To Make Anything at All

To make anything at all is kind of a miracle. To do anything other than exactly what you need to do, to eat and stay well and stay sheltered, is the height of magic. This world doesn’t make it easy, and it’s only become more and more grinding in the last year, because not only are we just trying to pay the bills, we’re wondering whether there’s a nuclear attack or some disastrous new rule about to land on our heads.

It gets to be a lot.

But for some of us, me included, there’s some bizarre compulsion at work to make things. And to make things even when it seems like the best answer is to sit home and rock in a chair in a corner, maybe with headphones on, maybe while eating a giant piece of chocolate sheet cake, maybe after having boarded up all the windows.

Sometimes it’s even a stretch to make dinner.

Pat and I made Thanksgiving dinner the other day. Well, on Thanksgiving day. This was a last-minute idea. November is one of those months that feels like there’s a vortex in the middle where time shovels itself when no one is looking. The end of it comes up fast, and the jack-o-lantern carcass is barely scraped off the doorstep before you’re supposed to be defrosting a turkey.

After emailing a few people that I knew (and one last-last-minute Twitter DM), we had a fine guest list. Two pals and two dogs would be coming, for a total of four adults and three beasts. Pat went to Costco in a crushing crowd to bring home a semi-frozen bird, a few bags of groceries arrived from The Internet, and I made one day-of run to the fancy grocery store for things that were the unsung (and thus forgotten) components of various things: walnuts, five-spice powder, tapioca, twine.

As is pre-holiday tradition for my family, I worried. Our apartment is too small, and so warm with the oven that we’d have to open the windows and run a fan. The dogs would be too many, what if they hated each other? The pals hadn’t met before and quite possibly had zero things in common. The sweet potatoes had been on the stove much too long.

But, it was totally fine. The pals were their awesome sociable selves.  No one was mad when the cork fell in the wine bottle and the dogs turned into a three-pup tumbleweed. The turkey got cooked. Poorly spatchcocked with thighs weirdly akimbo, and an hour late, but it was done eventually.  At the end of the night, we sent everyone away with leftovers and hugs; the dogs were like, “Wait, we don’t all live together now?” And the next day Pat and I had the best turkey sandwiches.

To make anything, anything at all, is a miracle. On Thanksgiving morning, I was sitting on the floor of my office thinking about how we were going to get dinner together after all, and the worry began to expand into totally unrelated spheres: how I hadn’t heard from a friend who lived far away and maybe he was dead, and how my projects were behind, and how time suddenly felt so choked, like the grocery store was about to close and also how was I so unsuccessful at such an advanced age?!?

Then I did one of my weird calming tricks, like a Bible dip but just for your bookshelf. I reached for the closest book and flipped it open. It was a book of poems by Campbell McGrath, one of my favorite poets—a signed copy. And inside the cover, he’d addressed it to me, writing, “Keep the faith.”

I’ve made a lot of things. Weird and quirky and ambitious projects, all of them. And each launch has brought up exactly that same feeling, the feeling of standing nervously by the oven with a thermometer. Looking over at the well-meaning grins of people you want to do right by. You’ve checked the thing, and it’s bloody and terrible and fucked up in at least three ways. The good people are happily munching on veggie chips and sipping wine with bits of cork in it. You hope against hope that another twenty minutes in the oven will do it.

Keep the faith.

==

Speaking of weird, homemade, wonderful projects — new podcast! I made this with my sisters: http://www.unsolvedsisteries.com.

I forgot to say

… That I like it here. The strangest part is just liking something, anything. It’s strange to like things when the news is very bad. It seems sort of wrong. So sometimes I just have to say, “We are going to see my friend’s band.” Or, for my birthday, “We are going to all sit in a the back garden of a dive bar and talk about plans to hike the wilderness, and the ways that the gardens are beautiful in New Jersey, and I’ll have a pineapple and ham sandwich called The Hawaiian and someone will buy me a drink.”

It’s strange to like a place with fewer people that I know and love. Just looking at the numbers. But then, some of my Chicago people have visited. And then hanging out is a vacation.

