A lot of my friends and co-workers are starting to have kids. I wish I could hear what goes on behind closed doors, because by all appearances they simply decided to have kids, and so, they had them. The decision seems so simple, so easy. Meanwhile, as with so many things, I can't decide. It's a blessing and a curse to see all sides of every question and answer. I think it makes me a better scientist. I think it could help me do good, bipartisan type work one day. But it stops me in my tracks when it comes to making decisions, especially large life decisions. Have kids? Yes and no, all at the same time.
I like kids. I had a lot of fun with my two little cousins this Thanksgiving. I love the idea of reading to and playing with my own kid; watching them grow up into whoever it is they'll be. But it's not all about imagination games and birthday parties. There are the long nights, the colds, the tantrums, the social problems - if you are lucky. And if you are unlucky, maybe there are serious health problems. Maybe there's the spectre of loss always tainting any happiness you might have. When you really love someone, you're vulnerable in all sorts of ways.
It has occured to me that I may be a Piggle-Wiggle woman. If you are unfamiliar, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was a series of middle-grade books written by Betty MacDonald about an older woman, who has no children of her own, but has all sorts of clever ideas and a little magic to help the town's children through their various problems. All the kids adore Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and play at her house after school practically every day. But they're normal kids and so they are always misbehaving at home in one way or another, talking-back, not picking up their toys, etc., and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle always has a great solution to the issue.
Why am I telling you about a slightly obscure, though excellent, series of children's books from the fifties? The point is, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is very good with kids, loves kids, knows they're not perfect, and is always willing to help them and their parents, but ultimately, she never has any kids of her own. She's a widow and lives by herself with a dog and a cat.
Maybe I could be happy as a Piggle-Wiggle woman? As long as I had kids in my life somehow, maybe it's not as important to me that they be my biological kids. Maybe I'm not cut out for the day-to-day work of parenting. I'm selfish. I worry that having kids will mean I'll never have time to work on my writing and art projects, or pursue a more time-intensive career track. I'm afraid I'll resent my kids, even if I enjoy spending time with them.
What if I just live my life? And when I am old, or whenever, I can be like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and be a haven for whatever children might need me in whatever little way. Perhaps the nuclear family is overrated and we need more models for social happiness.
Are you a Piggle-Wiggle woman?
Yep, still here. Still blogging. Still hurting. But still working on it.
Yesterday, I drove up to D.C. and now I'm having a nice time at my parents' house getting ready to host Thanksgiving. It was a beautiful day today, so I also helped my mother by cleaning out some of her garden beds. If you are experiencing stress of any kind, can I recommend scything old asparagus plants? Or pulling out dead zinnia plants from the ground? It's very soothing to clear out the rubbish and be outside in the fresh air and sunshine.
I can also report that I am slowly reading again. But instead of reading novels, I've been reading a lot short stories. It seems to be about all that my emotional attention-span can handle at the moment. Do you go through short story phases?
Anyway, just wanted to check in. I'm still here. I'm still interested in reading and writing. I'm touched that other people seem to read here, so I just wanted to let you know that there will be more to come. It's just a rough time for me, but I'm not giving up and I will be back.
Cheers to all and Happy Thanksgiving!
I am going through a breakup and I can’t help but notice the symmetry this experience has with the process of getting together. Just over eleven years ago, I met my future-husband. It was my first semester of college. Instead of going to class, I mostly laid in bed, intensely thinking about him. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He was everything I wanted in a boyfriend: intelligent, artistic, yet practical, and of course, handsome. Dark curly hair and freckles. He looked, and still does, like he should have been born and raised in Dublin. I practically stopped eating because my thoughts were so intensely focused on him.
And now, eleven years later, as we are breaking up, I find that I’m equally spending a lot of time laying about in bed, thinking about him. Only now, instead of imagining the future we would have together, I alternate between mourning the good memories of what’s already happened and obsessing over why it has all come to an end.
I’m very sad. I feel very alone and oddly ashamed.
