Best of the Net

My story, “Incubus,” published by Chrome Baby back in May, was just nominated by the editor of same for the 2018 “Best of the Net“. I think they make their decisions in September, so wish me luck. In any event, it’s nice to be nominated. At the above link you can read the 2017 winners.

Warning, “Incubus” is a creepy story, definitely not for the literati or the sensitive. Of that I am rather proud. Chrome Baby’s front page says it all: “Do you like to fuck shit up? We love it. We love it real long time.”

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“Miss Gemelli”

“Miss Gemelli” is a weird story. It came to me almost all at once, while I sat on the porch of this house we fled to after Hurricane Sandy inundated our street. We’d spent two weeks trying to salvage stuff, like everyone else on the block, while various officials wandered by in officially-logoed wetsuits, telling everyone that the street would be bulldozed as a biohazard. Whaaaaa? No, baby, my street’s still there. But if you’ve never been through what they’re calling now an “extreme natural weather event,” you haven’t experienced the secondary extreme event–that of hearsay/rumor/misinformation. You haven’t experienced how manipulative “the authorities” can be (whoever they were at that point, none of them even knew who was in charge of what), when they want to scare the hell out of folks to keep them docile. We were threatened with bulldozing, toxicity, fires, looters, and various disgusting diseases. Sigh. Good times.

But that’s not at all what the story’s about. (I’ve actually been trying to write about Sandy for years, to no avail.) No, the story came, as I said, out of the blue. Or rather, the dusk. I was by myself, having a glass of wine, bundled up against a cold, wet, December night, on the back porch of a little, old house on a dead end street in Ulster County, New York. This voice, this persona just started telling her story. It was way too long, and a lot of it made no sense. Six years later, I dug it out, revised it, and sent it to a few places. Okay, more than a few, that was how much I believed in the story. Silly me: Reject, reject, reject (recursive iteration). One really encouraging reject from Margot Livesey, then of Ploughshares, kept Miss Gemelli from being resigned to complete hard-drive oblivion (Thank you Ms. Livesey! Not that you’d remember. It was the one about the girl-fight and the lizard.)
I know it’s not a story any self-respecting MFA grad would ever write. (Not that I really know what any self-respecting MFA grad would write. I’m incapable of cracking that code.) The narrator’s a curmudgeon and there’s no female solidarity in it whatsoever, and the voice is either too stylized or not stylized enough.

But, it’s true in the way fiction is true. That is, it came from someone who really needed to speak. And I trusted her.

So finally, she’s out and about in cyberspace, with her bad self. I did my part, and now she’s on her own. Scroll down to page 77. She’s also in very good company, see for yourself.

No, the story’s not about Hurricane Sandy at all. But, if you listen really close, you might hear a little of the wind, catch a whiff of floodwater and gasoline, hear someone whispering about what, or who, they lost.

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Offering Prayer: Or What I Brought to Standing Rock

is up on Gemini Magazine, go here to see it, go here to see the other winners. (Those OTHERS).

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Honorable Mention, Bloody Keys, Publication

Ok, there are two good news items to report, which are personal good news items. Personal, I mean, because the country is going to hell in a handcart, and every day I literally feel the unsustainability of this whole thing we call the uber-capitalistic, military-obsessed US of A. Shaky ground, I’m talking. So much so that I question the very validity of writing–do we really need more words? What we need is more body–more knowing what it feels like to be terrified, elated, cautious, determined, panicked, freezing, sweaty, hurt, happy, blissful–on a real level, a gut-level. In our bones and skin and all dat. Then maybe we wouldn’t be so free with the bombs and the drones and the tasers and the prisons and the slaughterhouses and the oceanic dead zones. Words don’t do much about that. Sorry. Well, maybe poetry. Sometimes poetry.

Anyway far be it from this writer to go all political on ya. We all know that to be a successful writer you cannot bite the machine that feeds ya (nor can you mix metaphors like I just did, unless the NYTimes says you can.). But, political I be, and one of the good news items is that I won an Honorable Mention in Gemini Magazine’s Poetry Open contest, for a very political poem, about Standing Rock, and the all too brief time I spent there. Will include the link to the poem when I get it.

The second good news is that my story “Miss Gemelli” will be published by the Bloody Key Society, a literary magazine out of Montreal. I’ll include the link when I get it.

