Sunday, December 30, 2012

eleven books, seven movies and one crappy, love-filled year

I just opened the beat-up little notebook where I write down all the movies I see, to ponder what might make my Best of 2012 list. Instead I flipped to a page where I’d written “ovary removal timeline.” So that tells you most of what you need to know about my 2012.

That said, surgery (on the boobs—the ovaries will have to be a New Year’s resolution) went really well. As I’ve been telling anyone who asks how I’m doing, the same genes that gave me cancer and anxiety also gave me flexible pectoral muscles. So while I feared weeks of needing help wiping my ass, the pain was more along the lines of a really rough work-out at the gym, and I found myself saving my Percocet for when I had cramps a few days later. (No more of that once the ovaries are out—woo-hoo?)

Also, and more importantly, four different tests to look for lymph node metastasis came back negative. The cancer appears to be confined to one giant-ass tumor—I’m looking for a point of comparison size-wise, but I refuse to choose a fruit, because all the pregnancy websites tell you when your fetus is the size of a blueberry, a lime, etc., and the metaphoric implications of what grew inside me instead are already too painful.

So we’ll call it a summer squash, which I hate. Or an iPhone. Or a fist and a half. It was unnervingly big, although they say size doesn’t matter…too much. It was something that could have only hidden in my or Christina Hendricks’ boobs.

I'm sure my tumor would look all cool and arty posed on an antique bench too.

But it’s no longer in me. So it’s possible that I no longer have cancer, and that’s the story I’m going to stick with, although soon I’ll begin six rounds of chemo to make sure. And I might have to do radiation to make extra sure. Those things are daunting, but I’m trying to think of them as just really grueling errands.

People say losing your breasts is tragic, and I felt fully prepared to be freaked out by my temporarily nipple-less body, but so far I’m not. I’m a little wistful when I think about the old ones, but it’s a general wistfulness for a (slightly) more innocent time. I find my boobs-in-progress tidy and interesting and full of possibility.

People (or at least a recent episode of Modern Family, to which AK and I gave the finger) say that getting pregnant is easy and raising kids is the hard part.

I think sometimes people are wrong. I’m not saying raising kids is easy. But since I’ve spent the past few years wrestling with why supposedly-easy things are sometimes so hard for me, I’m going to take solace when hard things occasionally turn out easy(ish). Maybe chemo will be one of them?

And although the past week and a half has been a little heavier on TLC’s Freaky Eaters than I would have liked, and a little lighter on editing my novel and watching classic films, I’m still taking solace in books and movies. Here are my favorites—not necessarily the “best,” but the ones that spoke to me the most. They, and a few wonderful people, got me through 2012.

This cover is pretty great. The book is all about shadows and doubling.
Eleven favorite books:
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
2500 Random Things About Me Too by Matias Viegener
Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst
Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

Honorable mention: Heartburn by Nora Ephron, The Infinite Wait by Julia Wertz, Five Skies by Ron Carlson

Befriend the beast. It's the only way.
Seven favorite movies:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Face 2 Face
The Queen of Versailles
Jeff Who Lives at Home
Moonrise Kingdom

Friday, December 14, 2012

credit, blame and feline dental hygiene

1. heavy objects

On Tuesday I looked at my day planner and saw that I’d written “no food or water after midnight.” I was confused. I’m not having surgery until the 19th (send good vibes that day, everyone!). Apparently I’m supposed to lay off booze and other blood thinners for a week prior—which really puts a damper on holiday cocktail parties—but food and water?

Then I realized this applied to Ferdinand. I’d made an appointment for him to get his teeth cleaned as part of my long Get Shit Done While I Can Still Lift Heavy Objects to-do list. So I ruthlessly denied him the meal known around our house as Second Dinner and drove him to our beloved ghetto vet in Lincoln Heights the next morning.

Ferdinand's gleaming smile. Sort of.
When I picked him up, the veterinary assistant—a woman I really like, because she’s friendly and smart and quick to hand out info sheets on how to read your cat’s blood work—said, “He did great. No extractions, just a lot of tartar.”

“Not bad for nine years old,” I said. “Especially since he’s never had his teeth cleaned before.”

“Wow, he’s nine?” she said. “A lot of cats who are four or five years old come in and need a bunch of extractions.”

I felt a small, misplaced sense of pride in Ferd’s superior mouth, as if I’d convinced him to floss every night. Mostly, though, I was glad to avoid the $15 per tooth extraction charge and a week of forcing antibiotics down his throat.

“I guess he has good genes,” I said.

“Does he let you brush his teeth?” she asked.

“No…well, we haven’t really tried.”

“Well,” she said, closing out my payment. “You must be doing something right.”

I wanted to argue with her: No! We’ve done nothing right when it comes to Ferd’s dental hygiene! Don’t you understand that some things are just genetic? Sometimes you can do everything right—or, like, ninety percent of things right—and exercise and avoid soy and maintain a healthy body weight except for the occasional writing residency where they serve pie every night and still get breast cancer in your thirties!

2. the psychology and economics of cheese

The other day, I read this essay by Melissa Petro, which also happens to be about visiting the dentist, but is mostly about the baggage of growing up poor. The dentist at the discount clinic tells her that $70 is not a lot of money for a cleaning, and she should save up.

Elsewhere in the story, she admits that, while she still earns a very low income in her adult life, she buys fancy cheese at Whole Foods, among other upper-middle-class indulgences. I couldn’t help but think that a few wedges of brie could add up to $70 pretty fast, and the dentist had a point. I thought that because I grew up middle-class, raised by parents who had their financial priorities in order: Invest in preventative medicine, education and real estate. Eat at home, buy clothes at Target and the Salvation Army, and take vacations to state parks.

But part of being poor is knowing that things like owning a home are probably permanently off limits, so why not eat the good cheese and enjoy life today? The future is precarious, so what’s the point of constantly investing in it? I can imagine that being told by a smug professional how to spend your money would hit a nerve. That’s Melissa Petro’s thing, the way the myth of health-related blame or credit is mine.

I used to take pride in my own good teeth. I floss and use a Sonicare. But while I’ve only had like three cavities in my life, I’ve also had bad gums since my mid-twenties. If I’m going to take credit for the teeth, I have to accept blame for the gums.

Once a hygienist told me that most people have problems with either their teeth or their gums, depending on the ph balance of their mouths. So now my philosophy about life is that if one thing doesn’t fuck you, something else will.

I don’t think anyone would file this under Positive Attitude, but it’s actually quite liberating. Lately I’ve been tossing back leafy greens and legumes while declaring, “It’s all voodoo, but it makes me feel a false sense of control.” A few people have pointed out that healthy eating is not voodoo, and obviously I must buy it on some level—hence the kale, which even Pitfire Pizza’s expert veggie chefs can’t make taste good.

This rabbit doesn't have breast cancer. Science must be true!
But I also know that my desperate kale consumption isn’t so different from trying to diet away my sexuality when I was fifteen. In a few months, I dropped to 107 pounds, stopped getting my period, grew a layer of peach fuzz on my lower back and received nothing but compliments from the bikini-obsessed citizens of Manhattan Beach. Later that year (and for the next few), I ate boxes of fat-free devil’s food cookies at a sitting and drank canned milk without diluting it and tried to cloak my sexuality in layers of fat. The guidance counselor called me into her office and asked if I was pregnant. A couple of my teachers had noticed how fast I’d gained weight.

