14 December 2006

Wearing other people's shoes

My granddad is a big believer in the Pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps School of Life Management. Besides the obvious fact that pulling on your bootstraps tends to get you nowhere fast (try it next time you have boots and straps at the same time), I have always questioned whether the people who advocate this argument the most strongly are able to understand the obstacles that others face, having the capacity to understand that the playing field truly looks different to everyone.

"Et tu, Brutus?"

How many twenty-year-olds today could say where that came from, not to mention say what the question meant when it was uttered? Do younger learners have a lack of emphasis on what has come before, on learning myths, classics, Bible stories, Arabian nights tales, upanishads? (And does this rant mark me as a fogey? Yes. I know.) I wonder whether we, by not learning these stories and myths, lose some of our ability to empathize and have compassion for others. If all we get is TV sitcoms and movie thrillers with lots of explosions, how can we really believe in each other?

But when we learn of the travails of Odysseus (and the way they were kept alive by Homer), there's something to hope for in that effort having been made to communicate those travails alone. And the writer had the hope to write the story down and include lessons about our time and people and place in the scheme of things, and in seeing the poetic renditions of his journeys you feel for the man who has been separated from his wife and life and wonders whether she will remember him when he comes home. By the same token you must stop and wonder what it is like for Helen every day to fend for herself in the new post-Trojan War climate with no husband to stick up for her.

The instigator of this chain of thoughts was a big story in yesterday morning's paper about more than a thousand arrests in a U.S. Immigration Service raid on a large meatpacking business in Greeley. Today's paper had a follow-up story about how all of the service providers for the people affected are seeing a spike in requests for help, and the story featured the police department's pledge to have at all times a dedicated Hispanic advocate in place. Anxiety in the community is running high.

And there are an awful lot of people whose great-grandparents and even grandparents immigrated here but they can't see how this isn't different. They say, "If they're illegal, round 'em up and send 'em home."

I tend to stand on Mr. Laudisio's side when he says it is embarrassing for us to pretend we don't all depend on the services these people provide. I think he's right: if you rounded up everyone with faked papers and sent them home, who would mow your yards and change your oil and clean your Sears store and wash your restaurant dishes? Who would launder and press the clothes at your dry cleaner? And this is an embarrassment. I can't tell you the number of people I have met from other countries who were not able to use their skills here, like the fellow who had a motel just off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, who was a professor in Argentina. But to get people here to see him as an intellectual was impossible.

I cannot help remembering what it was like to arrive in Germany completely unable to recognize street signs and speak at all. Having no one get my jokes for six months. It was difficult -- and that was in a country where everyone speaks English, too, because English really has become the lingua franca. (Does anyone growing up now know what lingua franca means? Does anybody really care?)

But you might not know when you got to the U.S. whether to call it "the seven-eleven" as people here describe the chain of convenience stores, or whether you'd say "the seven-to-eleven." (Incidentally, since I seem to be in history mode, because most of the stores remain open around the clock the source of the name is no longer clear, but it was revolutionary, when convenience stores came along, for one to be open from seven a.m. until eleven p.m. (giving its proprietor barely enough time to sleep -- think about that life).

Somehow we must always preserve our ability to envision life in someone else's shoes, without coveting their life or the trappings thereof. (Sure, I envy the guys in Gomez for always getting to hang out and play music, but they've put in the thousands of hours to earn that for themselves. And that's just a message to me to do what I need to do in my life, right?)

I don't envy many people, having what feels like a very good life, but I always need to remember that not everyone makes their decisions from this comfy a perch in the world, and I could stand to put myself out there on others' behalf a little more than I do to level the playing field.

Seems like a lot of little people aren't getting what they need. I want to help in the best way I know how, and maybe that's writing something that can reach a little farther than I can one-on-one. Because I do have empathy for the cleaners and the immigrants and the people who aren't getting enough of the picture. The girls of the world.

And I must address this in a way I care about, and remember that is worthwhile, and I must make sure it is worthwhile, not let it slide into entertainment without any other reason for existence. That's what literary fiction is to me: fiction with meaning.

11 December 2006

My main blog, My Mac Daddy Blog

This is the one I tell people about. I'm surprised how few people find my little corner of the universe; it's hard to get people to go look or read, but I have received sincere notes of praise for my blogs when people did look at them. So that's nice.

And it's my tour, this blog is, of the planet and the neighborhoods on it. As many as I can visit in my lifetime.

Somehow (in the darkness of winter) we've been talking over dinner about obituaries, and how thinking about what you would want your obituary to say is a powerful way to get yourself focused on what you want to be remembered for. Do you want to leave a legacy? "Loved her family well." Would you be content with what you've done if the proverbial bus knocked you down tomorrow, or was there some big thing you'd always assumed you'd get to?