I went on a long hike for two days, an overnight camping thing on the Appalachian Trail, and nearly gave up halfway through and my left big toenail is still black and blue from boots that didn’t quite fit. It’s amazing how something not fitting just the tiniest amount can really get you. My friend Manon, who was the guide on the trip is French–and she says in her elegant French accent when we co-tell our adventures, at the bar for my birthday, “Remember, we have to say it was one of the toughest parts of the Appalachian Trail.” Which is true. We climbed and climbed and climbed and I thought I might perhaps rather lay down in the poison oak and save the trouble of ever getting up or down another mountain. But we did it.

In the van on the way back from the end of the trail, still in our hiking clothes and grubby beyond grubby, a song came on the radio, with the chorus, “That’s what I like, that’s what I like,” and Manon sang along only to this part, above the rushing wind from the rolled-down windows, and our disgruntled driver glared in the rearview mirror.

It’s ok to like things. I don’t like everything. But I like enough things. How people leave little unwanted items on the front steps of their brownstones — children’s clothes, books, snow boots, dolls, cassettes. Anything and everything. How the golden fall sun looks coming in through the trees in the back, just beyond our fire escape. It looks like a jungle back there. How there are like six bakeries within five blocks, and all of them have good Italian bread. One has cannoli which are completely acceptable, and sometimes I stop in and buy one and tuck it into my backpack for later. Another is mostly chocolate things, and no bread, but it does have dark hot chocolate, which is perfect for dreary days when everything seems unmanageable.

Which, still, is some days. Because our routines aren’t quite right. The food cupboard forgets how to stay full. The dish soap runs out when we’re not looking. The dog wants to eat dinner earlier and earlier, and now he’s nudging my hands off my keyboard at 1:30pm.

But these things are small, and nothing compared to what the world looks like on my screen(s) every day. It is strange to have knowledge of and care for such a large geographic area that you don’t even get the same weather. I’m not sure many generations of humans have ever had to feel this way. By the time they got the letters from their sailors or pirates at sea, the storm was already over.

Oh look, the world changed

Here’s what’s happened. You may have not noticed. Here in the United States, from which I write to you, there are the following differences:

-New president

-Everyone is protesting on the weekends

-Reading the news is similar to pouring boiling oil on one’s face

-Lots of chaos, all the time

I just wanted to point this out. Maybe you’ve been living somewhere lovely, like a spa. Maybe you’re a caretaker at a spa in Iceland and have spotty wifi and no need to check out CNN.com, and reading this website is the last remaining thing in your RSS feed, and since I haven’t posted in a while you maybe just didn’t know.

Me? Awash in coping strategies. I’m listening to podcasts about murder. I’m going to the arcade a lot, and playing the Jurassic Park game where you shoot a bunch of dinosaurs. I’m listening to Nirvana and Brian Eno and Chance.

Also? Moving to New York in June. I’m winding down work on certain projects, and ramping up work on new ones. Transitions are not my strongest talent. Usually they make me crazy. So, bracing for crazy, but maybe it’ll be different this time. I have all those coping strategies, and the world is falling apart at the seams anyway, so maybe if this little thread comes loose, it won’t even make a difference. We’re boxing up the books and typewriters, and KonMari-ing our clothes. (Turns out, I mostly own t-shirts with event logos and alcohol brands on them, and a million pairs of novelty socks.)

But, it’s ok. It’s time to try something new. Spring is a time for new things, and spring is almost here; for real. I saw buds on the trees, goddammit. I saw them. So we go.

The only regret I had

About five years ago, I was lying on a hospital gurney in an E.R. in Bangkok, with my friend Oriana and a mystified doctor standing over me.

I had come down with some mysterious ailment, which, I now know, is not that weird for a traveler. Stress and new foods and 20 hours on a plane with unknown germs, they all do things to us. But at the time, of course, it was a crisis, and I was ultra-weak and nearly unconscious, and convinced this was my last day on the planet. Not to mention: The city was flooding, because of course it was, and the power had been unreliable in some parts of the city. We’d stepped over sandbags just to get in the door.