The third item is that the Bloody Key Society deserves your eyes, and your support. It’s a new literary magazine, and, from what I’ve read on it, a very worthy one (not because they are publishing me. I don’t tend to send stuff to places I don’t like, ergo it was worthy before it said yes to me 😉 ). Not only do they showcase good stuff, but they actually pay their authors. For this alone, they deserve your patronage. And, my little, unskillful plug for their crowdsource fundraiser.. I know I just got done complaining about capitalism. But we live in it, and it tends to f**k with the arts. So, BKS needs your support, baby. Go there, read, enjoy, and drop a couple bucks into the hat. Or onto the keys. Never mind the blood.

Thank you and good night, fellow ferals.

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Stance on Dance

Lately, I’ve been struggling with including the dancer part of me–the one I tried to kill off long ago–into my current life as a lawyer and writer.

So, here’s the writer/lawyer musing about professionalism in dance, published on the wonderful site–Stance on Dance (under the name Lorien House). My article is part of a series on what it means to be a professional dancer in a country that devalues art, especially dance.

Check it out. Even if you’re not a dancer and have (so you think) little interest in dance, Emmaly Wiederholt’s site is a wonderful read. And if you are interested in dance, the site is gold.

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La mujer que buceó dentro del corazón del mundo, and Animal, a Beast of a Literary Magazine

I’ve been re-reading Sabina Berman’s novel–La mujer que buceó dentro del corazón del mundo. In brief–the story concerns an autistic woman (I think based pretty solidly on Temple Grandin) whose aunt owns a tuna fishery and processing plant in Mazatlan, Sinaloa. The protagonist–Karen Nieto, winds up, like Grandin, figuring out ways to make killing tuna more and more “humane” until finally…(unlike Grandin)…well I won’t spoil it for you. Read it! It’s a great book, and is available in English, too.

What captured my attention the first time I read it, and is incredibly poignant right now in my life, because I’ve been having to deal daily with human beings, is how Karen Nieto (aka Berman) describes her unease around most “humanos standard.” She describes a “bubble” in which neurotypical humans only talk to, see, and think about other humans. They don’t see out of that bubble, to anything or anyone else. I’ve been experiencing that lately–and something else as well–how humans fill the space around them so full of their human-ness it’s almost hard to breathe…

Anyway, this is a writing blog, not an Aspie blog. But Karen Nieto’s (aka Berman’s) description applies in spades to the literary world. In the 7 or so years in which I’ve taken writing seriously–read literary magazines, took classes, sent work out, got rejected (mostly) and published (sometimes)–I’ve noticed that if animals appear at all in contemporary literary fiction, they’re usually victims without any real agency or role except to die and illustrate something deep about the entities who REALLY matter–humans. Or they don’t appear at all. I remember reading an entire book without ONE reference to any kind of non-human creature. A world of buildings and humans. Ugh. You’ll notice I said “contemporary.” Animals peopled the literature of the past way more, it seems. (Don Quixote’s horse, Moby Dick, etc.)

There are exceptions of course–Deb Olin Unferth comes to mind–a brilliant exception.

And–another brilliant exception: Animal, A Beast of a Literary Magazine.

And that’s the thing I really wanted to say in this post.

Animal will be publishing a short essay of mine, entitled “Feral Manifesto.” Which is not an ironic title at all. It’ll be out in March. I’ll post a link when I get it. Yay!

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Inspiration, or how another story will see the light of day

Winter Solstice, the end of a long and strange year–time to talk about inspiration.

Inspiration. Serious writers don’t like the word, it’s kind of embarrassing and vulgar and shows a lack of commitment to the laborious toil that writing is supposed to be. 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration goes the formula, although I’d say that even the 5% these days is suspect. If you search on your friendly, almost non-neutral internet (I use DuckDuckGo, not Google, so I’m not going to tell anyone to Google anything) for “writing advice” you’ll read a bunch of stuff about craft, persistence, writing every day, having a word quota, reading and analyzing books you like and those you don’t, taking courses, joining a writing group, etc. And there will be pages and pages and words and words and words in galactic quantities about that God of Gods of modern writing–REVISION. Because what you first put down will never be good enough, it will always need to be put through a meat grinder again and again until it gets easy for the literati to swallow.
It’s all great advice, and true, and all that. Don’t get me wrong. This blog probably illustrates quite well the perils of not revising your work. (self-deprecation moment #134).

