Friday, May 30, 2008


Glancing at the television for a few moments Wednesday night had my heart unexpectedly flying and catching, soaring and breaking. Not for Pittsburgh, whose fans were 4000 deep at the tailgate party outside Mellon Arena, but for the hockey players themselves. Not only hockey, but hockey far more than other sports, does this to me: I watch the game from the eyes of a former big sister. A big sister who watched devastated 9 year olds shaking hands (“good game - good game - good game”) with the winning team in Little League, who saw the sophomore soccer goalie’s eyes reveal a split second of terror before performing scowling acts of heroism, hurling the ball safely to midfield.

Do I watch sports like this because I was once a big sister? No, I already watched sports like this AS a big sister, so the roots are deeper. I watch sports like this because I once held my brothers crying in pain and in sorrow, once watched them giggle and need help and entertain a room with unfettered silliness. And then I watched them move into scowling and aggressive and stoic and walled off and monotone years. I watched them mock the weak links and the girls and the mothers and each other; I watched them choose allegiances and move in packs. And all of these years of morphing were tangled up in soccer and baseball and basketball, and me in the bleachers. In these years when my brothers turned from creatures “like me” into “men,” I watched helplessly from the sidelines; the morphing was its own spectator sport.

Hockey (which wasn’t part of my youth) moves me more than the others because its shifts are so contrasted and so constant: The shifts from hopeful heroic offense to angry, edgy defense, with a barely-perceptible note of personal fear, individual sadness, and bottomless loss in-between. But this between moment is perceptible, and to me, palpable, searing, all-pervasive. On the ice the people see this: The home team has the puck, they’re gliding with speed to their goal, the opposing team intercepts, the home team slams the player into the wall, the game is moving again, there’s a near score, there’s a pile up. The only time I saw the game live (once in Madison Square Garden), this same rhythm and flow struck me as a dual-gendered performance. One moment, it was as elegant and feminine as a ballet on ice--the next second, as territorial as a street fight, with sticks and blades threatening to cut, to wound.

Territorial: The player with the puck is all powerful, he’s a legend in his mind, he’s alone but he’s gonna do it for the team, for the fans, for the city; he’s gonna make up for the lousy economy, for the last lousy forty years, man. But when he loses the puck, when he misses the goal, the fleeting sorrow I can read in his face is very young and it’s all his own. Like it’s the fear of ceasing to matter for the team, the fans, perhaps ceasing to exist for himself because he’s lost all heroic purpose. Next it’s a quick shift into pack mode, as his team works to defend the goal, and sometimes to swoop in and surround the opposing player, pin him to the wall, let him know whose town it is. Together they can protect, instill fear, together they can maim and kill.

I turn away from the TV set and remember my small brothers, and wonder if they remember me, watching.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008


My head gets crowded; I feel I am continually trying to clear my head. These days, it's a matter of competing goals, projects, desires of my own vs. the demands of others. There's my dayjob, my schoolwork, my writing life, and my publishing life, to name a few. My weekends prove too short to finish any given to-do list.

When I was a photographer, I used to complain that my head was too full of images. Modern critical theorists spend a lot of time telling us that we live in an image-driven, image-crowded world, and I believe them. The first time I moved to New York City, I found myself feeling worn out by the proliferation of billboards, magazines, and the population that imitated them: I used to say that living in New York was like living in a magazine. When I left New York that first time, I moved to Texas, saying good riddance to density, billboards, and other visual littering: I wanted a blank sky and darkness at night. I had grown up, after all, in a county that made billboards illegal.

All this was still years before the internet was a factor in my world, let alone a daily one. At the time, the only computer I owned was a Brother typewriter/word processor with a 5-line screen. It was unevenly heavy, and it had a flip-out handle on one side for carrying. I carried it, in fact, all the way to Texas (via Amtrak), wrapped in a blanket and thrown into a large black trash bag.

Today's computer is my desktop at my work office; its weight is irrelevant since it's a fixed object. It has an 18-inch screen but the size, too, is irrelevant: it manages to fit my whole life into it, 40 hours a week. The lit-up computer screen with its hypertexts, its icons, its graphics, and other illusions of coding--this space may as well BE my office. As long as I'm there, navigating among the emails and the spreadsheets, the directory lists and the downloadable forms, the websites and the Ads by Google, there is no blank blue sky, there is no gentle night darkness. The computer IS my city inhabited, crowded with visual demands and competing requests, competing desires, repeating values, and billboards at every turn.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008


