavily romanticize the Cool character, even at parts in the story where shit gets real and maybe it would have benefited from less stylizing. At points, it’s like reading a music video. And I’m a slut for cinematic music videos, trust me– I just don’t think it’s as good in fiction, especially fiction that could have dug deeper into reality, but instead floated on the wavy, shimmering surface.

So, if you have any suggestions for a book portraying real, complicated female characters in real, complicated friendships, please leave a comment! I would love to check that out.

Bonus footage of when I drew some of the Ice Maiden’s tattoos on myself with blue eyeliner and then went out. Honestly I think I pulled these off pretty well. 😉

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2020 & what I read in January(ish)

Apparently I got a bit too comfortable in the seeming endlessness of January. My goal had been to finish reading two books in that month (and the 11 subsequent ones), which, like many new years resolutions, fell a bit by the wayside only weeks into 2020. But also like many resolutions, I set the bar kiiinda too high for myself by making one of those books for January be The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.

The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan novels series by Ferrante. I got into the series fairly recently, although I had been intrigued about them since HBO started the series based on the books. I tried watching the series and was very confused, but I really liked the spooky vibe and the bits of story I was able to grasp. So a few months ago, I started reading My Brilliant Friend. It made more sense to me than the show, but it was still slow going at first. However, by the time I finished the book (mostly while getting a surreal October tan in Vegas, ayyyy) I was intensely caught up in it. I couldn’t shut up about it, recounting parts of it to Patrick while he nodded patiently. (To be fair, I’ve heard him retell the plot of season 1 of Westworld at least four times.)  I read the last chapter at 2 a.m. and then just lay splayed and supine on the couch, like a stabbing victim bleeding out. The subsequent books offer similar emotional gut punches. I kept telling Patrick, “This shit is insane”– and this brings us to my only complaint about the series, which is: WTF are the covers. As Patrick said, “I kinda thought it was weird you were getting so emotionally wrenched by some beach reads.”

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Though there were slower parts, I mostly chugged through them. I figured I’d finish this fourth one swiftly as well… But I’m still mired somewhere in the middle. Maybe I’m avoiding reaching the end of the series just because I’ not ready to see how it all ends, and to let it go. Should I bribe myself by saying I’ll re-read the first book right after? Ugh. OK, OK, I’m ready. Fuck me up, Ferrante.

The second book this month was one I actually did finish. Yay! It’s a collection of short stories, Orange World by Karen Russell.

Honestly, I picked this one up at the library because I recognized the author’s name (though knew nothing about her???) and because I’m going through a heavy orange obsession (the color, the fruit, everything, help meeee). Happily, turns out that this short story collection is my favorite kind, which is to say, every story had some kind of weird magical/supernatural element. It starts off with a Depression-era ghost story and ends with the story involving a devil that looks like a capybara and lives in a storm drain. Yes please to all of that.

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I think my favorite stories from this book (though it’s honestly hard to choose, I’d read pretty much all of them again) are “The Gondoliers” and “The Bad Graft”, both of which are kind of… ecologically flavored, if that makes sense. I also really liked the aforementioned ghost story, called “The Prospectors”, got really sucked into “Black Corfu” and forgot it wasn’t a whole novel, remembered my childhood terror of the Ice Man thanks to “Bog Girl: A Romance”, and…

OK, yes, this is already like half the stories in the book! Shit, I told you it was hard to choose! They’re all really absorbing, I love the prose, and wow do I also love how imaginative these were. I’m definitely going to look for more of Karen Russell’s stuff.

Bonus footage for my fellow orange enthusiasts:

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(I know dried orange slices are “supposed” to be for Christmas decorations, but I didn’t find out about them until after Christmas and I wasn’t waiting a whole year to have oranges hanging EVERYWHERE.)

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Embracing the Weirdness

            The three-pound box of bees fizzed with movement, hundreds of little insect bodies churning and buzzing. Tanya held them in gloved hands and inhaled the spring air. The smell of back garden leaf litter and May mud filtered through the gauzy veil she wore to protect her head and face from these creatures. Her creatures now– and somehow she had to dump them into their new home, a clean wooden box neatly filled with blank frames awaiting propolis and comb. “It’s easy,” all the beekeepers had said at the classes she took. Tanya thought of the summer she’d walked into a forest on another continent and found, like a fairy tale, an old man and woman who greeted her with a bowl of golden honey and a loaf of homemade bread. She tried to imagine herself that way as she pried out from the box the small cage containing the queen. The queen fidgeted, as if she was anxious to get to business. Tanya carefully placed the cage between two frames, angling it to give the queen enough air and the workers access to the candy seal that kept the queen caged. Then she opened the box. Bees rose into the air and swirled around her as she dumped them into the hive. She breathed out, and made efficient work of closing the hive. As she walked back to the house, she paused, looked back. For three days she would have to wait, to see if she had done everything wrong, or if these creatures would have made the hive their home.

That’s something I wrote during our exercise in the third session of the Creative Nonfiction class I took. It’s over now, sadly– last Saturday was the final session, where we were able to show the beginning few pages of our projects and get feedback. I left feeling pretty confident that I have the ability to write the story that I want to write, which is… a refreshing feeling after years of self-doubt.