Being skinny didn’t make me not gay. Being fat didn’t make me not gay.

I don’t think I’d be able to go on if I didn’t believe in some kind of free will or self-determination, but it’s not nearly as expansive as most Americans like to think, what with our eighty-five choices of peanut butter and two choices of political parties. I’m trying to accept that even if my fate isn’t pre-determined, the factors that will eventually determine it aren’t really up to me. I’m trying and sometimes failing. But even if dairy is probably bad for hormone-receptive breast cancers, I’m eating the good cheese. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

my strange addiction to my strange addiction

I started bingeing on Mad Men a few months ago and finished season four, the last Netflix has to offer, Tuesday night. I love the show for all the reasons critics do—the writing, the exquisite muted painting that is each art-directed frame. All the characters simultaneously perpetuate and are broken by the worst of what mid-century America has to offer. There’s a great scene in which sexpot Joan and career girl Peggy smoke a cigarette and finally admit to each other that they work with a bunch of pigs who take them for granted. But it’s not just the girls who have it bad—Don has the instincts of a good man, but he’s always pushing them down with his desire to be the cool guy in the fedora.

But the real reason I like the show is because everyone is so wonderfully unhappy. Advertising preys not only on people’s existential dissatisfaction, but on their insecurity as well—their belief that just beyond the gate, other people are happy. All the fucking time. And that gate is a Lucky Strike cigarette or a pair of Topaz pantyhose. And the proof of the lie of advertising is the entirety of Mad Men. I watch it as my own antidote to the world of forced happiness.

Cigarettes: the perfect prop for your existential dissatisfaction.
But then I was done. AK came in and went to sleep and I could not. So I retrieved her headphones and opened my laptop again.

My Strange Addiction is no Mad Men. It’s not even American Idol. Like all TLC shows, it’s one step up from a snuff film. But, like Mad Men, it promises me that things are not just peachy for everyone, and I’m a sucker for that message, as uncomfortable as my schadenfreude makes me.

For the uninitiated, every episode profiles two people with odd, compulsive habits. It’s more about compulsion than addiction, despite the title. Inevitably, one of the people eats weird shit: household cleaner (Comet, judging by the green can whose label they never show), hair follicles, couch cushions. The other person might lay in a tanning bed three times a day or bleach her skin twenty times or own two hundred pairs of shoes.

Lately I’ve been torn between wanting to get the most out of each day and wanting to collapse into an exhausted heap. There’s no bigger waste of time than shutting yourself in the bathroom for two hours to pull out your own hair or pick at your scabs, but sometimes the world outside that small safe place is even less appealing.

"Scratch-Free" does not apply to your teeth.
As I told Andrew at work the next morning, “There but for the grace of something go I. I mean, if my parents had gotten divorced the same summer my cousin turned me on to eating couch cushions, I probably would have consumed seven couches by now too.”

The show sends everyone to a therapist and ends with an epilogue, usually along the lines of “Lauren is still part of the Furry community and doesn’t think she has a problem. But she tries to go out in public without her mask on sometimes.” (Personally, I thought someone should have steered Lauren toward a career in costume design. She was talented, and if someone had pointed it out, her self-esteem might not have been so low as to require her to hide inside a giant pink fox suit every time she wanted to go bowling.)

They are all sort of “working on it.” And doing a lot of backsliding, with the exception of the Comet-eater, who demonstrates the willpower you might imagine from someone capable of regularly swallowing bleach.

Although there is a guy who eats glass, a party trick that gets out of control, most of the people profiled are women. It’s a generalization to say that women turn their pain inward and men turn it outward, but it’s one I sort of buy. Dude eats light bulbs to shock his friends. Girl surreptitiously eats handfuls of couch foam from her purse at stoplights.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

some thoughts on gender, boobs and belly fat

I stand by my promise not to turn this into Cheryl’s Cancer Blog, but I do have to share one of the weirder and funnier parts of this process so far: my visit to Dr. L, plastic surgeon. (Why does he get just an initial? I don’t have anything really bad to say about him, but in case any of my doctors Google themselves in their minimal spare time, I don’t want the surgical equivalent of a waiter spitting in my food, you know?)

Although I mentioned the exciting prospect of new boobs in my last post, I feel compelled to add that reconstruction shouldn’t be a given. One of Meehan’s friends was disturbed that doctors always mentioned plastic surgery before her health. And I just read this post over at I Blame the Patriarchy, about the compulsive feminization of women, breast cancer survivors like the blogger herself included.

But I’m getting new ones, even though Dr. L informed me they’ll have pretty much no feeling, which is totally unnerving (literally—ha!), because I want to look nice in clothes designed for girls. It’s that simple.

And not simple at all, of course. Given that my forthcoming chemo will be hormone-based and will shut down my ovaries, and that I have the BRCA-2 gene mutation and therefore a hysterectomy in my near future to lower my risk of ovarian cancer, and my body has already demonstrated itself to be ambivalent about getting/staying pregnant, any biological femininity I have is somewhat under attack.

Luckily I came of age in a community that believes biology is not destiny. Although of course all of this is happening because of my genes, so biology is some kind of destiny—just hopefully not the only one. If my trans friends can be intrinsically male or female regardless of their body parts, I hope I can be too. Right now I’m feeling kinda FTMTF.

This post was supposed to be about my wacky visit to Dr. L, but I seem to have digressed into philosophy and melancholy.

A nurse (receptionist? both? I wasn’t sure) took the first topless photo of my life; I stood in a very unsexy “before” pose with my arms at forty-five-degree angles. Then I put on a cheap silky gown embroidered with Dr. L’s logo, and Dr. L himself—who has maybe had a little work done around the eyes—came in and showed me dozens of pictures of before and after boobs.

There are way more types of boobs in this world than the movies or my limited sexual adventures prepared me for. And that’s just the befores. The afters were fine—plastic surgery is pretty advanced—although some of the in-betweens were a little rough. Not because they were hideous, not even because they had scars instead of nipples. Just because they were bodies that spoke to transition and hard times.

I’ve had hard times that were entirely invisible, and like a teenager who slices up her arms, the prospect of making pain visible is not entirely unappealing to me, even if the eventual goal is looking good in a halter top.

Given my type of cancer and my type of body, Dr. L recommended implants rather than “flap” surgery (was there ever a less appealing name?), in which they make boobs out of your stomach fat. He might need to borrow a little muscle from my back to protect one of the implants from possible radiation, he said, and I imagined a fig wrapped in prosciutto. But I was too thin for flap surgery, he said.

Implants as appetizer.

The breast cancer world is one of the few in which I’m repeatedly told I’m young and, now, thin. It feels stupid to be flattered by such things—I’m getting treated precisely so I can get old—but I’ll take whatever I can get these days.

“You’re very thin,” he kept saying.

It’s true that lately I’ve been on the Anxiety Diet, which is the exact opposite of the MacDowell diet, but I told him, “You say that, and it’s nice to hear, but I think I have a belly.”