But in your search, I bet you don’t find too many words about inspiration. Yet–it exists. And sometimes it makes the difference between a story and an exercise in crafty, beautiful writing that doesn’t go anywhere.

In her autobiography Paula, Isabel Allende told how she’d written a collection of short stories once, although her focus and talent had always been, and remained, novels. She said that the short stories came as flashes of inspiration, almost fully written before she sat down to put them on paper. In contrast, novels required patience and daily work, not so much inspiration.

I can second that. In my limited experience with writing success (self-dep moment #135), the stories and poems that I’ve managed to place, or those that got some kind of recognition in contests, were and are exactly those that came out of inspiration. AND, strangely enough, those that I revised very little.

When I said that to a writing friend, she almost got offended, as if I were bragging. But I wasn’t. The truth is, each little “inspired” story came about after writing and revising and writing and discarding, hundreds, if not thousands of other stories. The “inspired” ones came like gifts: okay, here’s one for you so you put down the rat poison or the razor blade. They came from somewhere else, not to get too woo woo. Call it inspiration, or I’ll have to get spiritual on yah.

And, the inspiration doesn’t have to result in something high minded and beautiful, at least not in my case. Nor does it have to come from there. I just placed a creepy story (it will come out in April or May) about a violent mutant. Where did that inspiration come from, you ask? Well, it came from a place of semi-snark. I’d read an article by the editor of a well-respected literary magazine on what he DIDN’T want to see in a story, and I thought it would be funny to write a story with all those non-literati elements in them. I didn’t act on the idea right away, just thought it would be funny. But then came the inspiration, and the story fell out of that. And it sold.

Sometimes, just sometimes, mind you, because I do actually agree with all the labor and toil writing advice mentioned above, but sometimes–a story is a gift. And you can’t put what comes out under the microscope, or pick it apart. And, you know, you kinda know when that happens, or you should. It doesn’t happen often, at least not to me. Just sometimes.

And now, back to perspiration. Get out the deodorant.

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Finalist in New Millenium’s Flash Fiction Contest

I didn’t even know until a friend emailed me about it! It’s good, it comes at a time of serious funk between the ears. (Not the good kind of funk–as in George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic. The bad kind–as in “I suck”).

Here’s the announcement. Scroll down to see mine–it’s “The Perfect Essay” written as Lorien House (my old self comes through). And you can read the winning story, too, which I wish I’d written. I love New Millenium Writings!

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Vulnerability and its Disco-tents

I know, I know, I can never let the word “discontent” go by without the disco reference, although I never discoed in a tent. I’m not against the idea, however. It makes me feel mighty real.

Anyway. This morning I was thinking about this presenter at the WD Conference last August, whose thing was vulnerability. He did some group workshops in which people, as far as I know, were supposed to share things about themselves that made them feel, I dunno, bad, or like fuck-ups or, like stupid or evil people (i.e. not mighty real), and then people would hug them for being so brave as to share the failure or fuckup. Now, I did not go to these workshops, so I don’t really know what went on, so take everything from here on down with the proverbial crystalline substance. (SALT, baby, don’t get yer skin all a-shudder). The Vulnors (my word) also had a sort of blackboard, a black movable screen made of cardboard or something, which they had stationed at one end of the hall that lead to all the conference rooms. The object was to write things on it. So even if you didn’t want to participate in the vulnerability training you could write down some inner hurt, some hope, some message of love or solidarity or something like that, I presume. Again, I didn’t write. What was I going to say? “Nice wall?” Or some dubious attempt at humor, which would have, given my general mood during the conference (overwhelmed and speechless, GREAT for a writer!) come out as twisted and directionless and Aspergian as some of my blog posts.
(Who me?)

Anyway, the gist of the vulnerability thing, training, whatever it was, was that it’s good to be vulnerable. And that people walk around too guarded most of the time.

Actually, I think the second part of that statement is wrong, especially in the U.S. I don’t find most people particularly guarded. On the contrary, a lot of people broadcast themselves pretty freely. Like people who interrupt a speaker to tell the speaker why what the speaker is saying doesn’t work for them, personally, which happened a few times at the conference. As if the speaker needs to hear from that one person, at that moment. (Which is not at all what I’m doing here. NOT AT ALL). Or like people who tell you about their amazing food allergy journeys while all you want to do is pay for your cabbage. Or, um . . . facebook . . .

