Something Fun To Do This Friday Evening

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.  We had a good one.  It didn’t go exactly as we had originally planned — we had unexpected houseguests at the last minute — but we had a fantastic holiday and really excellent weekend.  I especially enjoyed hanging out with old friends who no longer live here but were visiting for a few days.  Now it is time to get ready for work and school tomorrow, to put up our Christmas decorations, to get back to normal for a few weeks till the next major Series of Holiday Events.  (I genuinely love this time of year.)

In the midst of it all, for those of you in the Houston area this coming weekend, here’s something you might enjoy doing Friday evening.  There’s going to be a book launch for the new Mutabilis Press anthology, entitled Improbable Worlds, and one of my poems is going to be in it.  (Yay!)  The poem is called “Recipe for My Daughter.”  I hope you’ll join me at the launch!  Here are the details:

Friday, December 2nd; 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.; The Jung Center of Houston; 5200 Montrose

And here’s the website for Mutabilis Press:

http://www.mutabilispress.org/

MP’s website also has information for purchasing the anthology, in case you’re interested.  (I was also published in their 2005 anthology Timeslice, in case anyone wants a copy of that as well.  It had a lot of really fantastic Houston poets in it, and I was thrilled and humbled to be counted among them.  Improbable Worlds will be featuring poets of Texas and Louisiana, if I’m not mistaken.)

If the book launch for Timeslice is any indication, I and many of the other poets featured in the book will be signing copies the night of the event.  (I’m also happy to sign any copies other than that night, if you’d like.)  I hope to see you there!

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The Twi-moms’ Lament

I’m going to irritate a lot of my friends here.  Apologies in advance, but hear me out.

Leave the Twi-moms alone.  They are hurting.  And no, I don’t think I’m one of them.

The Twilight series, for those who have not read the books — and notice I did not write “for those who have not seen the movies” or “for those who have been living under a rock,” because the books and the movies and the stuff people say about them are three different artifacts of expression, and we need to acknowledge that — is about a late-adolescent girl, Bella Swan, who moves across the country to live with her father in her junior year of high school.  She has a relatively smooth transition, largely avoiding the usual problems of displacement such a situation might bring, but encounters conflict when she falls hopelessly, fecklessly into consuming, co-dependent love with a vampire.

Oops.

I saw the first movie before I had read the books.  I saw it opening night with a couple of girlfriends who were fans of the books, in a theater filled with giddy, squealing teenage girls.  It was a raucous weird time.  I didn’t entirely know what to make of it all.  The movie, a tortured melodrama fraught with good music, poor acting, and worse direction (1), was weak at best.  My friends and I stood around in the lobby of the movie theater for an hour afterward making fun of it.  We all went home that night and changed our Facebook status lines to read, “What is he doing in that tree?” (2)

But I read the book the next week.

And let me explain why I did that:  I love vampires.  Some other time we can get into a discussion, if you like, about what they represent from a literary or psychological point of view, about why they are so different every time a new author reinvents them, about why they come back into mainstream pop culture every half-generation or so.  We can get into that stuff later, maybe.  But I could tell from the movie that Stephenie Meyer was clearly doing something unique with the mythology, and I wanted to know more about it.  I had heard her recent interview on NPR and was intrigued by this apparent literary phenomenon.  Paranormal romance?  A story based on a dream?  Best-selling books written by an ordinary mom?  Written for a younger audience and will probably take me all of one day to read?  Sure, I’ll bite.  Plus, I love vampires and am willing to give a cute story a chance.

So what happened when I read the book?  I became a little bit of a fan.  It wasn’t great literature — it wasn’t even particularly good writing — but it was really entertaining.  I went back and saw the movie a second time with another friend who had not seen it yet but wanted to, this time in a nearly empty movie theater.  It was a profoundly different experience.  Now I could hear all the dialogue, now there wasn’t any giggling around me, now I had the context of the novel in which to frame the movie.  It was still poorly acted and poorly directed, but now, well, it wasn’t so bad.  I sort of got it.  It was easy to willingly suspend my disbelief, to let myself sink into the goofy fantasy of it for a couple of hours.  And I admit it was a little embarrassing to be able to do so when so many of my friends had such disparaging things to say about it, but oh well.  To be blunt, most of them had not read the books or seen the movies.  Though I love my friends, I could get only so worked up about what they thought.