When he finally opened my gown and looked at me topless, he grabbed a hunk of belly and said thoughtfully, “I could probably make a large B-cup out of that.”

Cathy pointed out that his comment was not unlike those of T-Mec’s vet in the strange-gauging-of-women’s-bodies category, although Dr. L wasn’t quite such a whackjob. We quickly returned to the implants option, though, because it’s less invasive and I want to be a C-cup, mainly so the rest of my body doesn’t suddenly look huge in relation to my boobs. Maybe I should be glad that people, even doctors, can’t figure me out just by seeing me with my clothes on.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

nothing says “back to reality” like some cancer!

1. who you gonna call

In a couple of sessions with my therapist about my ever waxing and waning hypochondria, I said, “I know I’m paranoid. But sometimes paranoid people are being followed!”

The last time I said that to him was Election Day, when I was worrying about my annual breast exam that coming Friday. He said, “That’s maybe the worst phrase you’ve said.” We laughed.

But reader, sometimes paranoid people are being followed.

Friday I went in for my exam. They told me they wanted to biopsy a couple of spots. I had a meltdown. A nice nurse said, “Is there someone you can call?”

I launched into a hysterical summary of the past two years of my life: “…and then I had a miscarriage and I was so depressed and angry for so long, and everyone I knew was so nice, and I know they love me, but I’ve used them up. I can’t take one more problem to them.”

“You haven’t used them up,” she said. “Call.”

She also said, of course, that lots of biopsies turn up not-cancer, but I knew I wouldn’t be one of them. And I wasn’t.

2. the signifier becomes the signified. or something. i don’t remember my derrida.

In case that seems like a lot of double negatives, let me be clear: I have breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma, right breast, two fat tumors and a few “in situ” waiting like evil little time bombs, no lymph node action, stage two (I’m told this is still early, although it sounds scary as hell). These details become very important very quickly. So do a lot of details I haven’t learned yet, like what kind of receptors there are on my cancer cells. But I feel pretty sure that I have an aggressive form because 1) they’re more common in young women and 2) my luck has not been excellent lately.

Point #2 is a tricky thing. Say you spend a year of your life convincing yourself that all the diseases you’re sure are creeping through your body (MS, Lupus, Parkinson’s, breast cancer, colon cancer, this weird pregnancy cancer that actually exists, mouth cancer, neck cancer) are simply signs that you’re depressed and feeling like your body betrayed you by losing your babies. Now say one of those symbols is actually a thing itself. Now your body and mind have betrayed you.

Does Monsieur Derrida know smoking causes cancer?

I can’t really wrap my head around how I’m supposed to think now, or what anything means, if anything means anything at all.

As my friend Kathy put it when I told her the news, “Oh Cheryl, you really don’t need another opportunity for personal growth.”

3. free tits with purchase

I agree! The personal growth I’ve done thus far is serving me well: I haven’t Googled anything like “breast cancer survival rates” (I happen to know it’s 35 in 36, which is not so bad, but my chances of getting this in my thirties were one in 233, so I never know what to make of statistics). I’ve leaned on AK (who has been wonderful, ready with her new cancer notebook like an ace reporter) without dragging her into my spiral of bad self-esteem, which I’ve learned really hurts her. I’ve managed to distract myself for significant periods of time and to focus when it’s time to focus.

But that’s just the first week. I know how these things go. The ups and downs. But I also know—and AK and I keep reminding ourselves—that this is not the ol’ Miscarriage of 2011. This is it’s own thing. We’re different people now, or at least we’re people who know ourselves better.

I’m not afraid of losing my boobs. Actually, I welcome it. I asked my therapist if I’m like one of those people who secretly wants to amputate a limb, but he said no, not if I’m looking forward to fake tits, which I am. I think it’s only fair (“fair”—don’t you love that useless fucking word?) that any shitty experience comes with a free gift, and personal growth isn’t going to cut it in this case. I want smallish, perky tits that let me wear strapless dresses for the first time in my life. I want to go jogging without wearing two sports bras. I want to not look like Jabba the Hutt in photos that cut me off mid-boob.

I might have a cuter smile....
...but do you see the sloping mountain effect?
I’m not afraid of surgery or puking from chemo. I’m kind of afraid of losing my hair, but Nicole swears by this thing her cousin used called the ChemoCap that basically cuts off circulation to your head and keeps the chemicals out.

I’m totally afraid of uncertainty and recurrences and people treating me like a walking reminder of their own mortality. I’m afraid of watching everyone else’s life march forward in spectacular fashion while I fight for my own.

4. make a wish

AK and I have made a conscious decision to proceed with plans for the future. I love that she is willing to be a little reckless with me. My hot Russian doctor looked at my MRI report and said, “This eez not cancer dat keelz you.” Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume our plans aren’t just some sort of Make-A-Wish Foundation fantasy, where everyone’s all, “Oh, it’s so cute that she thinks she’s going to grow up and marry Justin Bieber. It’s so heartbreaking that she thinks she’s going to grow up.”

Just because he looks like a lesbian doesn't mean I want to marry him.
I don’t view the future like I used to—and I don’t mean Before Cancer, I mean Before Infertility/Miscarriage—as a simple matter of planning and hard work. I (and Tig Notaro) know that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time, and when you’ve half stumbled to your feet, it can get yanked again. But I still believe in hard work and planning, if not their infallibility. Doing things other than moping and worrying makes me feel like I’m like the rest of y’all.

It’s easy to feel isolated from the living, for so many reasons, and I can feel it creeping up behind me, whispering that books and a kid and new furniture are the stuff of other, more special people. But this time I’m not going to fucking let it in. I’m going to slam its leg in the door and slam a shot of Jack Daniels if that’s what it takes.

5. your mission, should you choose to accept it

So there’s my call to battle.* Already, my family and friends have heeded theirs, even though they’re tired and busy and retraumatized by all of this. AK with her notebook. My dad and sister, who dropped everything and drove up Monday night without even asking me. Nicole with her endless reassuring facts and unfortunate knowledge of all things breast cancer, since that’s what got her mom a few years ago, and her willingness to indulge my obsessive-ness. Meehan with her walktails (= cocktails in a travel mug) and relentless determination to be my friend, even when I’m like, “Really? Why would you want to do that?”

And all the people who’ve texted and emailed and prayed for me and offered to introduce me to their cancer-survivor friend.

(Everyone has a cancer-survivor friend, just like everyone has a friend who miscarried or a gay friend who adopted. It’s hard being part of yet another involuntary club, because you feel like you should have this kinship, but everyone’s story is a little different. So I can read a lovely essay by a woman who survived cancer at thirty-four and just feel like, “Yeah, but hers was stage zero.” Or someone who miscarried and got pregnant three months later. And then I’m lonely all over again.)

But I do want to know that there are a lot of women who are alive and well years after cancer. And eventually I may want to meet some of them. Maybe you’re one of them. I hope to join your ranks. So keep the stories and offers coming, and forgive me if I’m a little moody and flaky these days. But whatever you do, don’t send me anything pink.

