Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blood and Guts

While I was visiting my family, I finished one book (Kathy Reichs's Cross Bones) and was in search of another. My mother offered a book she'd recently read. "Is it," I asked, "a story of a personal journey through which the main character comes to understand herself or her family better?" "The main character's a he," my mother said. "But yes." I replied, "No, then. I'm only interested in murder right now."

This got me the hairy eyeball from my mother, who is wonderful and loves me but thinks I'm a little strange. (And probably a little snotty) But it's true. Every summer, I dive head first into a mystery novel after mystery novel. My mother would specify that they are murder mysteries, and she's mostly right. I eat them up, slurp down the gory details, sit satisfied with a head full of an increasingly large catalog of ways to die. (And with all doors and windows in my house firmly locked.) I strongly prefer female detectives. Even as a child I didn't like books that were all about boys. I do like it if the detective undergoes some kind of personal crisis or growth, though a lot isn't necessary. It's just boring if a main character repeatedly makes the same mistakes over several books in a series. New mistakes are good. I get bored with a series if it brings back the same villain over and over again, as well. Dispatch one enemy please, and move on to the next. We all know life is full of plenty of evil and a dizzying number of ways to do each other harm. I'd like to believe that it's possible to get the bad guy and move on.

In almost every mystery novel, (Laurie King's are often a wonderful exception) the main character does something blindingly stupid. Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan, who I enjoy in both book and televisual forms, always makes her dumbest move in the last 75 pages. It's the bad decision, the wrong turn, the ignored clue that you can see a mile away and which always brings about some kind of confrontation with the killer or his lackeys. I find this irritating, because far too often the author spends 400 pages convincing you her detective is brilliant in the extreme, (though often personally troubled) and then in the last moments of the book tosses that brilliance to the wind in favor of an easy denouement. Surely we all know that if your sister is trapped in the basement with a homicidal cult leader with a batch of suspicious kool-aid and several guns, the best move is to take your boyfriend the cop with you to try to free her. Or call the local sheriff. Whatever. Heading into the basement without telling anyone where you've gone will never end well. Or actually, it will always end well, but often not before you have a moment in which you are more sure you will die than you have been in any of the books in which you were stupid before.

And yet? I love this stuff. If I can find novels in which the main character isn't given to moments of idiocy (again, thank goodness for Laurie King's Mary Russell), all the better. But I just want to see a woman look at a really messy situation and decide she can think her way to its solution. I mean, she might have to kick a little ass along the way, but that's ok. I don't want to spend my summer thinking about the personal journeys I should be on. I do not want to contemplate how lucky I am that I was not raised in foster care or how charming it might be to live in a town where everyone protects the local abusive sheriff. (Someday I'll write a blog post about how much I hate the charming abuse tales. Sisterhood my ass.) Mysteries are usually pretty fucking bleak, and the best mystery novels don't make that glamorous or cute. They do make puzzles solvable, justice findable, people savable. In the summers, I don't want to look for the silver lining. I want to believe there's solutions right down in the blood and guts.


You never really understand how exhausting it is to maintain your balance, until you lose it. A year ago, a terrific ear infection combined with several random factors that Those Who Know can't agree upon, damaged my vestibular system and left my sense of balance all out of whack. (Out of Whack being the technical term for "dizzy, swimmy, and unable to turn around quickly in the shower without wanting to hurl.") It's taken a year to get all of this figured, but now they've decided what I need is vestibular rehab. (For some reason, I find the thought of vestibular rehab completely hilarious. It calls to mind the little bones in my ear lifting weights or my ear sitting around in a group therapy session. Only funny to me? Well, ok.)

So today, I spent the morning in a diagnostic session at the vestibular rehab clinic, (they have a whole clinic for this!) showing them how I can and cannot keep my balance. I walked up and down stairs, had my head manipulated every which way by a very sweet therapist with disturbingly warm hands, stood on a platform that they moved all around to see when I could keep my balance and when I couldn't. Truly boring stuff. And now? Now I'm so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. The effort to keep everything stable requires a coordination of body, mind, subconscious, imagination that is mind boggling. When things are out of whack, that coordination is a herculean effort made harder by the rising and falling panic that comes with the understanding that things aren't right.

So now I'm supposed to practice. I'm supposed to move around with my eyes closed and see if I can keep things right, see if I can stay balanced in the dark and while I move my head around, trying to see what's coming and what's gone. I'm supposed to practice seeing things and moving towards them without falling off balance. I'm supposed to practice telling myself that I'm on solid ground, that I'm not really falling, that I'm ok. But the truth is that I'm practicing that all of the time. We're all practicing that all of the time. We don't know how much of our day goes to keeping ourselves balanced until the balance in gone and we're not really ok any longer. Grad school makes this harder. It makes it harder to know where the lines are, what it means to balance a personal and professional life when so much of one is sewn into the other with tiny, tight stitches. But we're all doing it, and it's hard, and some days, we just can't do it any more and it all spirals out of control. Keeping things balanced is work, and it's a reminder of all the things we do, every day, all the time, that we don't think about, but that are part of keeping things afloat, juggling all the balls without dropping them, standing on our own two feet. Pick your cliche. We do these things because we have to, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Sometimes, the most basic things are the hardest.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Look! A Post!