I’ve also been doing lots of poetry this first week of February. I went to Mahall’s and thoroughly enjoyed hearing some poetry from Ray McNiece backed by guitars. I’ve never seen a poetry reading like that– well, there was one or two with drums in Denver– and the vibe was so different from just reading. I think there’s something about music that makes the audience feel like participants, even if they’re not actively doing anything but listening. I read at the open mic after, and the encouraging comments I got from other poets afterward honestly fueled me to want to write more.

And despite how nervous sharing my poetry makes me, and all the self-doubt I mentioned earlier… I was born for the stage, baby. I just remembered how, in like fifth grade or something, my class had to perform poetry for a school St. Patrick’s Day show. So we had all these poems about St. Patrick and March and shamrocks, and we had to recite them in this boring singsong. I got so bored practicing at school that I came up with the following weird idea, that somehow (probably with the help of my very persistent friends) I convinced the teachers to let me do: I dressed up as the wind and danced around on stage while the rest of my class recited a poem called “Old Man March Wind”. Seriously. I wore white overalls, white tights, a white button-up shirt, and my mom helped me pin a bunch of gauze onto all of it. This idea saved me from boredom as well as from having to wear shoes during the performance. But looking back, it blows my mind that I had the guts to be like, “Yeah, I’m just gonna pretend to be the wind in front of the whole school and my middle-school peers”. I just did not think anything I came up with was “too weird” back then, and I was not afraid to totally embrace my ideas. (My mom also helped spray the gauze with silver sparkles, so I think I can credit her ok-sure attitude for my own weirdness-embracing at the time.)

Anyway. It’s weird to be creating and sharing my writing again, but weird in a good way. Weird in an embraceable way? OK, sure.

Observe & Scribble

Yesterday I attended the second meeting of a class I’m taking through Literary Cleveland, all about creative nonfiction. I’ve been interested in creative nonfiction for a while now, but actually writing it, honing a pitch, and interviewing people are all relatively new to me. I think the last time I got really into interviewing people was in third and fourth grade when I had my own family newspaper (I printed out new issues every Sunday), or maybe a few years later, when I carried an old tape recorder everywhere with me. Hang on… Maybe I’ve been interested in nonfiction for longer than I thought…

The main focus of this session of the class was observation: to be a writer, you have to be constantly observing, and– somehow– recording what you observe. I’ve heard similar advice before and taken it: I’ve kept a diary since 2011, which taught me to remember and record notable things from the day. In 2018, I didn’t journal like that as much, but in August, I started carrying around a small flip notebook with me everywhere (like an old-timey reporter! Or a cop…). It’s now very warped and almost completely filled.

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It’s not fancy and is simply organized by date/place jotted at the top of each page/entry. Observations include: conversations I overheard, weird things I saw, descriptions of people, and some dumb jokes from nights out with friends (including a signed will that I am sure could totally hold up in court).

I had to get used to being the weirdo who would flip out the notebook and start scribbling at the bar, on public transit, or on my break at work. I was scared of being seen as some pretentious hipster. But what’s more pretentious, taking notes because that’s how your brain works best, or doing nothing/some other weird shit so people will think you’re cool?

I also had to get over my fear of observing “wrong”. One of the first times I took the notebook somewhere with me, I went to a bar with Patrick and one of our friends to watch the Browns game. I thought a conversation between the two of them was funny, so I scribbled it down. They were talking about a player. Our friend asked to see what I was writing, and saw that I’d written down the player’s name wrong. I’d written what I heard (knowing it was probably incorrect). He and Patrick laughed. I said, “If I needed to use this in something, I could look him up.”
Patrick: “How? Were you just gonna google all the Browns players?”
Me: “In the rest of the conversation, you guys said he was injured in 2013. So I could have used that and figured it out.”

Our friend pointed out that my writing was very messy. But I’ve found that, for me, the act of writing something out helps me remember it even without ever re-reading the notes. (There is one page that I find completely illegible though. Maybe don’t try to take notes in the dark, in a moving car, while tipsy.)

I also personally like to write down messages from signs or graffiti. Yesterday at the bookstore there was a sign with a picture of a girl reading and a giant bat flying out of a book that read: “One can find a whole new life in a book shop. People should be warned.”

Maybe. But maybe some of us like being surprised by giant bats.

Keep your eyes peeled,
Hannah

2019

This year is off to a good start.

Monday was my first time ever reading my poetry in front of people… into a microphone…. on a stage… Yeah, I was sweating. But it was a good time. I also really appreciated being able to listen to other people read (and one guy sing, beautifully btw).

I read three poems.

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I also went to a poetry workshop the week before, and it was my first non-college workshop in ages. Sooo needed, not only for the feedback (which was definitely helpful) but also for the writerly camaraderie and discussion. Sometimes I think I’m the one lonesome literature weirdo, but then at this workshop someone else poured a glass of wine and quoted, “Wine comes in at the mouth…” and I was happily reminded that, of course, I’m not the only one. Other memorable quotes included: “Shakespeare, ah, he didn’t know what he was doing” and “Well, when the sun comes out in Cleveland, it does sound like fuckin’ trumpets!” Definitely hoping to go to more workshops like that.

Also, Saturday starts the first session of a class I’m taking through Literary Cleveland, called “How to Create Creative Nonfiction”. I’ve been interested in this topic for a while, and last spring I went to a couple of Lit Cleveland sessions about how to interview people. I’m suffering a bit of “imposter syndrome” about this class– I don’t completely know what to expect or how good I will be at creative nonfiction. So I keep reminding myself: that’s why it’s a class! We’re gonna learn!

New year, new things. Off we go.