Against cancer, for heart disease. Let's remember that Chick-fil-A is not the only villain, shall we?

*Throughout said battle, I plan to blog only minimally about this. I’m doing a lot of writing about it, and there’s totally an I’m an Infertile Lesbian who Miscarried Twins, Had Marital Problems and Got Breast Cancer book in here somewhere. (Agents take note!) But 1) I’m focusing on ensuring a happy ending that is not fiction, which takes some behind-the-scenes work, and 2) I’ve learned the hard way that spewing it all, all the time, doesn’t serve me or AK well. I know you’re dying to hear whether my cancer cells have HER2 receptors, but I’m going to keep blogging about books and shit too.

Monday, November 05, 2012

back to life, back to reality

My actual lunch basket. Ridiculous, I know.
I’m leaving MacDowell in a few hours. I turned in my key and paid my tab for laundry and postcards. I said goodbye to people, which was the suckiest part—I’m really going to miss the friends I’ve made here, and although we can say things like “I’ll totally come visit you in Berlin!” we all know there’s no substitute for living in the same half-mile radius and eating dinner together every night.

There’s a writer who was trapped in New York for a week because of the hurricane, whom I didn’t get to know very well. He said sarcastically, “Wow, it was great to get to know you so well. All those late-night chats.” That was not the best kickoff to my last day. I always felt like I was boring him when we did talk, and I sort of wanted to say, “Late night chats with me are awesome, dude. Your loss.”

I had a little meltdown last night in the privacy of my studio. As most of you guys know, I’ve had a hard couple of years. Not catastrophic, not even bad in many ways. Just hard, at a time when so many of my peers seem to really be getting their shit together. Many times, I thought, I just want someone to take care of me. And someone did—multiple someones, multiples times—but what I really wanted was the total cared-for-ness of childhood.

Here, I sort of got that for three weeks. I didn’t have to report to work or cook food or even buy food. I didn’t have to wonder who I was going to hang out with. I just had to write. Writing isn’t easy—there were days I wrote scenes that made me break down sobbing and days I had no idea how to fix structural problems—but for once everything else was conspiring to make the writing as easy as possible. When there were problems, it was someone else’s job to come up with a solution. Hurricane? Why don’t you just stay in this beautiful old mansion for the night. Here are some clean towels and a Wi-Fi password.

Now it’s back to solving my own problems—with help, of course, albeit help from people who have plenty of their own problems. That’s how the world works, and how it should be, and I’m dying to cuddle with AK and Team Gato and see my friends and family. But the part where my only problems were the ones my characters were having? The part where I got to be my best, most carefree self instead of my real self? That I’m going to miss for a long time.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

bark and fungus, improvisation and bones

Okay, I guess they don't look that much like anemic zebras.
The hurricane blew the leaves off most of the trees, which makes the birch trunks, with their anemic-zebra bark, stand out. Yesterday a man came by with a leaf blower and blew the leaves from one part of the meadow to another. If you want to talk about work that’s never done, watch a guy with a leaf blower tackle three hundred acres.

One of the visual artists invited me to come see her studio this afternoon, since I’ll be leaving before she gives the official tour. She’s been enjoying the birch bark too. She does a lot of site-specific work with found objects. Those are the kind of terms—site-specific, found objects—that lose meaning quickly when you overuse them. In this case it means her work is her studio and her studio is her work. She’s staying in Alexander, an old stone building that looks like a chapel. Initially, she said, all its fussy parts threw her off: the big bulletin boards, the arched doorways, the twin bed with the green blanket.

Then she hung empty wooden frames—stretchers without canvas—and started filling them with little things she brought from her home in Mexico City and found here. Rocks, chunks of asphalt, a fungus blossom. Birch branches. She connected the holes in the bulletin board with wire and made constellations. She drew one line drawing of a rock each day and date-stamped it. Each rock is lined up proudly next to its portrait along the forest-facing window.

“The bed is starting to call to me,” she said, a little worried. She wasn’t sleepy; it wanted her to make something out it. “It’s just right there, so long and….”

Her work is very improvisational. It’s a different way of life. Say you drive into Keene with her and have to be back by two. There’s a very good chance you might miss your Skype date, because look, there’s a yarn shop and she’s always wanted to learn to knit.

But when you see the sensual interplay between textures in her studio—the photos of paint splatters, the stone rubbings, the big flakes of lead she collected from the crumbling roof of a nearby studio—you kind of want to see what she could do with a ball of yarn.

All of this could add up to a scrapheap, but the beauty of it is the organization. She likes to think of her work as a “cabinet of curiosities,” and it’s as much about the cabinet as the curiosities. It told her that walking into her studio felt like walking into a map. (Not coincidentally, she’s been tracing pieces of bark on the wall, and the result looks like an archipelago.) You feel intrigued and calmed at the same time.

I asked her if she had a plan. It sounded sort of wonderful to just wake up every day and go trolling for funky-looking sticks. Also a little scary.

“I came here to work on paintings, but my canvas hasn’t arrived in the mail yet, so I do this,” she said. “For now, I see what happens. But after a while, not having a plan, I begin to feel very anxious. So then maybe it’s good to have a plan. I don’t get too lost. But I’ve been doing this for many years. I know that even when you’re lost, you find things there too.”

Okay, so it wasn’t so different from writing a novel after all: You improvise until you can’t stand not having a plan. Then you build some frames to hang your improvisations on. Sometimes you have to dismantle the frames and start over.

“Even we have frames,” she pointed out. “Our bones.”

I left her studio feeling inspired to write or draw or hang a chip of slate from a binder clip on my wall, just like her. I’m so glad MacDowell is interdisciplinary. Sometimes I learn more from hearing how other artists approach their work than writers—there are just enough differences and similarities. I miss the rest of my life, at least the people and cats, but I’m also going to miss its absence, and all the things that have filled in the space.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the lady and the legacy

Precursor to the garage band.
Power is still out at my studio, so last night one of the staff members invited me and an equally powerless nonfiction writer to stay in Hillcrest, the MacDowells’ old farmhouse house at the top of the hill. Now it’s where they put up board members and fancy visiting artists. The place is a bit of a labyrinth. There’s a story about Edward Albee getting turned around, stumbling through a sort of closet/tunnel thing and ending up in Michael Chabon’s bedroom, where he was lying around in his underwear.

Hillcrest is huge—I think there are at least eight bedrooms—but cozy because it was built for nineteenth century farmers, who were apparently all about 5’ 3”.

The staff member herded a big group of us into Edward MacDowell’s music room, which has been kept as the MacDowells left it. There’s embossed wallpaper, a grand piano, walls of bookshelves, beams that don’t quite meet and a draught that circles your ankles like a cat. Imagine if you converted your garage into a Victorian parlor, and you’ll get the idea.    

She screened a 1956 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called Lady in the Wings, a Marian MacDowell-approved biopic about the early days of the colony. Mrs. MacDowell spends a lot of time telling people that she’s no artist, she just wants to feed and house her husband and his brilliant peers. The movie celebrates female self-sacrifice, but most scenes end with characters gazing admiringly at Mrs. MacDowell as she embarks on a new tour or fundraising project. So it celebrates independence and enterprise in the same breath.