I'm once again traveling, making blog updates difficult. I always feel guilty when I'm not updating the blog, like I've made a promise by starting it and only writing and posting will fulfill this promise. I had a conversation about this with myself this morning. I asked if I really thought people were desperately waiting to hear from me. No, no I don't. But what, I wondered, if someone was waiting for me to post? How freaking exciting would that be?

Then I wondered why I would be so excited to have waiting readers. My ego snickered at me and rolled its eyes. Please. But I decided there had to be more to it than that. I decided that, in addition to wanting people to want to know what I think, I want people to hear me, to make and hold connections. To be a little bit more human than I usually feel sitting in front of computers.

I'm visiting my very cute and very tiny niece right now. Banana, as I call her (and I'm the only one), doesn't talk yet. But she looks around. She looks around like she's cataloging every single thing. That ribbon and that thread and that stone and that speck of dirt are all grist for the Banana Mill. It's all going in. So I find myself trying really hard to add something to the very long list of new information she's taking in. Yesterday we went to the mall and she had a tutorial on shoe shopping. Last night, I danced with her and sang in her ear. We get around, Banana and I, but the vast majority of our interactions go like this: Banana looks around. I try, with increasingly embarrassing displays, to catch her eye. Finally, she stops looking around long enough to really see me. We make eye contact. She grins a little. And then she goes back to scanning the world around her for something new and more interesting.

I realized earlier today that this is a little like blogging. I often feel like I'm jumping up and down and hollering "look! look! look here!" or muttering, "Oh, please, please tell me you feel this way. You do, right?" I take every site visit as proof that someone looked, someone feels that way, someone paid attention. I take every site visit like I take every grin from my niece: as proof of a connection made and held. That may be pathetic, but I don't care. So don't go away. My traveling will be over soon. I'll be back to regularly making a fool of myself any day now.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


As I flew out of London yesterday, I was a emotional mess. For the second time in two months, I found myself stupidly weepy about leaving a place that I'm growing to love. And then, as the plane took off and I looked down and the landscape blurred to shades of green, I thought, "I'll be coming here for the rest of my life."

It was an incredibly comforting, awe-inspiring thought. I didn't travel a lot as a child, don't really come from a place where people travel per se. Somewhere, I learned to think of travel as something you do to see someone or something. You might return to see a person over and over again, but once you've seen something, well, you've seen it. No need to return. But as London disappeared behind clouds, I realized that traveling didn't mean quick and dirty sightseeing trips to me any longer. Like history, I will not move in a straight, never-ending line. I'll loop around and back, moving across the same routes over and over, exploring and scavenging and living. My moods and needs will color the landscape. As I travel, I am becoming familiar with cities and towns and countries because they provide essential nutrients for my greedy little soul. I will go back to London and back to Boston and back to the hills of Cumbria and Oregon and Ohio because my my heart is turning into a map with twisting roads and starred cities and the names of those places have started to sound like my own name.

When you spend so much of your life as a student, it's incredibly easy to see each milestone as something that's just getting you closer to a goal, life as some kind of prerequisite. Like sightseeing trips, each thing becomes something to gaze at and then check off your list, move on. No matter how hard I try to slow down and realize that this, now, is my life, I find it entirely too easy to view the everyday as some kind of set-up for what's next. It was just plain joyful to have a sudden vision of my life right now as part of a big picture, an already-born future whole. This isn't the stuff I have to do to get on with things. This is the stuff I do. The books I read and the things I write will be books and papers in a long list, a giant whole. A pattern is emerging. This will be the life I've built. It's hard and I'm cranky and lonely a lot, but it's also a good life. I'll be doing these things again and again. I'm traveling.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I've been in the UK for going on a week now. I was first here to deliver a conference paper and now I'm traveling around. The conference paper went well. Delivering it felt like dropping it, syllable by syllable, off a bridge and watching each one race away on the current of the river, an academic game of Pooh Sticks. It was just gone, gone, gone, nothing left to think about but the space it left behind.

I spent several days hiking in The Lakes District and I'm still unsure how I managed to leave. I could have stayed and been happy there for a very long time. The day I arrived at my farmhouse B&B, I looked out my windows at the hills towering above me, dropped my bag, and practically ran up the public footpath to their tops.

Now I'm in York, staying in a lovely little B&B. I have the tiny attic room, up exactly 57 steps. I can look out over the garden and see York hovering above the trees. Last night, I watched a bat flutter and swoon outside my window. The room has been decorated meticulously, with pictures on the walls of women circa 1900. I keep looking at those women and my entire sense of the room shifts. My imagination takes hold and suddenly the room belongs, not just to some lovely lady of long ago, but instead of any one of a number of women characters in movies and books, women who are trapped in the attic, trapped in their father's home, trapped. It makes the attic room seem a little tight all of a sudden. It leaves me wondering what it might have been like to look out those windows and see only the world you couldn't explore. Last night, it left me whispering tiny prayers of gratitude from my atheist lips. Thank god I see the hills outside a bedroom window as a world to tear out into, hair in the wind and dirt on my knees. Thank god I don't look out a window and see what I can't have. Thank god I can wander the countryside on my own, with nothing but time and desire to manage. Thank god to be born a woman and born a woman right now. Thank god.