One would imagine this would be troubling. Time to panic. There were other times for panic, for sure. But in that particular moment, I surprised myself. Looking up at the overhead light and the blank ceiling, not only did I feel totally peaceful, I almost laughed out loud.

What was funny was this: I’d been trying so hard. So hard. To find the right thing to do with my life. To spend my energy on beautiful, purposeful things. To not be suckered by money and prestige, to try to find meaning and authenticity instead. I’d selected these stars to steer by very early on, and I hadn’t questioned them since I was maybe 22 or so. This was the plan.

Of course, this could beget a very anxiety-filled existence. You’re always wondering: is this the best use of my time? Are these the right people to be with? Is this the most perfect path?

You can see how this would make a person crazy. It sounds insane, to write it out.

But, again, I hadn’t stepped back to consider this.

And suddenly, flat on my back, imagining the waters rising around Bangkok’s city center, I thought, “What if this was the story? What if this is how it ends? I spent all that time trying to know everything, be a stronger, better person, and for what? For some imagined future that’s never coming. I could have just relaxed a little. I could have just been nicer to myself.”

And that, for whatever reason, was hilarious. In a sort of slapstick, I Love Lucy-esque way.

So I laughed, in my head. I don’t think I laughed out loud, although maybe I did. And then, the power went out in the hospital, and I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in the ICU.

But anyway.

People of a certain disposition think they need to be constantly improving themselves, that they are not enough as they are.

(Other people, of course, are big fans of taco bowls and think they don’t need any improvements whatsoever.)

For those who think they need to start mainlining self-improvement before they’re certified to walk out the door, I’ll just gently suggest that this is not the case, and state the obvious: a lot of people make a lot of money by telling people, especially women, that they’re serious fixer-uppers. And in fact, the very thing making you feel crazy is probably that you’re inundated by chipper tips to “boost your self-confidence” and “lean in” and “stop apologizing” and “live the life you’ve imagined.”

In the face of such an avalanche, it’s easy to see why a quieter, less marketable philosophy like, “You are sufficient,” becomes easily lost. There’s no great mystery about it, it requires no multi-step processes, it makes for terrible clickbait, and it won’t sell any books. But on my last day on earth, it’s the only thing I knew.

 

Looking inside glass boxes for fun and profit

A couple weeks ago, I was downtown for a work thing but had time to kill, so I walked over to the Macy’s holiday windows on State Street. These tiny encased worlds, every year they’re there. This year the theme was “Santa’s Journey to the Stars” — lots of outer-space imagery; planets aglow.

I’ll be honest, I was surprised at the crowds. I assumed that kids were beyond this sort of thing. IMAX or it didn’t happen. But no, there they were, huddled amongst parents and siblings, pointing and exclaiming just as always. What is it about these windows that makes us cluster around?

Something about the enclosed nature of these windows always makes them irresistible. There’s glass between us and this super-interesting thing? Of course, that’s where we press our noses.

But even more magnetic is this: everything inside is MADE OF REAL THINGS. Fake things, but real. Moving parts, set to music. Pieces of robotic machinery that make dolls come to life, that make backdrops turn. An arm raises up a gift box, a star zings across an imaginary sky, and suddenly we’re inside that glass. Inside, with the robots who seem more lifelike than anything on the outside.

On every level, the visceral becomes more valuable in a digital world. It’s the same reason that live literary performances have become so popular, where it’s one writer onstage with her own story, breathing the same breath as everyone else, full of pauses and coughs in the wrong place.

I have a strange, through-the-looking-glass perspective on this one. I was hired to be a real-life mannequin in store windows, in high school. On Saturdays, I stood in a mall window. In an outfit that would otherwise have been on a mannequin. And I pretended to be made of plastic. Then, after fifteen minutes of not moving, I’d change clothes again.

Kids always clustered around. Some banged on the glass occasionally, but mostly they were reverent. Suspicious, but charmed by the idea of something living in that window.