I’m struggling to write, but I hadn’t expected to also struggle to read. I recently read an author confess a similar inability to read while she was grieving a death in the family. I’m told that breaking up is a kind of grief, so I suppose it makes sense that I can’t seem to read either. Every book I pick up looses attraction within ten pages or less. The stories seem dull. The words are impenetrable. My mind wanders back to my husband.
I tried Postcards from the Edge, figuring that would be light, but the stream of consciousness narrative drives me bonkers. Replace the word “drug” with “my husband” and I feel like I’m reading the dictation of my own thoughts.
I just bought a used copy of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost. I tried it today, but the words don’t seem to make any sense. I can’t tell if it’s because of my malaise or if the style just really is a tad dense.
I look at my next Aubrey/Maturin book on the shelf and the thought of clearing that initial hurdle that is always necessary to get into those books seems too hard to even attempt.
The Letters of E.B. White are sweet, but there’s no story there. I’m not interested in the day-to-day minutia of finding newspaper jobs in New York.
Rebecca is too dark and frightening to even try more than a page.
Everything is too hard, too much, too boring, too this, too that.
I want my old life back. I want to be able to escape in a book so deeply that I look up and realize half the weekend has already gone by. I want my husband to walk through the door and smile when he sees me, instead looking hurt and slightly afraid – mirroring y own face, I’m sure.
I guess this too shall pass. In the meantime, I’ll keep opening and closing books until one finally sticks and I can float away for a little while.
Have you ever struggled to read before? I feel like my most favorite thing to do in the world is also being taken from me.
I don't know about you, but I'm hanging in there. Still riding the wave, but it's fine. It's nothing compared to what families are going through in France right now, or what people are suffering in order to escape ISIS and related violence. It's just personal stuff and however it works out, I know it will be for the best.
Is anyone taking all of next week off for Thanksgiving? Prior to this relationship upheaval, I wasn't planning on using any vacation days and I wasn't going to visit family, but now things are different and I need to be with my parents. So I decided to take Tuesday and Wednesday off next week and drive up to D.C. to see them. Yay! 6-day weekend! I freaking need it.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you get to use the holiday doing whatever it is you want to do. The older I get, the more I understand that not everyone gets the same amount of comfort from family as I do, and that's totally fine. If hanging out with your parents stresses you out, can I recommend taking the long weekend for yourself and eating all the food that you actually want to eat instead of feeling suffocated by tradition? We did that last year and it was an incredible break from expectations, which was very relaxing. We basically stuffed ourselves on cheese, foie gras, and crackers while drinking copious amounts of cider and beer. Lots of fun. But this year, for obvious reasons, I'm feeling the turkey, the 20 aunts, uncles and cousins, and most of all the chance to just hang with my parents.
Meanwhile, in the remaining days of work, please enjoy these links from interesting reads I found on the internet this week. Peace-out and have a great pre-Thanksgiving weekend.
A short history of American writers and their feelings about Thanksgiving. Can't really argue with Mark Twain...(WSJ)
Do your characters act logically? Or do they do stupid things so your scene can turn out the way you want it to. (Janice Hardy)
Why Uber is not the future of the economy. (The Atlantic)
Dune art fans rejoice. (Omni)
If you're still in the thick of NaNoWriMo, don't forget to take a break! (Charlotte Rains Dixon)
More habits of famous writers. (ShortList)
Really interesting and sad article about suicide clusters among adolescents in Silicon Valley. I have never felt suicidal in my life, but I do come from a background that values achievement above almost anything else, which creates a lot of personal stress and anxiety. I'm still working to extricate myself from that way of thinking as I'm realizing it's my main source of unhappiness. If I ever have children, this way of thinking is what I want to avoid passing on to them. I want them to feel close and loved by me and for them to know that I value kindness and empathy above all other things. (The Atlantic)
Ugh, I confess, I just bought an adult coloring book - and I love it. Read more about the phenom here. (New Yorker)
Not everything needs to be fixed by technology! A case study of "ketchup leather" and solutionism. (The Atlantic)
I'm going to come right out and say it: I didn't think Pixar's Inside Out was very good.
