Thursday, October 15, 2009

Grandma and Me

So I'm in the process of revising a short story for purposes I ain't gonna tell you about. It's one of the two stories that I submitted to Viable Paradise. The original ending had to be ditched, it's still got some virtues and it hangs together fairly well on its own. Here's a brief glimpse of me and my Grandma Jean, back when we lived together. And yeah, this really happened. I was twenty-three, she was in her eighties... I miss her. I miss her a lot.


The previous Sunday Grandma decided to take me to the city, down the highway that cut through the salt marshes. There was a white hill of salt on the horizon and all the cars had their headlights on.

“I hope you stay,” I said. “I don’t want you to go. But that’s me being selfish. Honestly, if I were in your shoes I wouldn’t think about it for a minute. Just imagine what kind of wildlife they’ve got out there, what it’s like to see things from space…”

“I know,” Grandma said. “It’s just that… well, it hardly seems real.”

I nodded. “Uh, huh.” I felt something shift inside and opened my window for safety’s sake. There was a moment of silence.

“You know, you’re right,” Grandma said. “This isn’t the kind of opportunity you can turn down.” She turned to me, smiling. “I’ll go and you’ll be fine, won’t you?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

“Good,” Grandma said. “That’s good.” The next few miles went by in silence. “So Amy sent you another letter.”

“Yeah,” I said and discreetly emitted a little gas from Saturday’s drinking binge. “I can’t believe what she wrote. She said ‘I know I’m causing you great pain but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to change my behavior in order to accommodate your needs.’” I could see the sentence laid out in the beautiful little calligraphic loops of Amy’s handwriting. My throat hurt. “I mean, isn’t that what courtesy is? Not deliberately hurting people? And she’s upset because I don’t appreciate the tender romance she’s picked up since she left to go to school and then she asks me to write her more often. I thought we were going to be forever. I’m like a bug on a pin. God, I’m an idiot.”

“Oh, those marshes smell awful,” Grandma said. “Roll up your window.”

There was no way I could explain beer farts to her. I couldn’t even say the words in her presence.

After a few moments Grandma broke the silence. “This isn’t the end of the world, you know.”

“I know,” I said. I wish it were. I wish it were the end of the world. I wish it were the end of me.

“Listen,” she said in a tone of flat anger that I’d never heard before. “When I was your age I fell in love with a young man. He was a pilot and that was when pilots were something new, when they were heroes.” I could hear her voice warm at the memory. “He had a mustache and he was… Oh. I loved him so much and when the war came he went to England to volunteer in the RAF. That’s when my hair went white. When I heard that he’d died. After that I let your grandfather marry me.”

My painfully inflated bowels roiled noisily.

“That’s what life is like,” Grandma said. “Everything good goes away and you feel sad and angry and it never stops. All you can do is be nice. That’s all there is.”

I felt a sensation of pressure. The world constricted around me like shrink wrap around a box, airtight and closing in. I squirmed in my seat and looked out at the salt flats, the rushes emerging from the brown water in bunches, the red-winged blackbirds and ducks and egrets. I stifled in the brimstone stink that filled the car. Grandma wasn’t supposed to be like me.

She thought God was love.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Return from Paradise

I am too pooped to come up with a new image, so here's an old one. I drew this in pencil while on a picnic. I had to do something to avoid the missus's hippie friends. The background was done in Photoshop. The missus's dad bought a big print of this, which took me aback.

So here I am. I got back home on Sunday night, and it's taken me this long to find time to post here. There are two reasons for this: one, I'm so tired you would not believe. I did not actually sleep at Viable Paradise, but I did pass out for a couple of hours every morning. It's going to take me a while to stop nodding off every couple of minutes. I almost fell out of my chair a number of times in class this morning.

The other reason is that I've come back with a whole new work ethic, among other things. From now on, I write in the morning, and I work until I've accomplished my goals. Everything else comes after that. So you'll be seeing a bit less of me on the internets. It's all good, though.

I'm not going to give you the whole story. Non-participants may find the following irritatingly vague, but I've been informed in no mild terms that what happens at VP, stays at VP.

That said, this was a genuinely life-changing event for me. I went into this with semi-grim expectations. I figured I was going to be put into my slimy little place, tough-love style. I was ready for that.

I will admit that I had fantasies. Daydreams. Well, the daydreams came true, every last fucking one of them. And then things got better. Aside from my relationships with those I love, this was the best thing that's ever happened to me.

But as I said, I went in with some serious trepidations. I posted them on the Viable Paradise board, and found that I wasn't the only one who was worried. Lemme run my concerns by you, and tell you how they actually worked out.

What if I get lost?

Air travel is something that most people can do drunk. It was nowhere near as hard as I was afraid it would be. And once I hit Martha's Vineyard, I was wrangled by experts.

What if my back goes out on me?

This was nowhere near as bad as I'd feared. First off, I was extremely protective of my back. Things got bad enough so that for the last few days I did lay down on the floor for most lectures, where my belt dug into the top of my pelvis -- shoulda taken it off, but I still had illusions of dignity -- but I came out of it okay.

Plus, I gobbled pain pills like Tic-Tacs and washed them down with bourbon. If it's good enough for Elizabeth Taylor and Jim Morrison, it's good enough for me.

What if nobody likes me?

This was so not the case -- and this was the real breakthrough for me. The amount of affection directed toward me still has me on the verge of tears every time I think about it.