Me, I have started this novel but not finished it, so now there's a sense of urgency that it get done, that what I mean to say will come across in the end. That the themes are themes all the way through; all of the commas are where they belong. And [this is the chore] all the bracketed text must be replaced with actual content! It's a big job but I want to get it done. I want people to see it. And a lot of people seem to be curious about it. I think that was my turning point: seeing that guy giving away Wild Animus after a Gomez show in Denver at the Fillmore one night, I thought: I want to write a novel for those people specifically. One I'd be proud to hand out after a show.

So that's what I'm trying to do. A novel for literate rockers like me and my friends.

03 December 2006

Literary complex carbohydrates? Parallels between NaNoWriMo and Weight Watchers

I'm now taking a breather from my novel, Mix Tapes for Boys and Girls, after completing my November sprint to write 50,000 words, the arbitrary goal assigned by the folks at the Office of Letters and Light, aka National Novel Writing Month. It was such an odd but productive experience; I've had deadlines before but never the daily requirement to write a certain quantity.

In its absolute focus on word counts, the whole novel-writing experience reminded me a little of the Weight Watchers program (which I did for about three months a few years ago but probably would never do again). In the few months I did participate, I learned a lot about the caloric values of foods and about how much I really needed to eat. They talked about portion control, which is a good thing to be aware of; the best part was learning to change my focus to stopping when I'd had enough food instead of eating as much as I could get away with eating. I found that the quantity of food that satisfied me was, of course, quite a bit less than I had thought previously. It was a revelation that going to bed somewhat hungry wasn't such a bad thing after all; some of my fear of scarcity fell away when I realized nothing bad would happen if I went to bed with a rumbly tummy. (I read one account by someone who said that when dieting, she stopped eating early in the evening and then went to bed earlier than usual so she wouldn't be bothered by her hunger pangs. But skipping part of one's life in order to lose weight seemed extreme to me. Foregoing food is one thing; foregoing evenings is something else entirely.)

What I did not like upon reflection was Weight Watchers' narrow focus on the absolute number of calories consumed daily without any regard to the quality of the food being eaten. This oversimplified approach to dieting meant that things like nuts, olive oil, and avocadoes, all of which I love and consider "good fats," were as "expensive" as chocolate bars or cheesecake. I never bought into the notion that all fats were bad, nor did I buy into the "cholesterol is evil" ethos adopted wholesale by the medical establishment despite the studies on cholesterol having been conducted exclusively on high-risk males. I heard stories about people who tried to save many of their daily caloric allocations for alcoholic drinks or tried to avoid all fats entirely and found that the appearance of their skin, hair, and fingernails quickly deteriorated, probably reflecting their deteriorating underlying health. So on one hand it was useful to find out how many calories a day I needed to stop eating if I wanted to lose or maintain my weight, but on the other hand it seemed to discourage a healthful perspective on the relative nutritional values of foods. I found little discussion of how eating complex carbohydrates and some fat could also help you feel sated longer than eating simple carbs and lots of vegetables with icky nonfat dips or nonfat desserts with low-calorie "whipped topping."

So my disgust with Weight Watchers' absolutist approach to calorie counting led me to expect more inner resistance to having to write a certain number of words per day to meet this arbitrary goal of writing 50,000 words. I wondered, what if I wasn't inspired that day? What if I wrote 1,000 words and they were good, and everything after that for the day was drivel?

It didn't really happen that way (okay, it may have; I'm too close to the 53,500 words I wrote last month to be a good judge of their quality at this point). But not only was the 1,667-words-per-day deadline nowhere near as onerous a chore as I thought it would be, there was something good about being encouraged to "throw words willy-nilly at my novel," as I described the process to my mother earlier today. Instead of writing nonsense or unrelated stuff, I found myself getting deeper into my characters' thoughts and motivations. I found myself putting more from my own life and what was happening around me into the story. The word-count goal made me dispense with my usual poring over individual sentences and instead push on, which made me take more risks than I usually do in my writing. I had to "leave my inner editor behind" (as Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder recommends in his book No Plot, No Problem!) to succeed at the task, which turned out to be a very good thing indeed. (She's stirring and uncurling from her deep slumber, though; I'm looking for cover.)

I had thought this might be a sort of silly, wasteful way to write a novel; I suspected half or more of what I produced would be garbage and have to be cut out later. The jury's still out on that, but it was a fabulous exercise in getting stuff out of my head and onto the page. And I am relieved to believe there's more "good fat" in my story and far less dreck to be excised than I had predicted.

Now I just have to figure out how I am going to finish the thing!