The three "human" characters were normal. Nothing interesting going on there. The emotions were caricatures of emotions and definitely not well-developed characters. And the scenes featuring Joy and Sadness navigating long-term memory were so slow that I fell asleep, woke up having no idea how much time had passed, but it didn't seem I had missed anything important that affected the story-line so I was able to keep watching. I feel like you shouldn't be able to tune out of a movie for extended periods and still be able to follow along, but you could with Inside Out because there just wasn't that much going on. It was, I think, a rare example of a story that was too simple.
That last Pixar movie I saw was Brave and I feel like my criticisms of Inside Out could be equally applied to it as well. I saw Brave in theaters and regretted that choice. So much money to spend to hear a story that I feel like I've heard a hundred times before, and got bored with by the time I was in the second grade.
What happened Pixar? You used to be the king of great storytelling! The last Pixar movie I saw and really liked was Up; not a perfect movie, but still pretty good. The last really great Pixar movie, in my opinion, was the first half of Wall-E.
The next Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur, looks like it's going to have the exact same issues as well. These are just not very good ideas, they're too simple. The characters are one-dimensional, which makes them hard to emotionally invest in. I have some theories as to why Pixar has been trending in this direction and a lot of it has to do with internet PC homogenization. Compare Toy Story to Inside Out and I think you'll see the difference. Toy Story was irreverent, the characters were naughty, they sometimes hated each other a little. But no one is even bad in Inside Out. There's no villain. There aren't even competing interests. The message in fact seems to be that every emotion is valuable. You can't argue with that, but that doesn't mean it makes an interesting story.
Confession: I haven't been working on my NaNoWriMo novel lately. I've even been thinking about abandoning that project altogether. I think it's pretty obvious why I want to give up. There are just other more serious things going on in my life right now.
They say you shouldn't make any major decisions, such as quitting your job or moving, when you are in the midst of a personal crisis. So at the moment I've decided to not worry about "winning" NaNoWriMo and simply table the novel until I feel more clear-headed. Maybe that means a week long break. Maybe it means a year. I don't know yet.
Part of me, though, thinks that on top of my personal issues, I'm struggling with my book because I'm exhausted by the amount of world-building it requires. It's a science fantasy novel and there's just so much background and setting to create. I'm trying to do it the right way by slowly revealing new information about this world as the characters encounter it (so, opposite of the exposition dump you find in the first ten pages of The Hunger Games), but it's hard. It's really hard to do that while balancing other components of the story, like character building and plot.
No one said this writing business was easy!
Lately I've even wanted to start a new project; something lighter and more fun, simpler. I feel strongly that simple story-telling is often the best and maybe I need to restart my main writing project to give myself a chance to develop a new narrative voice. I don't know, maybe I want to try writing something for kids.
Anyway, just some thoughts.
Have you ever given up on a novel? Was it a permanent end or just a temporary break?
Way back in grade school, once or twice a year, we would receive these little sheets from Scholastic (like above), which featured a selection of their book catalog. I suppose this was a pre-internet way of marketing and selling books directly to children. I loved those sheets and would study them, reading all the book summaries, and circling the ones I wanted with a ball-point pen. I know a lot of kids have good memories of going through the Toys-R-Us catalog before Christmas and similarly choosing what they wanted Santa to bring them, but for me it was all about the Scholastic book orders. (Toys just weren't a big deal in my house.)
My Mom was great and would, within budgetary reason, order whatever I circled as well as any other books she thought I might enjoy. The Secret Garden comes to mind as one of her excellent choices.
Anyway, by the time I was in 5th grade, I was no less obsessed with the Scholastic book order. There was always a pretty significant lag, maybe of a few months, between when your parents' submitted your order and when you actually received the books. Scholastic sent them to the classroom in one big box for the teacher to distribute to the students.