There was the time that S_____ asked me to the Homecoming dance during the first week of Life Drawing class. Looking back, there was never even the feel of an attraction between us, besides the excitement of meeting a new friend; but S_____ was clearly very handsome, and I was eager to put the nail in the coffin of my awkward and lonely years. Somehow I knew to show up to his friend C_____'s room for cocktails before the dance; once there, I learned that S______ had asked another girl to the dance. It's long enough ago that I don't remember how explicit this revelation was. Did the others in the room know that I was the forgotten date? Did S_____ blurt out an apology for asking two girls to the dance? Did anyone know what I was doing there at all? Not only did I not know the other people in the room (except one or two by sight), I didn't know anything about their milieu. I was a public school veteran from down the road; they were prep school graduates from up North. Their vodka-gimlet conversation tossed nuances, references, and attitudes far over my head. No one was exactly nasty to me, I simply didn’t exist in their world. I remember I was busy trying to plot my way out of the room, out of the evening; I remember I was wearing a short black and white dress with huge shoulder pads; I remember that I was anchored in an armchair at one end of the room, with the couples sitting in two rows before me.

It was a small party in a small chamber; I didn't have the language (literally, the right phrase or two) that would allow me to leave the room with what I would have called dignity. I had to wait it out. My chance came when we all rose to walk across the foot-bridge to the dance. I faded into the night's darkness in the other direction, virtually without a sound.

This last image reminds me of a party I attended in high school, a "field party" as we called them. Field parties were less about wide open fields in the middle of nowhere and more about someone whose house had a large acreage of yard. This particular party was being held at a small house out in the rural, western end of the county (the county lines being the parameters of our world); the house sat at the bottom of a steep hill. The steep hill was flood-lit by a single light which guarded the front door like an evil eye; the light was so bright that it had the effect, in fact, of hiding the house from sight. Sharp shadows formed the edges of the party.

Sharp edges were drawn also around the "camp" that was holding the affair. This was a jock's party, and I wasn't. (In fact, I did play one sport, but was not part of the jock faction.) Some childhood friends of mine had taken me out this night--graduation night for the class ahead of us--and this was their scene, not mine. I was anxious and curious how the evening would play out. Here I was with old friends who knew me and cared about me, but they had brought me to the viper's nest of this crowd. I was anxious because of my past with these people, but curious because my present social situation was much different than it once had been. My life now included new friends and shared affinities. My interests had diverged so completely from those of this crowd tonight; what could we possibly have to say to each other? Did we exist for each other at all?

Before I could wonder too long and hard about it, the ground slid out from under me. I slipped far down the hill, which was long of uncut grass and slick of keg beer. I slipped so far that I fell out of the light that shone on the people, until I was inhabiting the darkness outside of the party. Once there, I couldn’t think of a good reason to reenter: the light, the party, the throngs. So I stood and watched. I waited, with relief, for the party to pass.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008


My friend Jude, who grew up in small-town Louisiana and small-city Texas, has often said that there are two kinds of towns in the South. One is the kind where everyone is as nice as your sweetest grandmother, offering genuine and pleasant banter at the counter, thinking nothing of helping the neighbor in need, always giving folks the benefit of the doubt. And the other is the kind of town where there is a meanness in everyone; the people wear hard faces, they brandish guns, they take pride in their bigotry, and they're always looking for a fight. Jude talks about how these two kinds of towns can be situated right next to each other, but still be night and day.

I wonder if whole towns can be infected with the same mysterious but undeniable poison that some families are. Do you remember? There were the friends' houses where everyone was always breaking into giggles, the meals were like banquets, and the family willingly spent time in the same room together, inventing games or doing nothing in particular. And there were the homes where each person was louder and meaner than the next, the father was a glassy-eyed terror and the mother's voice had no soft edges left; homes where each family member was ranked by the effectiveness of their insults; homes where sharp laughter always filled the air, and no one seemed to share it.

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Friday, May 09, 2008


I grew up in a small town; a small town is a panopticon. A small town is a panopticon where all views leads to one identity—the identity the town decides you have. For some, this may feel, I suppose, holistic and integrating. Or perhaps just normal. For me it was clausterphobic, and I’ve spent my life since then climbing out of every identity box I (or others) have put me in.