It was live television, so every scene is shot from the same distance, the passage of time is shown via a hand haphazardly tearing off calendar pages and the big 1938 hurricane scene is represented by a chunk of wood landing in front of Mrs. MacDowell.

We all laughed at glossed-over aspects of artistic life, like when Mr. MacDowell gets a tenured teaching position at Columbia:

Academic Dude A: “Let’s hire a European.”

Academic Dude B: “What about that American fellow, Edward MacDowell?”

Academic Dude A: “Who is he?”

Academic Dude B: “Who’s Edward MacDowell?! Why, he wrote ‘To a Wild Rose’!”

Academic Dude A: “He did? Everyone knows that song! Write him at once and tell him he can teach at Columbia for the rest of his life!”

But then they showed actual footage of the old colony, which looks a lot like present-day MacDowell. There was the red dorm building. There were the lunch baskets being delivered by truck. Breakfast was at 7:30, dinner at 6:30, just like now.

Maybe it’s because I’m a West Coaster or a public school kid or gay, but I tend to be suspicious of traditions, especially the WASP-y variety, even as I have a certain longing to be part of them. I think the nice thing about MacDowell is that the legacy is held lightly—you can laugh at the clunky script even as your heart fills with affection at the sight of a lunch basket.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

it was a dark and stormy night

Terrified of their feelings for each other.
Last night one of the MacDowell staffers offered to drive everyone back to their studios around eight, but being here has infected me with a mild case of FOMO*, and I didn’t want to miss the screening of The Haunting that was about to begin, so I decided to sleep in Colony Hall rather than sit in my dark studio for hours.

Is watching a horror movie about a haunted mansion in the heart of leafy New England the best idea when I plan to spend the night by myself in a huge, creaky old building in leafy New Hampshire during a hurricane? What about when the hurricane keeps blowing the doors open while the doors in the movie rattle and undulate as if they’re alive?

Actually, it wasn’t the worst idea.

The movie—the original, from 1963-ish—is simultaneously campy and creepy and gay and Freudian. Claire Bloom plays a hot telepathic lesbian who wears mod clothes and hits on Julie Harris’s stressed-out Nell. Joined by the paternal doctor and the douchey heir also camped out at Hill House, they fluidly fill the roles left by the original family (patriarch, mother, stepmother, daughter, caretaker). There’s lots of relational stuff to ponder there. Also, there’s Julie Harris’s big eyes and crazy internal monologue.

I’d pictured a pseudo-slumber party in Colony Hall, but people cleared out and I spent a long time hemming and hawing about whether to borrow the air mattress of a musician here and set it up in her dorm or stick it out in Colony Hall, where there was more space and a generator. Everyone was very indulgent of my indecision, and AK talked me down from the beginnings of a creeped-out, anxious night.

Today it’s still rainy, my writing is still sorta aimless (although I had a good couple hours revising a short story) and I’m ready for another movie and some hot chocolate.

*Fear Of Missing Out

a now-obsolete post written shortly before hurricane sandy killed the internet

This morning my friend Colin, a lifelong Californian who’s doing a book tour on the East Coast right now, posted: “I’m so used to earthquakes that the idea of sitting around waiting for a disaster is really weird.”

At least, that’s the gist of what he said; power is out at MacDowell right now, so I can’t jump online to fact-check. New Hampshire is currently getting the tail end—or maybe it’s the head or elbow—of Hurricane Sandy.

As one of two Angelenos here, I’ve been repeating Colin’s words, although now that I think about it, waiting around for a disaster is exactly what I do, which is why I’m in so much damn therapy. And I don’t even have a really tip-top emergency kit to show for it; I just worry a lot.

This will be my first hurricane, which is kind of exciting, which is just the sort of thing someone who’s never been through a hurricane would say. If I’d been through several smallish ones, I would find them a pain in the ass and know how to do things like board up windows. If I’d been through a major one and lost my house or a loved one, I’d be bracing myself to be re-traumatized (the bracing itself being, in my case, a primary symptom of trauma).

It’s rainy and blustery outside, but as of twenty minutes ago, there was a deer peacefully munching wet meadow grass outside my window, so it might be a little early to call it a hurricane. (I was going to say “full-blown hurricane”; are hurricanes where we get “full-blown”?) Periodically, flocks of leaves lift up and fly through the open spaces. Mist hovers in clouds.

There’s kind of a party going on in Colony Hall’s dining room—I just heard someone toast to Hurricane Sandy—but I’m not feeling ready to make the transition from the quiet working hours to the social part of the day just yet. But I also didn’t want to be alone in my studio, so as soon as the lights flickered out, I packed up my laptop and books and booked it out of there. I also packed a toothbrush and jammies just in case I have to sleep on a sofa here in Colony Hall. And by “have to,” I mean “am too scared to hike five minutes through the forest back to my studio.”

Yesterday I finished my editing project…and by “finished” I mean, “made a bunch of fairly significant changes I feel good about, but who knows what the agent I’m sort of lit-flirting with will say.” That leaves me with a whole week to work on just-for-fun projects; so far that’s resulted in a few pages of a really aimless short story. But I’m giving myself permission to let aim emerge slowly. I’m also reading a book about contemporary Iranian culture, because one of the characters in my YA novel is Persian, and counting that as writing.

I don’t think most of what I’m reading will be very applicable to a sixteen-year-old Iranian American character living in L.A., but reading this book virtually guarantees that I’ll write a scene in which her parents share random facts about life before and after the revolution, only to edit it out later when it becomes clear I was just showing off my newly acquired random facts.

Rain is pouring off the roof in Raging Waters-style jet-streams. There’s one working outlet in this building, and a visual artist from Mexico City just inquired about setting up a really long extension cord. I have a hunch she’s about as equipped for winter weather as I am.

Friday, October 26, 2012

the acknowledgments page

A rare MacDowell Wolf.
Yesterday we hiked Mount Monadnock, which is apparently pronounced mon-ADD-nock, not MON-an-dock (which doesn’t even make sense, but that’s how I read it). A really funny screenwriter/filmmaker, a nonfiction writer whose parents once bought a house infested with scorpions (she had more animal stories where that came from) and another nonfiction writer, who is kind of a walking encyclopedia, but not in an annoying way.

One of the things the encyclopedia guy told us: The bald, rocky top of Mount Monadnock is not above the tree line, as it would appear. Rather, at the turn of the last century, local farmers were convinced that wolves were coming down from the top of the mountain and killing their livestock. They decided to show the wolves who was boss by setting fire to the woods repeatedly. Eventually the trees didn’t come back. Neither did the wolves.

Now there are only coyotes here. I heard them yipping eerily the other night, which should be a comforting sound of home. But as AK, who has some encyclopedic qualities herself, reminded me, East Coast coyotes have interbred with wolves and are extra aggressive.

I shared this fact with my fellow hikers. Later, someone said something about Marian and Edward MacDowell being childless, though there were rumors about various affairs each might have had. Maybe Edward made sweet love with some coyotes, someone speculated. For the rest of the hike, we imagined the MacDowell Wolves, dog-like creatures with the faces of a musician. Anytime you hear howling and piano music coming from the woods….