Then I read the rest of the books.  From a writing standpoint, I was curious about how Meyer could possibly sustain the driving tension of the first novel across three others.  From an analytical standpoint, I was interested in her redefinition of what’s at stake for these vampires:  what exactly was the downside, again?  What was so compelling about this story?  Sure, it was fun —  a big bowl of candy, in fact.  (Generally enjoyable but not a lot of nutritional value.)  And the male leads are, in their fashion, irresistible. (3)  There’s plenty of romantic tension, which is fun, if you have inside of you a person who believes that sex is not something one does with just anyone.  And so what if Meyer was putting forth a philosophy?  She has the right to do that, it’s her book.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it. (4)

But beyond that, I think this series has been incredibly popular with teenage girls and mature adult women for one particular reason that is the same for both very different age groups:  Bella Swan is incredibly flawed.

Bella is a convincing teenage girl who has fallen deeply in love for the first time.  I think many women who fell into true love in high school can recognize themselves in her.  She has the trappings of youth:  clumsiness; an inability to see her own beauty or even, at times, self-worth; poor judgment.  And her love for Edward is fierce and dependent, much like true love really is.  Audiences may scoff at her martyr-like attitude and find her choices to be frustratingly bad.  They might even criticize her for the way she thinks, and in this modern time, they have a good point.  (Linda Holmes has an excellent review of the latest movie installment, which I agree with in pretty much every way.  Here’s the link to it:  http://www.npr.org/2011/11/17/142248824/dawn-breaks-and-much-baroque-nonsense-ensues.)

I criticized Bella, too, until I remembered my own youth, remembered experiencing these emotions in the first place, remembered being seventeen and so desperately in love that I was willing to make really stupid choices.  Perhaps I saw in Bella what I regret about my own life.  This can make any protagonist – and frankly, any person, in a book or not – annoying.

But Bella is worth my attention for her proverbial warts.  Not because they are unusual – they aren’t – but because they do not prevent her from being loved.  And not just loved, but adored – and not just by any old loser who can’t do any better, but by a demi-god.  (Two of them, even.)

This makes these books, well, a little bit inspiring.  You know, on a subconscious level.  Who doesn’t want to feel like she (or he, for that matter) is so lovable, warts and all, that the object of her (or his) affections could possibly reciprocate them with such passion?  It’s wonderful to imagine that we are more than the sum of our flaws, that others can see past the imperfect body, the neurotic habits, the lack of self-confidence, the constant need for reassurance and just love us.  Adore us, even.  Find us so compelling that their need for us is just as intense as ours is for them.

So why do I say the Twi-moms are hurting?  (And sure, some of them aren’t.)  This story just might represent something they feel they have lost.  Even if they haven’t — even if what they think they’re missing is only buried deep down under layers of marriage and children and the demands of a career and household minutiae and far too busy weekends and having to actually schedule date nights with their spouses and a general lack of time for themselves — this story just might remind them of that thing inside of them that is young and vulnerable and desirable.  It’s like a princess story for grown-ups:  a damsel in distress hidden within the trappings of the modern age.

So go easy on these vulnerable matrons.  Absolutely, teach the young kids enjoying these books and movies that Bella is messed up hard-core, that her choices are weak, that her priorities are badly skewed.  Teach them that life does not in any way resemble this fantasy, and teach them why, and teach them how to avoid being victims.

But if enjoyment of this story isn’t interfering with real life, if it’s not hampering the fulfillment of their duties and obligations, if it’s not messing with their sense of reality, let the Twi-moms enjoy themselves.  Don’t be haters just because you don’t understand.

And if you know a Twi-mom and don’t think her obsession with Twilight is healthy, then give her something else to read.  You know, something with literary merit.

Like Jane Austen.

(1)  For more examples of Catherine Hardwicke’s illustrious career, check out IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0362566/).  She has six directing credits, including Twilight and a project not yet complete.  The only other one of those movies I’ve seen, though I’d heard of them all, is Red Riding Hood, and I’d like to have that hour and a half of my life back.  RRH was one of the worst movies I think I’ve ever witnessed in my adult life.  I thought about blogging about it, in fact, but to do a good job of it I’d probably have to watch it again, and I just can’t suffer that much for my art, unless there’s really a demand for it from my audience.  For more objective context, I think it’s interesting that all the little user-generated lists that pop up on the right-hand menu bar for her IMDB page are lists of “bad directors.”

(2)  The answer to this question is that he is demonstrating his Otherness.  You know, in case you were still wondering.