Of course, the weird part was, as a friend recently noted, “You were literally objectified.”

I didn’t do this gig for long, just a handful of Saturdays over a few years, where it earned me twenty bucks an hour. The grocery store paid me five. But I did learn what it’s like to be on the other side of that glass. To be lingered over, to wondered about. And this was before so much of our world became screens, without so much as the texture of a pressable button.

Texture. Realness.

We need these things.

And underlying all of our slick pixels there’s still wires, still circuitry. Nothing is actually made of magic– not yet. I did get a Raspberry Pi for Christmas, which reminds me of the engines my grandfather and uncles used to work on in the driveway. All the parts laid bare. So clean you could eat off it, they used to say. I haven’t done much yet–just opened the box–but everything inside glitters.

Things we don’t forget

A long time ago, in a land far away–called Evanston–I lived in a dorm with a lot of wonderful people. We were misfits who tromped across town to get pancakes or burgers at midnight. (We sang songs from Rent as we walked, just to complete the nerd-ness). Some nights, we stayed up late talking in packs of 10 or 12, shouting theories about filmmaking across the communal living room. I got the sense that these conversations were everything, that they were simply not to be missed, even though I had zero to say about the aesthetics of Evil Dead 2. We were weird and snarky and silly.

Our realm felt so safe. I could say whatever I thought, and chances are, someone in the room understood me. I could fall asleep in the middle of those conversations and curl up like a puppy, just happy for the hum of voices overhead.

Somehow or other we all grew up, and became the creative professionals we once dreamed of being.

One of those people was Max, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Paris now, and he presents us all with a scene from a bench near the recent attacks. 

Wild hearts need telescope-kaleidoscopes

I make a literary podcast each month, with some funny and smart people. Part of the schtick between me and my co-host is that we answer questions related to each episode’s theme, debate-style. In the latest recording session (for our upcoming Study vs. Cheat episode) I was asked which three items I’d want in my ideal study. With reality being no object.

I said, in that case, I needed just one item: a telescope-kaleidoscope.

My persona on that podcast is a little sillier than the actual me, and it’s meant to juxtapose the gruffness of my co-host. But I would actually like a telescope-kaleidoscope. A device that is a telescope at night, a kaleidoscope by day. Right?

It’s because I like to drift. My mind works in waves; sometimes I’m so focused, it’s the equivalent of being in a deep dream state. Other times, I can’t latch in to any particular task or topic. In between, there’s a weird idea phase that works when I’m partially engaged and partially just floating.

It happens when I’m just waking up or just falling asleep, often. I’ll be 40 percent awake, inventing something to solve a problem. And by the time the alarm goes off, there it is. I’ve mocked-up apps, written treatments for a television series series, problem-solved soundproofing issues, framed out screenplays. Are they good? I usually write everything down in a rush on my phone when I wake up, convinced it’s a priceless idea, and then look at it after I’ve brushed my teeth and wonder what I was thinking.

Here’s what I woke up with most recently, with a vivid mental picture of the whole first quarter of the film:

James is a kid dating a beautiful but cruel girl (Katie) who is into ice skating, and one day at the rink he meets a girl who is less beautiful who just needs a partner for a particular exercise. (SARAH JESSICA PARKER). They hit it off and leave together, with Katie yelling at them, and the new girl is mad because she didn’t know Katie was with James to begin with. SJP loses her ID and can’t get on the train home, she walks home with James and stays the night, his mother feeds her soup, we see SJP start winning and James proves to be an awesome partner. Although of course obstacles ensue. Set in Buffalo or Philly, Rocky and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken but on ice and no horse. The woman is a manic pixie dream girl, but it is her who needs the help. 

What obstacles ensue? Who knows, I woke up. Given the Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken reference, maybe she goes blind! Also, maybe we recast Sarah Jessica Parker.

A telescope-kaleidoscope would be the perfect little pause in my every day day-ness, maybe if I wrote these things while zoned-out but not half asleep, they’d solve world peace or something. Kickstarter, make it so.