One of the consequences of this lag was that you pretty much forgot what it was that you had even ordered until he received it on that exciting day. When the box came to my 5th grade classroom it was was noticeably smaller than in previous years. Imagine my pre-teen horror when it turned out virtually all the books in the box were ones that I had ordered.
I remember sitting there at my desk feeling like a complete baby. How had I not gotten the message that my friends weren't doing this anymore? - a repeated theme of my childhood and teenage years. It wasn't as if the books were meant for younger kids.The Scholastic sheet was appropriate for your reading level. Still, there's nothing a kid hates more than to feel singled out among their peers. I got the distinct message that books were uncool now.
That was bad, but manageable. No one was going to peer-pressure me out of being a reader. But it got worse. One of the books I had ordered was called The Daydreamer, and on its cover was an illustration of a boy's body with a cat's head.
My teacher, whom I loved, picked up that book and looked totally perplexed by that admittedly bizarre cover (which I notice they've changed for the latest edition - one of the few instances where I think the new artwork is vastly superior). Then my teacher held it up for the entire class to see while he made a joke about how I liked to read books about boys with cat heads. The entire class laughed at me. I remember physically cringing, hating my classmates, and most of all hating my teacher for using me to get a cheap laugh.
Despite that embarassing episode, one of many as we all experience through our lives, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The Daydreamer is about a boy who daydreams and each chapter is a pleasant episode in his latest fantasies. The cover derives from one dream experience in which he imagines what it would be like to be the family cat. In another set of dreams, he thinks what it would be like turn back into a baby, and later, what it would be like to be an adult (one of my first, very innocent exposures to sexuality). I reread that book often, especially the cat sequence, my favorite since the cat is my spirit animal.
Anyway, years and years later, I was in my childhood bedroom and was looking through my bookshelves and I found The Daydreamer again. I hadn't thought about the Scholastic book sheets in years. In a way, this book represented the end of that fun for me and also represented the beginning of my transition into a socially isolated, acne-suffering class nerd. You'd think I'd hate that book for those reasons, but I didn't. It was well-written. The stories were great. That was really all that mattered.
And then I noticed something my fifth-grade self could never have known. The Daydreamer was written by Ian McEwan, the famous author most well-known for his book, Atonement. All that time I had been a McEwan fan and didn't even know it. I kind of loved that.
So see, fifth grade class and obnoxious teacher, despite the stupid cover art, I had reading taste and you didn't. So there :)
I mentioned last Friday that I've been going through a hard time recently. Little by little I've been telling people about my troubles. First, I told my parents. Then I told my best friend. And now I'm sharing that news here where I'm anonymous, so I guess it feels safe. Each time I tell someone new, it helps me get used to the idea and I think that's good and healthy. So thanks for being another audience in my life.
So let's get to it. My husband and I are in the midst of splitting up. It's one of those heartbreaking things where we still love one another, but we want different things and seem unable to change or compromise for the other, which makes it almost impossible to be happy in the long run. I'm not mad at him and he's not mad at me. We've been almost entirely civil and good to one another through this process, except for a few slip-ups where emotions were understandably running high. I wish we could figure it out, but we just can't seem to make it work. Someone has to change and I'm not sure either one of us can or wants to be what the other persons needs.
We've been having troubles for a few months. Then things got really bad about a month ago and our relationship hasn't recovered since. Last weekend, we mutually decided it was time to end things, and now we're dancing around the issues of logistics of splitting up/do we even try to do something like marriage counseling. We've been together for a long, long time. Married for ~2.5 years, but together for over 11. It's just hard to completely let things go when you've shared a life with someone for over a decade.
Anyway, it's certainly thrown a wrench in my writing plans, because frankly that stuff just doesn't seem as important when you're losing the person you've loved for so long. When you're having to figure out what comes next (do I quit my job, do I move back home, what do I really want?), reading and writing kind of takes a back-seat. I've still been working on my NaNoWriMo novel, but my heart just isn't into it and now I've fallen too far behind to hit 50K. Not sure I care though. I woke up this morning to write and before I could I was swamped by a good memory of my husband and I just couldn't bear to sit down at the computer. I missed him so much.