We climbed a rocky streambed, which gave way to straight-up rocks. From the top of the mountain, we could see for seventy miles: acres and acres of red-leaved trees, pine forests, boggy lakes and the occasional McMansion.

I’ve been reading the MacDowell Colony hundred-year-anniversary coffee table book in bits and pieces. In truth, I’m really touched by their story: Americans who met abroad and fell in love with each other and the with the idea that American music was worth investing in (a radical notion for the nineteenth century). Edward’s health began to fail shortly after the founding of the Colony, and Marian toured the country giving concerts of his music to raise money after his death, even though she had a bad back and used crutches herself.

Arts administrators and supporters get even less glory than artists themselves, but a quick tour of Colony Hall shows you that the artists, at least, know that they—like the heroes of any realm—couldn’t do it alone. The acknowledgments page is sometimes a feeble thank-you, but I just did a load of laundry in the basement. The laundry area was full of thank-you notes to the housekeeping staff, a poem titled “Doing Laundry at MacDowell” and an oil painting of a toppled bottle laundry detergent.    

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

private property

It's high security around here.
Last night the only poet (surprisingly) in residence said that he got turned around a lot on the trails that loop through MacDowell’s three hundred acres.

“At first I concluded that all the roads lead back to the same place. But I was on one for a while, and it spit me out on the paved street, and it became clear it wasn’t going to get me back to Colony Hall. So I decided to just retrace my steps. But when I turned back the way I came from, I saw this sign that said Private Property and I was like, Uh-oh, am I in someone’s yard?

He wasn’t. He was still on the MacDowell campus, which is studded with Private Property signs. (They’re not too threatening; they just ask MacDowell visitors to please use the High Street entrance.) But one of the visual artists admitted she’d been intimidated by the signs too, as had I.

(It probably doesn’t help that, when I was little, my dad had a habit of parking our motor home on the side of some coastal road and climbing over rocks and fences to gain access to whatever caught his attention, like a cat. I remember reading a sign that said Trespassers will be prosecuted and freaking out, because I mixed up the words “prosecute” and “execute.”)

I decided it’s indicative of the complex everyone here seems to have: Here’s this fantastic thing, but it must be for someone else. We should scurry away before we get caught. This whole week and a half has been a lesson in Artists! They’re just like us!

Today I finally woke up before eight and made it to hot breakfast. You can just place your order for a variety of items on a piece of butcher paper in the kitchen. When a novelist who has a propensity for straight-faced sarcasm told me this, I just laughed. Surely we’d all get matching plates of French toast. No, really, everyone else said. Breakfast is made to order.

Then I spent almost five and a half hours revising the cats-‘n’-Malaysia novel—basically there’s too much Malaysia—which was a slog, but a good and necessary one. I don’t think I’ve mapped out all the changes I need to make, but I made progress, and tomorrow I’m going to reward myself by writing a new chapter, which is much more fun than reworking an outline.

I took a break and ran each side of the V formed by High Street and MacDowell Road. I ran past the MacDowell Country Club, which is open to the public and apparently features strong gin drinks made by a woman named Bev. I ran past a half-dozen Private Property signs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

the mystery of a remodel

1. bleu period

I finished Draft 1 of the YA novel yesterday. It’s mind-altering to do in a week what normally takes a month or two. I talked to my dad on the phone and mentioned how spoiled I’m getting here, how amazing it is to be treated like I have something important to say and I should just go ahead and spend the whole day saying it. Also, there’s the immersion factor: It’s the only way to learn a language, and I’m now convinced it’s the best way to learn a language of your own devising too. Apparently, I’ve been doing the equivalent of diligently memorizing vocab lists from my Spanish for Beginners textbook for years.

My dad immediately began brainstorming ways that I can get out of town and write more in the future. “Stop,” I told him. “If I get too spoiled, I’ll have nothing to write about.”

“We can talk more when you get home,” he said mysteriously. I think he was vaguely implying that another residency might show up in my Christmas stocking.

“Or we can not talk,” I said.

Of course I’ve been thinking about applying to future residencies too, or maybe even just camping out at my dad’s house for a three-day weekend here and there when I really need to get some words down, but it pains me that my dad is such a problem-solver. Here I was, telling him something was awesome, and he assigned himself the task of making sure that awesomeness would last infinitely.

What pains me most of all is how desperately he wants me to be happy. It practically oozed through the phone lines from the other side of the continent. That tells me that I haven’t been a portrait of happiness these past couple of years, and that’s made him unhappy. Which makes me unhappy. All the Kleins do is try to take care of each other, which you’d think would put us on the functional end of the spectrum, but it’s also begotten a lot of therapy.

Anyway. Finishing my draft made me a little blue. (At first I typed “bleu,” which has such different connotations. I wish it made me bleu—which I think would involve painting while eating a croissant and wearing a beret.) Partly because now I have to edit the cats-‘n’-Malaysia book, which is daunting, and partly because anytime something I’ve been focusing on intensely goes away, I fill in the space with neurosis, like thunder in the gap created by lightning.

2. where things come from

I walked into town this morning to get some dental floss and candy—now I’m realizing that I could have gotten neither, since they sort of cancel each other out. I noticed how a lot of the old houses along High Street have barns attached to them. Or at least, they’re attached now. I like the mystery of a remodel—seeing the story of the decades in enclosed porches and extended garages.

Here was my thought process, which gives away my urban-ness: A lot of these garages used to be barns. Now they hold cars, but they used to hold horses and buggies. I hope the horses didn’t inhale too much carbon monoxide from the cars.

Then I wondered why the barns were so tall. Horses aren’t very tall. Then I remembered that horses eat hay, and in the moist Northeast, you have to store your hay indoors. It would be like storing all your gasoline in your garage today. I know it’s kind of a cliché to say that the problem with modern life is that we don’t pay attention to where our food and fuel comes from, but I think it’s a little bit true.

I bought my floss and candy at the super overpriced but very cute market, and the checker commented on my UCLA hoodie. Was I recently from California? Still there, I said. He’d moved here two years ago.

From Highland Park, right near the metro station, which is 1.5 miles from where I live. Of course, right?

Monday, October 22, 2012

i am not listless (get it?)

Imperfect writing metaphor.
1. I think I may be overly reliant on characters overhearing things. It’s a cheap plot device, and one reason I didn’t think much of The Big Sleep.

2. I think I might finish the YA book in like two more days. I’m not looking forward to editing my cats-‘n’-Malaysia novel, but I guess writing a YA book is a productive form of procrastination.

3. Some writers love rewriting and fear the blank page. I’m the opposite, although I don’t hate rewriting as much as I used to.

4. It’s kind of like cleaning the toilet. It didn’t even occur to me back in the day, and I didn’t have the right kind of brush and duck-neck cleaning product to do it. Now I do it regularly, if reluctantly.

5. It’s like cleaning the toilet if cleaning the toilet made your brain hurt and sometimes evoked painful memories and took years. And sometimes when you thought you’d cleaned the toilet, someone came along and said, no, actually it’s not clean.