(3)  Totally talking about the books here.  The choice between Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson is laughably the choice between Child on Steroids and Child Unwashed.  Barf.

(4)  I had heard and read the criticism that she was injecting religion into her story, but honestly, I don’t think it goes that far:  the issue of morality is not belabored any more than in any other thoughtful exploration of the Human Condition, and the question of whether Edward has a soul isn’t truly answered.

Victoria Love “Just Breathes” New Energy into a Long-Admired Music Career with Latest EP

I’m not a singer-songwriter, but listening to Victoria Love’s new EP makes me wish I were.

The cover of "Just Breathe" features Victoria Love herself.

Imagine taking Arabic rhythms and then twisting them slightly to the side.  Now fill the space with gothic-friendly vocals and a host of stringed instruments.  Give lyrics with familiar and relatable themes:  redemptive love, righteous indignation, artistic passion.  What you’ll find when the dust settles is Just Breathe, a haunting five-track disc that will make you want more even if this isn’t the sort of music you normally listen to.

Ever since I got this disc, I’ve been listening to it over and over.  It’s been on rotation in my car so often that I think my kids are starting to learn the words.  But I’ve also seen Victoria Love live in concert, many times over the years — the monthly Elle Acoustique show at the House of Blues in Houston is her brain-child — and one thing that I really like about Just Breathe is that the record complements the energy of the live performance, rather than the disc and the live show trying to be copies of each other.  This is refreshing.

One of the tracks, “Yours for the Taking,” begins stealthily.  I knew this song from her live shows for a while before I heard it recorded, and it was a new experience when I popped the disc in.  I thought of Trent Reznor, but not in his usual aspect; now he was being seduced by an industrial/tribal bellydancer.  A temporary situation, because she’d be abandoning him before the end of the song, and even though he’d be affected by it for a long while afterward, he wouldn’t have any regrets.

Maybe I’m letting my imagination run away with me?  I don’t know.  The thing about this music is that the sound is so full, it’s easy to recede into it, to let the layers of instrumentation — including exquisitely supportive violin, cello, bass — pile on top of you while your subconscious plays around with the vocals.  It’s a singularly fun experience to lose yourself in it for a while.

Love has, frankly, a beautiful voice.  And her lyrics have depth, subtlety — just enough to make even a reserved person want to sing along out loud — but there’s nothing obscure about what she’s singing.  The effects on the plugged-in tracks are tasteful, not at all overpowering.  They add to the mood rather than conspicuously announce their presence, a balance which can be difficult for some artists to achieve.  I rather enjoy that the last verse of “Needs” is actually “sung” by an electric guitar, as if the instrument were taking over for the singer.  (When you hear the song, you’ll understand.  In fact, you’ll probably understand a lot.)  The acoustic bonus tracks are a real delight.

If you keep up with my Facebook page, you’ll note that I posted some of her songs there.  I can’t wait for the full-length album.

See videos, hear music clips, buy the EP, and generally find out more about this artist and Elle Acoustique (a non-profit which seeks to promote musical education for women and girls of all ages) on her website:  http://www.VictoriaLoveMusic.com

Hallowe’en Routines

My son awakened me the other day, his beautiful blonde dumpling noggin very close to mine at the side of my bed, saying, “Mommy, I didn’t have an accident.  I need fruit snacks.”

It was still dark outside.  It was so dark, in fact, that the sun wouldn’t be rising for a couple more hours.  Groggily I registered this fact, and then reflected on the relative merits of pushing the kids’ bedtime back a little bit so they wouldn’t wake up so early.

“Mommy, fruit snacks,” he continued, reminding me of the bribe we’ve offered him for not wetting the bed.  (And yes, that method is the current expert opinion.)  “Mommy, please.  I didn’t have an accident.”

“Okay, sweetie, just a minute,” I said.  “I’m proud of you for staying dry.”

“Me too.  Can I have my fruit snacks now?  I even got myself dressed.”

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them, thought I bet I’m going to need glasses soon, and then finally saw that he was in fact dressed for school.  Even his little leather belt was around his waist.  It was over his untucked shirt instead of through his belt loops, but we’ll take that.

By now Daddy was awake, too, and lauding our little man on his morning’s accomplishments.  Our son is four years old, and these little milestones are a big and welcome deal, one that, in the not-too-distant past, we felt like we wouldn’t ever see.