One question, twenty odd years into this experiment, is: What is it that actually evolves one’s identity? My boyfriend—who knew me at age 19, then didn’t know me for many years--sometimes says to me (teasing but serious), “You’re just a doctor’s daughter from the suburbs.” This usually sounds to my ear like someone saying to me, “You haven’t changed an ounce from what you were, and you never will.” But now that I’ve lived with him long enough to hear him differently, I wonder if he means--not that I haven’t changed at all--but that I have rebelled in the way that a doctor’s daughter from the suburbs would, revolved my life (identity) around THAT particular axis. Indeed, when he met me all those years ago at the southern university we both attended, he had a name for ‘my kind’ at our school: “Undergrad Type II.” He said, when pressed, that ‘Type I’ was the kind that came to school hopelessly preppie and left preppie, and rebelled by drinking copious amounts of keg beer and playing rowdy matches of rugby and turning up Zeppelin way too loud. Type IIs were the English majors who dressed in black, revered Hermann Hesse in high school and French criticism in college, listened to Robyn Hitchcock and Public Enemy and preferred scotch to beer; they thought they were rebelling philosophically. I’ll admit that back then the latter was indeed close to my definition of evolving my identity: reading things my parents had not, going places my classmates might never, opening my own mind as far as I could stretch it; part of the goal—or the method—being not to live with loose morals but to approach life without morals or prejudgements at all. But the ultimate goal being to outgrow the fearful and sheltered identity-cage I was once asked to stand in, once willingly stood in.

What are the uses of a stable identity, of an evolved identity? What is the ‘ideal’ identity generically- or specifically-speaking? If identity is achieved, what is desirable in a “final” identity? To my definition, an identity should always allow for growth and fluidity, but then, is it still called an identity? What makes the difference between growing up and growing older? Is it possible to ‘become different’? Is it possible to NOT become different?

Something that strikes me now, as I look back on what’s behind me, is that I constantly flipped everything over, everything that might stabilize an identity. (Nor did I change things out of indecision or fickleness, more out of post-passion exhaustion, the feeling that I’d used something up--mostly, my own identification with it.) I’ve inhabited 18 apartments in 20 years; I shared them with 41 roommates. I switched neighborhoods, jobs, lifestyles, lovers, whole sets of tight friends, artistic media, and sometimes cities. But as quickly as I was able to squirm out of each identity, I see a trend from the other end of the spectrum: in certain relationships, especially at work or in romance, I'd get stuck in the smallest pigeon holes. All it took was knowing that someone wanted me to be something I wasn't, and knowing that I could appear to be it, and suddenly I was stuck playing that role, weighed down with sorrow that the person wouldn’t accept me more freely. And I was good at this—this pretending, this mask-wearing, I could sustain it for a long time. Oddly, it was staying in an identity I ENJOYED that seemed to pose the challenge.

I woke today with a Carole King line in my head, but I had the wording wrong for a few hours before I noticed: My line was “Way over yonder, that’s where I’m found.” (Really it’s ‘bound.’) For I’ve noticed before this writing that I have a penchant for motion, for migration, for longing to be where I’m not. I take busses and trains to get places, rather than airplanes, which are too quick; I like the getting-there part; I like the being-not-here-nor-there part. I like the you-can’t-locate-me part.

I used to have the fear, the ultimate feminist nightmare, that to live with a man would mean that he’d always see me as inherently subordinate, or only as a sexual object. I no longer dwell on the male opinion of me so much, but I am aware that sharing a life and a home with one person means you are bound, to an extent, by his view of you. But that’s if the other person is merely a mirror to reflect you; and while I believe we are all that for each other, we are also people, which means we are dynamic. We are fluid in minute and grand ways, whether we want to be or not, and even when we are mirrors we are also kaleidoscopes, so the mirror, too, is changeable and changing. Sometimes it is not the mirror across from us that is so unbending but our own mind that is made rigid by fear and anxiety, fear of the reflection that once came back to us.

Maybe fear is the only identity cage.

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Monday, May 05, 2008


I tried to live without writing for a time, and happily, it failed miserably:

I had no relationship to myself, therefore none to anyone else. I had no reason for eyesight, nor much reason for insight. I became afraid of my physical voice. I lost my laugh. Time had no meaning, nor seasons, and I no longer had any way to gauge my growth. It didn’t matter whether I was in Peoria or Astoria, whether I was at work or I wasn’t, whether I was naked or clothed. I had no perspective. I had no body, because it didn’t have an interior. I no longer had emotions; also, I had emotions I had no idea what to do with. I couldn't stop useless thoughts or feelings like wanting, every morning, to kill the person who'd designed the city busses with the aisle too skinny for even one Pittsburgh-sized body, let alone another trying to pass it. I couldn’t love, because I couldn’t communicate; or perhaps because I no longer understood myself as separate from anything or anyone else around me. There was no “I.” Every day that I didn’t write, I hated instead. In time, I forgot why I hated.

It was like I had tried to forget what I knew, and this you cannot do. You can expand your point of view, you can change your mind completely, but you can’t wipe your mind clean for the sake of it. “What I knew” was that I had to write in order to live, or at least, to live as I would like to live.

I’m reminded of the Groucho Marx joke a friend told me, “I used to live in Pittsburgh once…if you call that living.” Which leads me to the W.C. Fields joke the same friend told me, “I spent a week in Philadelphia…one weekend.”