6. Also if cleaning toilets occasionally brought about unexpected moments of magic.

7. Lunch today: vegan lasagna made with collard greens and mashed-up beans. Mine had cheese sprinkled over the top, because I’m not a vegan.

8. It’s nice to worry that a good thing will ruin me, rather than worrying that a bad thing will ruin me.

9. Not worrying at all? What’s that?

10. I am taking a cartwheel break.

11. At CalArts, people sometimes talked about narrative like it was a bad thing, or at least not to be trusted.

12. They were right, but I learned that from spiraling into OCD, not from writing.

13. But I guess it’s like any tool that can be used for good or evil.

14. How will these thoughts play out in my writing?

15. Maybe like this: Biology is not our destiny, but sometimes biology is the narrative we react to. Nature marches forward with us or without us.

16. Who said, “A plot is: The king died, then the queen died. A story is: The king died, then the queen died of grief”? Nature is a plot. Story is up to us.

17. These are meta thoughts, so I’m counting them toward my writing time. I’m going for five hours today.

18. Here’s a little secret: Earlier this afternoon I wrote a scene that made me cry. The character who is kind of like me had a really noble moment.

19. That’s like three different kinds of ego playing out right there.

20. When I look up from my writing, I see two deer grazing. I wonder if they’re nervous that a bear might be watching.

21. It’s not that different from Starbucks, if you think about it. People eating, communing, trying not to get caught.

22. The leaves come in all your standard autumn shades, but the best ones are almost neon red. They look fake. Super-powered.

23. Deer flash the white undersides of their tales to signal alarm and, it would seem, when they’re casually swishing bugs away. It doesn’t seem like the most reliable emergency technology.

24. When I was in Indian Princesses, the Indian (“Indian”) name I gave myself was Running Fawn, but then I changed it to Sleeping Fawn. I was lazy, I guess.

25. Of course I was a baby animal. I was never the kind of kid who pretended to be an adult, not even an adult deer. Being an adult meant responsibility, with no one the least bit impressed by what a prodigy you were.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

trigger happy

Hey, punkin.
The calendar in Colony Hall said “Surprize.” What could possibly blow the minds of two dozen artists sufficiently to warrant being spelled with a Z?

Two dozen pumpkins and a bag full of knives pilfered from the kitchen, that’s what. It was all orchestrated by a playwright here; he led us through the woods to his studio, where the pumpkins and cider and mini bags of Doritos awaited (chips: a recurring motif in my life).

Recently my crafty sister confessed that she works extra hard on cards she’s making for weddings or bachelorette parties, because she secretly craves admiration, even though it’s someone else’s big day.

I told her that wasn’t a secret so much as human nature.

So I was excited to see the pumpkins—if there had been, say, an impromptu jam session or sing-along (and there more or less have been), I would have had to back slowly away. I have no inner musician waiting to emerge. But I do have an inner visual artist. I mean, she’s kind of folksy and pedestrian, but she’s in there.

I carved my pumpkin with the shape of one of the charming brown beetle/cricket things with whom I’ve been spending the majority of my days. (I also found one dead in my bed a few nights ago.) Soon I heard people saying, “Hey, who did the bug?” and I glowed a little, like the tea light inside my bug-o-lantern. There was also a pretty rockin’ violin, a Cyclops and a skeptical-looking pumpkin smoking a cigarette.

The pumpkin party turned into an odd sort of dance party, with just three or four people busting moves and one person doing yoga and the Roger Rabbit. That turned into a people-hanging-out-and-talking non-party, which I stuck around for because dammit, I’m determined to make friends and Not Go Crazy. It was a good late-night crowd and, in the way of late-night conversations, they shared their neuroses and dramas, and compared the ages at which they’d first started masturbating (three to eighteen, if you’re curious).

It was a huge relief to see people’s humanity peeking through their amazing-artist exteriors. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that humans are human. Arguably artists are a little extra human. I mean, I kind of don’t buy that—it seems pretentious—but let’s say maybe artists are a little extra into processing their humanity.

The next morning at breakfast, a novelist/nonfiction writer/screenwriter said, “When I saw those pumpkins, I groaned inwardly. Because it’s supposed to be this warm and fuzzy childhood memory, but it’s just not for me. My pathology is more like, I remember trying to get excited about this stuff because I knew my parents wanted me to. But then I had a great time.”

I told him about the Lambda Literary Retreat reading I attended, where people who were reading scenes featuring rape or other abuse prefaced their readings by saying, “Trigger alert.” The idea was that, if you’d had your own brushes with rape, etc., you could take a moment to mentally prepare or excuse yourself.

It was a thoughtful idea, but it seemed kind of pointless, as I told this writer. Because real triggers aren’t, like, death in the abstract. They’re quiet little grenades, like pumpkins. Exactly, he said.

Mine? Beige corduroy pants. My mom’s handwriting on a recipe card. The entire Beverly Hills section of Wilshire. As any writer will tell you, it’s all in the details.

Friday, October 19, 2012

temporary utopia and picturesque rot

Little house in the big woods.
Today it’s raining but not too cold. My favorite kind of rain. The sky just sort of drips onto the yellow and orange leaves, and steam rolls along the ground.

You can see why a person might want to write about nature, although my official position on the subject is that nature is like New York: There’s plenty to say about it, but a lot of it’s already been said.

Yesterday was sunny, so I took a long walk on my “lunch break,” which I’m putting in quotes because it was a break from my “work.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m working, and it’s wonderful, and I think this place will spoil me just like I knew it would, now that I know what it means to see the waves of my narrative in compressed form. But it’s a playful kind of work.

I took my photocopied MacDowell map and wandered past the other studios and cottages. There is a lot of white wood and low stone walls covered in moss. Some of the older buildings are a little worn, but it only adds to their charm. There’s a big difference between the sagging wood of a turn-of-the-century New England porch and the saggy, leaking ceilings of a high school classroom that was built as a temporary structure in 1973. I feel like that’s the kind of rot we have on the West Coast.

But maybe someday, after enough West Coast artists grow old and immortalize the shitty classrooms of their youth, we’ll find it quaint. Is that how nostalgia works? Or is there something intrinsically more lovely about old New England rot? Because of the trees?

I mean, I think almost anything can be beautiful, but certain kinds of beauty are hard and gritty and just make you nauseous in the wrong light, when you feel more of them than witness to them.

It’s hard to look at MacDowell and Peterborough—the adjacent town, all brick and white wood—without a refrain of This is utopia pulsing at the base of my skull. When I was much younger, I would have wanted to move here. (My dream, at age five, was to live in a Victorian house that I’d restored myself. That is the dream of a child whose parents are way too into real estate and historical landmarks. That is the dream of someone who hasn’t yet discovered how much she dislikes fixing shit.) When I was just a little younger, I would have been highly suspicious of all of it. Surely this much charm must have a dark side? Or at least be the product of some sinister oppressive force? If I lived here I’d become soft, and we can’t have that!