I rolled out of bed and paddled down to the kitchen to get the fruit snacks, rewarded him, and then decided it was in fact late enough for me to be up and in the shower.  The morning routine commenced, and I was grateful it didn’t start with whiny, sleep-deprived children resisting the sullen call of the Wake-Up-For-School Fairy (also known as a cranky parent who really could have had another three or four hours of sleep, too, thanks very much).

They say that, when training one’s very young children, three days of a consistent pattern establishes a routine.  So sleep training and potty training and brush-your-teeth training and stories and songs at bedtime, as well as a host of other things, need only three days or nights in a row to become habit.  This is delightful rhetoric, an optimistic forecast that many parents will probably laugh at in hindsight.

As much as I enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity in my life, I have to admit I am a creature of habit, one who appreciates routine and order, even if I’m not great at maintaining them myself.  Routine and order are predictable, stable, familiar.  They are a safeguard against anxiety.  They make enormous tasks conquerable.  They give us something to hold onto when our lives go spiraling out of control.

* * *

Hallowe’en is one of my favorite holidays — second, in fact, only to Christmas.  I consider it the official kick-off to the holiday season, the very best time of year.  In the autumn, the weather is better, everything feels festive, the semester is winding down to its glorious end, and people in general are more generous and kind and happy.

Yes, of course I’m generalizing.  I’m sweeping broad strokes across my palette of existence.  This leaves me able to appreciate the specific details of every holiday season in a fresh way, since those details tend to shift around in surprising little moments.  Most of the time they are happy or pleasant at least.  And yes, “real life” still intrudes sometimes.  But if I pan out from the scene and look from a wide angle, I will see that life is very good, and I will count my blessings and be grateful.  I don’t want to forget to do that, though it can be easy to do so in the crazy-hectic routine of every day.

* * *

When I was in eighth grade, my social circle consisted of very few people.  There were a couple of other kids in my class at school whom I was sometimes friends with, but mostly I was dramatically unpopular.  I had been at that awful school since kindergarten, and although I’d had friends in the elementary grades, over the years they’d moved away, been held back a year, decided I was just too weird for them — whatever.  By eighth grade, all I could think about was graduating and moving on to high school.  Sure, most of the kids I had gone to junior high with would be there with me — the girls at least:  this was Catholic school, after all — but all the other Catholic grade schools in Houston and some of the public ones, too, would be feeding in as well, and so the potential for friendship would yawn wide like the Grand Canyon.

I did have two very good friends, however, though neither was my age and neither attended my school.  They were two of my first cousins, Meredith and Chuck.  Chuck was in sixth grade, Meredith in fourth, and because our large extended family tended to get together a lot on the weekends, I could reliably depend on something like a social life, and so the trauma of having to go to school every day where I was, for all intents and purposes, treated like a bug, was lessened a little bit.

On Hallowe’en, that year I was in eighth grade, my twelve-year-old cousin Chuck died.  It was unexpected.  He’d been in the hospital three days.  He’d been diagnosed earlier that week with what my mother referred to as “acute adult leukemia,” and then in the hospital he’d contracted strep throat.  That afternoon — it was a Saturday — they’d turned off his life support, and the shell of a precious boy who had once been my cousin was no more.

* * *

I would spend the next six weeks crying myself to sleep, unable to articulate to anyone what I was going through, but the days following the death were undoubtedly horrendous for everyone.  I remember the tortured face of my Great-Aunt Mary, leading the San Antonio contingent, climbing the steps to my cousins’ front porch with arms flung open to embrace my grieving uncle.  I remember Sister Jane, the principal of the high school I would be attending next year, coming over because Chuck’s older sister was already in ninth grade there, and Sister Jane knew it was her duty to come.

The monsignor at my school, Father James Dinkins, did not come to my house, or to my cousin’s house.  At the All Saints’ Day Mass Monday morning, his homily in front of the entire school was about an experience he’d had as an adolescent, when his twelve-year-old cousin had died of leukemia.  I remember nothing else about his sermon except that it seemed strange he would have had any experience like mine, and I assumed he was making it all up, straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, directing his homily at me without making eye contact, without offering me or my family a word of direct support, even though we’d been in the parish for years longer than he had.  He appreciated my family’s tithes, that much I knew, but that was where the social contract ended.