Even though we'd definitively decided to split up last weekend, I felt ok through the week. I knew I was in denial though. It didn't hurt, because it didn't seem real. It was like watching a bad movie about somebody else's life. Then this weekend I think reality hit both me and my husband pretty hard. I vacillate between wanting to move on and begin an independent life versus trying to address these issues with the help of a professional. I wish we had each been clearer with the other while we were having these problems instead of going into our default and non-productive conflict modes. I want to yell, he wants to hide, and neither way works.
I'd compare how I feel right now to sitting on a wave. When I'm feeling good about the decision, it's like I'm riding the crest of the wave, but I can still tell that I'm going to come back down again and feel low and horrible; like I'm making a terrible mistake. Up and down. It's exhausting.
I watched a lot of movies this weekend (along with other healthy activities like running, walking, making healthy food, texting and making plans with my best friend, etc.), and can I just say that When Harry Met Sally is a very underrated breakup movie? I found it very pleasant and reassuring to watch those two become friends in the midst of their own breakups. It's just a good example that even after a breakup your life will go on, you'll make new friends, and meet someone else, and it does all that without relying on totally obnoxious RomCom cliches. Harry and Sally don't really like each other that much when they first meet, but they don't hate one another. It's not this super antagonistic relationship. It's just a casual acquaintance that eventually warms up into friendship. I liked that. It's so much more heartening to watch, and certainly more believable than the other RomCom I saw this weekend, You Got Mail. I'm sorry to say that movie has not aged well. Tom Hanks is fine in it, but Meg Ryan was just terrible, like she was doing a bad impression of Meg Ryan, America's Sweetheart. Funny to watch her in two movies back to back and have such different visceral responses. I found it really stupid that anyone would believe that Meg Ryan's character in You Got Mail would ever have the slightest romantic attraction to the man who put her out of business. That's just absurd and frankly, it's hard to respect a woman who would do that.
Anyway, just my two cents. I'm not much of a RomCom lover, but if ever there was a weekend where I needed that kind of entertainment - this was it.
Alrighty, feel like I've whinged enough. I feel hopelessly sad, but already even a smidge better having written this out. Maybe later this week I'll make a brief list of things that have been helping me get through this breakup.
If I get behind in posts, now you'll know why. I'm dealing with some major personal loss. But I'll do my best to keep writing. It helps, it really does.
Edit: Re-posted after technical difficulties.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded a few weeks ago to the journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, for her collected work of non-fiction on Soviet history. Like the performance artist, Anna Deavere Smith, Alexievich uses interviews to document the human impact of different historical events. Her most famous book is undoubtedly Voices From Chernobyl, in which she interviewed hundreds of people involved in the nuclear disaster that took place in the Soviet Union in 1986.
As you might expect, Voices from Chernobyl is a dark, dark read, and I struggled at times to even pick it up. Each interview was understandably depressing, telling a story of predominate hopelessness. But what I didn't expect was to come away with so many individual stories of suffering, unhappiness, and fear. How the firemen experienced early attempts to put out the fire at the reactor was incredibly different from how a soldier emotionally processed the situation a few weeks later while evacuating the exclusion zone. How the women went through that same time was often quite different from the men. That doesn't mean it was pleasant to read, but it helped me understand this event in a more personal and deeper way than what I had previously understood from the paragraph that is typically dedicated to Chernobyl in high school history books.
In a disaster, we tend to lump everyone's experience as one story, but if you think about it, of course each individual suffers very differently. How a father grieves the death of a son from a radiation contaminated hat is a different kind of pain than what a village experiences after losing track of a disabled woman during the evacuation. How a woman grieves for the lost chance at having a healthy baby is different from how a family mourns their already "damaged" or dying children.