Now I that I’ve become a little bit hard, I’d welcome the opportunity to become a little bit soft. I’m grateful to Mr. and Mrs. MacDowell (mostly Mrs., since Mr. died young, which isn’t his fault) for understanding all this: that when you have success and abundance you should use it to help other people create their own success; that temporary utopia might be the most useful kind.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

freshman flashbacks

Artist residencies are a lot like freshman year at college, with better food and accommodations. The first conversations are easy and predictable, with “What are you here to work on?” replacing “What’s your major?” Everyone seems exotic and interesting and a little intimidating. Then come the awkward in-between moments, when your extrovert energy starts to wane and you wonder which acquaintances, if any, will turn into actual friends.

At least that’s how it works if “you” are me.

I spent my freshman year bouncing between outrageous homesickness, unconvincing displays of outgoingness and devastating realizations that the friends I’d thought were my soul mates after a handful of late-night conversations actually didn’t like me all that much. Have I told you about the time my roommate told me to stop secretly gorging myself on her chips?
It's not like they were even Kettle Chips.

These flashbacks aren’t totally welcome, although I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in the past seventeen years. In the past ten, I’ve adopted a strategy of being too busy to make friends, which is a rude and terrible strategy, but one that’s mostly worked. The friendships that have grown in spite of my neglect are the hardiest plants in the garden.

So when I go to a reading, I can get away with waving at a handful of people, then retreating to my house and AK and whatever’s next on my to-do list. It’s one part introversion, one part really needing to stop by the grocery store on the way home. Maybe I’m creating demand by limiting the supply of Me? Maybe not.

But part of my Not Going Crazy All Up In My Own Head plan at MacDowell was to aggressively make friends. I chatted with two younger campers today, a musician and a memoirist who I tried to imagine as interns at my organization so as not to be overwhelmed by the fact that they’re twenty-three years old and already Those Artists. (It wasn’t a huge stretch because most of the people who intern for Jamie and I are scholarly and inspiring, and don’t spend nearly as much time watching the Style Network as I did when I was twenty-three, my feet propped up on a stack of unopened New Yorkers.)

What did I do after tonight’s presentation by an amazing conceptual artist and a jazz musician who is probably also amazing, although with any kind of non-lyrical music I just really wouldn’t know?

I floated around the main hall for a few minutes, thought about doing yoga in my studio and made a quick break for it.


Now I can just picture some dinner conversation a week from now, in which someone will casually refer to me as “the quiet one.” And it will be too late to live down my non-reputation.

One of the biggest lessons of adulthood has been: You, Cheryl, always think everyone else has their shit together, and you’re always wrong. In all likelihood, other people feel a little shy too, and even though one woman said she’s writing six thousand words a day, another said she felt awesome for having written a thousand today.

I love collecting people’s processes. The variations in word count, the golden times of day and the dark times. Pounding out a draft vs. reworking each chapter as you go a long. It’s a nice reminder that it takes all kinds, maybe even mine.

But since I’m here in my little cabin while, across the dark meadow, Colony Hall is still lit up with mysterious and therefore fabulous conversation, I guess I better do some fucking yoga.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

25 random things about macdowell too

Calderwood: heated floors and charming bugs.
Last night I started reading 2500 Random Things About Me Too, a compilation/explosion of lists from that Facebook meme that went around a few years ago, by my former CalArts professor Matias Viegener. You might think that would make for a terrible book, especially if you’ve seen how blogs and Tumblrs and other internet phenomena have been turned into disappointing books that get sold at Urban Outfitters. But you’d be wrong.

I’ll have more to say about Matias’s book—which is as warm and friendly as it is skeptical of narrative—when I’m finished, but for now I just want to blog about (full) Day 1 at MacDowell in random-list form.

1. Lunch arrived in a picnic basket with “Calderwood,” the name of my cottage/studio, painted on the lid.

2. It was tuna salad with capers and faro. Faro! It tastes like peasant food in the best way.

3. I think that when people get stuck, they reach for food, both literally and literarily. Mangoes and grapefruit are making a lot of appearances in Matias’s book.

4. The floor in my studio is heated.

5. My studio is at least as big as AK’s and my house, but with no AK and no cats. It’s all for me. This is good for writing and bad in the other ways.

6. I told AK that there must be a cat around here that I could borrow for a couple of weeks. If not, I might kidnap one of the chickens on the property.

7. I’m going to start writing what I came here to write…any…minute…now.

8. I think about caffeine like an addict. Mostly I’m going to totally stop while I’m here. But it’s the first day! Just a cup of tea to get me started. Oh, and they included a thermos of coffee in my picnic basket.* I don’t want to be rude by not drinking it.

9. I feel like a kid at Disneyland. I can’t settle down and enjoy any one thing because there is too much to enjoy. I just sort of have to run around and touch it all.

10. I just opened a document called “CharsAndStyleDraft1 02-10-12” that lists all the characters in the YA novel I’m here to work on. I was like, Who are these people? Luckily it’s annotated: “Aiden Jayne—Miranda’s boyfriend, football douche.”

11. I’ve definitely had too much caffeine.

12. For the record, my novel is not about football douches, or the girls who date them. Or the nerds who resent them. I think we’ve all heard enough on those subjects. Yes, high school is a microcosm of society, and it’s very important when you’re sixteen, but kids have whole lives that happen outside of school, and sometimes those outside goings-on make high school politics seem like a luxury.

13. My studio is full of these big brown bugs with long legs and black markings on their backs. I think they can fly. Because they live in my charming cottage in charming New Hampshire, I find them charming. It’s not fair. Cockroaches are really admirable when you think about it, but I hate them.

14. I’m trying to decide whether I should reread my YA novel from the beginning (apparently I wrote thirteen chapters already?), which would be the responsible thing to do, or just reread my outline and jump into the writing part, which is what the caffeine is telling me to do.

15. I think you know which I’m going to choose.

16. I’m scared I’ll start to like this life, and it will be hard to go back to writing at Starbucks for one hour a day.

17. Kind of like how, in college, I shared a room for as long as I could, because I knew that once I paid for my own bedroom, there would be no turning back.

18. But I like to think of myself as resilient. If I had to do a lot of things, I could. Whenever people say, “I could never ______,” it’s insulting to the people who are doing _____. Like they’re sharing a room just because poverty comes naturally to them.

19. I’ve been writing for a little while now. I got sort of excited, then I talked to AK on the phone and started worrying, just a little, about whether Ollie will get confused if he doesn’t get fed at the times I normally feed him, and will run away forever. Then it was hard to start writing again.

20. But I did/am anyway.

21. A composer I met earlier today is walking in the meadow outside my window. Is he stuck? Or is he hearing amazing melodies in his head?

22. How someone composes a piece of music is just about as mysterious to me as a thing can be. I could design a house as easily as I could compose a song. They would be equally unstable structures.

23. Leaves are falling. Joe Bills, the guy who drove me here from Boston yesterday, told me about how a dead squirrel fell onto the hood of his car recently. It was walking across a telephone wire one minute, dead the next. We should all go so quickly.

24. I wrote 1,573 words. I’m feeling good about roughly nine hundred of them.

25. No, that’s not really how I look at it. I sort of said that to be clever. Really, most of the words themselves are okay. It’s how they fit into the project as a whole that feels like looking into a canyon full of scorpions.

*During the kitchen tour, they asked, “Do you want coffee?” I apparently said, “Yes.”