That afternoon, he paid a visit to my eighth grade class, and after a few words of pleasant greeting with everyone in general and a little discussion about what everyone had done for Hallowe’en, he walked right up to my desk and said jovially, “I understand you had a very interesting weekend,” as if I’d gone white-water rafting or deer hunting for the first time.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” he asked.  I glanced at my teacher.  She looked taut, ready to spring into action, assuming her help would be needed or welcome, or permitted.  The priest was between her and me.  I shifted in my desk.

“My cousin died,” I said.

“What was that?” he asked, leaning his ear over.  I could detect whispers in the room around me.

I cleared my throat.  “My cousin died.  He was twelve.  He had leukemia.”

“Oh, that’s very interesting,” Father Dinkins said, standing straight again.  I excused myself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for a while.  When I returned, he was still chatting pleasantly with the class, no doubt about something dogmatic and theological.  He and I did not make eye contact again.  I heard from my parents later that when the news of our family’s tragedy broke, our pastor said, “The Jamails are a big family.  They will console themselves.”

* * *

I didn’t know how to mourn something so profound as the death of one of my best friends.  I quit playing the piano and even stopped, for a while, writing stories.  I began wearing black on the weekends.  I tried to find as many pictures of my cousin as possible to make a collage for my room until my mother scolded me not to build a shrine.  Everyone was sad, my grandmother explained, enfolding me in a hug and telling me I needed to stop crying.

At school a couple of boys who sat next to me in science class asked me, “Are you mourning?”

I nodded my head.  “Yes, I am.”

“Are you nighttime?”  Their punchline, hilarious to them, stung me just the way it was supposed to, and I swallowed my grief down, understanding that it was not a safe thing to show.

Eventually, what saved me from a crippling sadness was stoic routine.  I had things to do.  Tests to study for.  A school newspaper column to write.  Essay contests and spelling bees to win.  That grade school to put behind me as I embarked on a hopeful time, high school.  Eventually, life continued on at its genial pace, and all the grief I and my entire family was feeling got tucked away into the corners of our traditions, one more new wrinkle to incorporate.

* * *

I got back to celebrating Hallowe’en slowly at first.  Even though I still dressed up and participated in parties and trick-or-treating, it was a long time before I could look at my candy bucket and not remember the handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that had been dropped into my cousin’s casket with him by his classmates.  I spent about a decade letting my grief for him be the go-to sadness I defaulted to when I was feeling depressed, the thing I most remembered when someone else died, the gravitas that I, as a young adolescent, could not shake and which fed my Otherness.

I’ve never been much of a drinker.  The only time I’ve ever drunk alone was on what would have been Chuck’s twenty-first birthday.  I had just broken up with a boyfriend whom I should have kicked to the curb six months before.  He wasn’t dealing well with the break-up and wanted really badly to be friends.  I went to a pub and ordered myself dinner and an imposing pint of Ace Pear in honor of my cousin.  The boy I’d just dumped showed up at the tail end of it, invading my solitude, and I let him listen to stories about my cousin.  He looked eager and supportive and hopeful.  I told him good-bye and left him at the table without even a glance over my shoulder.

Later, at home, I launched myself into my routine, locking my grief back into the recesses of my heart for what I hoped would be the last painful time.

* * *

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my cousin died, and here I am writing about it — which I hadn’t really intended to do when I sat down to write today.  Hallowe’en is a big holiday at my house now.  And in my immediate family.  Again.  My parents picked the holiday back up once I had children of my own.  Traditions, you know.  Comfortable, familiar habits.  Costumes, candy, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of treats that will bring the little ones joy.

We put out decorations every year:  witches, spiders, pumpkins with knowing grins.  And always ghosts, the representation of our collective fears and hopes about the afterlife.  We traipse around on what the old religions tell us is the night when the veil between the worlds — those of the living and the dead — is the thinnest.  We light candles.  We don’t tell the kids they can’t eat candy before bedtime and with breakfast the next morning.  We watch Tim Burton movies.  We dress ourselves in costumes, costumes, costumes.  My girlfriends are I wear pointy hats to tea.

And then we put it all away until next year. We focus on Thanksgiving.  The guest list, the order at the butcher’s market.  The sculpted turkey with a double-fan scrollwork tail I put on the mantel for decoration.  The ceramic pumpkin tureen and little pumpkin bowls which will hold my famous creamy pumpkin soup in just a few short weeks.  And the discussions with my husband over what we’re going to get the kids for Christmas this year.  The ghosts recede, and this too is their habit.

Ah, routine.