Different levels of knowledge about nuclear energy and radiation also created very different experiences. The scientists near Chernobyl and Minsk understood the dangers of the total radioactive contamination and their instinct was to balk party orders during the early days of the disaster, and get the hell out before they and their families were poisoned any further. But peasants, who knew nothing about radiation, looked around their fields and saw healthy crops and blue skies. They didn't understand why they had to leave everything behind. On the surface, things appeared normal, beautiful even. To give up their ancestral homes, their gardens, their dogs, for what seemed like to reason at all? They were told that everything, absolutely everything they owned, even their own bodies, had been poisoned and furthermore, had become another source of the poison. Even their livestock had to be buried alive to prevent further contamination. One of the men involved with this "liquidation" of radioactive material during the evacuation said of the peasants, "We annulled their labor, the ancient meaning of their lives. We were their enemies," (p. 185).
You can't see radioactive elements clinging to dust particles, but it was everywhere around Chernobyl and quickly drifting across Europe. The interviewees often seemed more at odds with this radioactive paradox than they were angry at the Soviet corruption and incompetence that had led to the disaster in the first place. Of course they were mad at the government, but their completely transformed lives maybe made blame an almost secondary, perhaps even trivial emotion in comparison. How could everything be poisoned? they kept asking. The milk, the apple trees, the salami in the store? How could you really live knowing that everything you touched would eventually kill you. That you too were a source of poison and would be subsequently shunned by the rest of the country. There was no where to run. No where to live. And there was no context for that existence, no way to understand it or know what to do next.
Voices From Chernobyl recounts what is essentially the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction, and I'm glad to have read it, but I'm sorry that so many people had to live and die through such a nightmare.
Wow. What a week. Like nothing I've been through in a very long time.
There's nothing I hate more than vague-blogging, so I'm going to devote a brief post next week to what exactly I've been going through and what that's meant for my reading and writing goals. I'm just not quite ready to talk about it at the moment. Next week though, I think I'll be ready.
I'm staying positive and little by little feeling marginally better. I had thought about taking a blogging hiatus, but in the end I decided I should try and stick it out a little longer. I'm glad I did. My work and my projects are sources of normalcy and that's all I really want right now.
Anyway, thanks for indulging my moods. Ironically, for such a poor week I found a ton of interesting stuff on the web that I think you will enjoy. So here they are, your weekly links. Enjoy and happy reading!
Edit: Just in case anyone cares, I had to take down my Voices of Chernobyl review because of some technical difficulties. I'll re-post it tomorrow.
If you're doing NaNoWriMo, you may be interested in learning some different ways of pre-writing scenes. (Janice Hardy)
Writing query letters to agents? Tell them the plot of your story, not the theme. (Carly Watters)
Do some fonts make your eye twitch? For me, a good font is one I don't notice. (The Atlantic)
Oh goodness, if this writer's teenagers really believe we don't need feminism anymore, I suggest they familiarize themselves with some world news. And frankly, national news too. High school is not a microcosm for everyone's experience with gender issues. (aeon)
Have you heard of the "werewolf" cat? This article says they follow you around the house. I can't go anywhere in my house without a posse of two cats and one dog in attendance. Not that I'm complaining. (Animal Planet)
Dory's back! (WSJ)
And MSTK3K! It's a Christmas miracle! If Christmas miracles, you know, happened before Thanksgiving. (Tor)
And even more sci-fi and fantasy books that are being adapted for TV or film! What an era to be a nerd, neh? (Tor)
On the Jesuits' role in science fiction. (The Atlantic)
This article pretty much sums up my feelings about the Starbucks holiday cups "issue." (The Atlantic)
Interesting read on the relevance of the short story through the history of media. (Ploughshares)
Did you know that Sylvester Stalone has over twenty screen-writing credits? He wrote and starred in Rocky, which really is a solid movie. But...he also co-wrote the Expendables movies. So yeah. Mixed bag. (WSJ)
Writer, editor, scientist.