When I decided to attend, I knew that I was going to have a major neurochemical event of some kind. The descriptions of the experience that I read on line made it clear that, well. What I told the folks there is that the only difference between VP and a cult initiation is that they let us eat protein. I was not kidding -- sleeplessness, lack of solitude, a rigid schedule, lots of rituals -- this was way cult. Which is another way of saying that it was an initiation rite. A passage. It was, honest to golly gosh, tribal.

So I knew I was gonna have some kind of major emotional reaction at some point. But when it came? It wasn't what I'd expected.

I was laying on the floor listening to a lecture on the business end of being a working writer. And the unnamed speaker was talking about the importance of having a good spouse, and how you needed to pull your share in the relationship. "Don't be the bass player in a rock band," was one of his/her statements.

Well, as it happens, I play bass. And I recently had a moment of self-doubt in which I approached the missus and asked her if I was a worthless fucking parasite. (I may not have phrased it as delicately as that...)

Her response, lord love her and I certainly do, was to get pissed. I mean really pissed, like I haven't seen in the last fourteen years. And her response was basically, how dare you say that about my husband!

And when I remembered the fierceness of her loyalty and support of me, all of a sudden the kindness and appreciation I'd been shown over the course of the week flooded in on me and I was so tired, so stressed, so worn raw, that I had no defenses. People liked me. They cared for me. They wanted the best for me.

And more then that. They were grateful for me. I was a good person to be around. For the first time in my life, rather than seeing myself either in terms of my shadow side or my skills, I saw that I was a really nice person. Someone who doesn't hesitate to make sacrifices for others. Someone who cares, and who tries to act on that caring.

I've always admired sweetness and sought to protect it in others. And all of a sudden I saw the sweetness in myself, and I couldn't hide from it.

My whole approach to life has been based on self-loathing. If you've been reading this blog from the start, you've run across a few really unpleasant posts that hint severely at this condition. I've almost been institutionalized for a condition that pretty much comes down to hating myself.

Laying on the floor, listening to the lecture, I realized that I didn't hate myself any more. That all of a sudden, among the throng of voices in my head, there was one that said, "You're a good person. You're loved because you deserve to be loved."

It almost fuckin' killed me, got to say. I lay there on the floor and while I wanted to run off somewhere and weep, the lecture was too good, to useful, for me to abandon. So I pulled out my hankie and dabbed at my eyes and tried not to make a public spectacle of myself.

But while I lay there, another voice kept coming into my head. How am I going to live if I don't hate myself? What is my basis for existence? This question terrified me. I knew how to live with the constant desire to destroy myself, but this was so weird and alien and threatening...

There were people who were happy to talk to me about this. Who helped me through the first few hours.

And it turns out that it's actually easier not to hate yourself. I'm starting to realize that it takes a hell of a lot of energy to maintain a constant state of revulsion towards oneself. And I'm also realizing that many of the things I find most repellent in myself are borne out of insecurity. It'll take a while, but I think I've got a shot at growing up now.

It certainly took me by surprise.

And just for the record, I was only mean once during the course of the whole week, and I was mean to someone who a) asked for it, b) could take it, and c) really should have known better than to hand me a straight line like that. I can easily resist sexual temptation because I love the missus. I can resist tasty foods because I'm not a snacky fellow. But I cannot resist a straight line. Mektoub.

What if I'm not enough of a science fiction and fantasy fan?

This worked to my advantage. I may not have known about the slang (although I can now define squee, squick, and cracktastic), may not be hip to the games, the fanfic, all that stuff -- but I was able to hold my own as far as the literature goes.

Tell you what. I have no idea where my work is going to fall, (see below), but I officially declare an alliance with fandom. They are my people, and now I know this. Everyone was funky-fine.

What if I'm too (insert profanity) pretentious?

Hey, I pulled it off. I'm just pretentious enough. When I spoke of my feelings that I was a literary writer, they seemed to think that it was a reasonable claim.

What if it turns out that I am a complete fraud?

Such was not the case, he giggled. The single weakest compliment I received on my writing was, "Thank you for being a very good writer." It was made clear to me over and over in no uncertain terms that I got the goods and I got 'em in spades. And then the stakes were raised.

Look out, world. Here comes the oaf.

What if I'm not the special bunny?

At one point, I told someone (cough Hugo winner cough) that I was making chili-dog casserole. (Click here for the recipe. It's the funniest recipe you'll read all day, I promise -- and it'll tell you how to make something really cracktastic.)

After telling them that yes, there would be gobs of melted cheese and nacho rings as well, I took off. The individual in question called after me, "I might love you best of all."

(Chili-dog casserole can do this. I am not kidding. And of course, the statement wasn't true because they love all their children equally.)

At this point I had no barriers, and before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I said, "That's because I'm a special bunny. Everyone should feel that way about me."

Behind me came a chorus. "You are, and they should!"

What if I'm not as smart as I think I am?

One dude there referred to himself as 'a bear of little brain.' He was pretty fucking smart. The range of knowledge these people had on tap was intense. History, science, every area of trivia you'd care to imagine.

I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I never felt intimidated, because I knew that they could always ask me something about dinosaurs.

What if I was only accepted in order to give John Scalzi the opportunity to extract a hideous revenge in recompense for the criticism of Old Man's War I put up on my blog?

What happens in Viable Paradise, stays in Viable Paradise.