But leaving that aside, let’s examine the issue in a more linear fashion than Glena normally engages in.
First, let’s define.
According to dictionary.com, vulnerable means:
1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon:
a vulnerable part of the body.
2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.:
an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.
3. (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend:
a vulnerable bridge.
4. Bridge. having won one of the games of a rubber.

Let’s, for the moment, leave aside number 4, which, to me, because I don’t play bridge, is kind of inexplicable. But I have to say in passing that: wow, what a sentence! “Having won one of the games of a rubber, she peeled herself off his . . . ” Oh, but I go too far. I go too far. Let’s get our minds out of the rubbers and onto the page.

Numero 3 is also kind of unhelpful, because people aren’t really places, although that reminds me of one of those ice-breaker or creativity-forcer type test questions you can find reams and reams of on the internet, i.e. “If you were a place, what kind of place would you be?” I bet no one says they’d be an anthill. Or a beehive. Or an embalming room. But I digress again, albeit in a far less sexual and offensive manner.

That leaves #s 1 and 2. I don’t think the Vulnors at the conference meant #2, exactly, although, yeah, “open to criticism” works, because I believe one of the points to the vul-training was to heal yourself from this insane fear of criticism that makes us so stiff and so unable to “be ourselves,” which, of course, is a magic panacea in the U.S. Be yourself and you’ll succeed, gain friends, money, you’re a genius, you’re already a millionaire. You just don’t know it yet, because you’re too busy trying to be someone else.

But what if you go around being yourself and you’re still unemployed or poor, what then? Well either it’s YOUR fault for not being ENOUGH of yourself, or it’s just a bad patch and sooner or later you’ll get your moment. So let’s admit that if we say, “be yourself and you’ll still fail” that might be a turn off for most people, even if the fault DOES in fact lie with the system they’re stuck in, not any lack of authenticity.

But–worse yet—what if the real you is actually a fuck of a person, a real jerk, and not the kind of charismatic or humorous jerk you think you are, but a jerk that sours the very air around you, the kind of jerk that saps the very will to live of his or her fellow humans? In that case, I’d say, very emphatically, “Do NOT be yourself. Don’t do it. Be Mother Teresa instead. Please.” I’d really want you to be that, to find some Mother Teresa-ness floating in the air and grab it and act as if you had it in you, and, you know, forget the real you because in these times of trouble, the last thing we need is another real you who is a supreme, death-wish-inducing jerk. I’d rather have a hundred fractional Mother Teresas than one whole supreme death-wish-inducing jerk. In this country, above all. Where we specialize in the circle jerk. (Did I just go too far again?)

Sigh. I am the fucking queen of the tangent. As well as the circle . . . aw shut up, bad Glena! Stop being yourself.

Okay. Back to the point(s).
Vulnerability, definition numero 1–Capable or susceptible of being wounded.
Is this what they mean? Is this good?
I think what the Vulnors are saying is that defensiveness is bad. Sure, sometimes it is. Not always, but if it becomes a habitual thing, it probably is. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me. I know you stopped reading this blog two paragraphs ago. I know you’ve always hated me. F**k you – that kind of thing. My mother, bless her soul, used to “overhear” people saying bad things about her in the strangest places. Like on Ferris Wheels. So. . . not so good. But again, I tangent.

But, does “defensiveness is bad” automatically equal “vulnerability is good?” And if vulnerability is good, does vulnerability come from confessing some idiotic shit in public and then letting people hug you? (As an Aspergian, I don’t really care for the hug. I have a quota of lifetime hugs, and I believe I’ve almost reached it, so I’d rather not spend the last few being hugged in a freezing hotel hallway by desconocidos).

So: Is vulnerability good? Let’s unpack some of the assumed (based on observation of the vul-training video) benefits of vulnerability.

Vulnerability makes you feel better—because you’re not holding in a lot of putrefying shit.
Vulnerability makes other people like you.

Let’s take the second one first. There’s some truth in it. I’m watching a TV series on Netflix, called El Mar de Plastico (Spain) (which has nothing to do with the great Pacific garbage patch, the subject of a future post). It’s a cop show, basically, with serial killers and a lot of twists and turns and great characters and cultural and racial clashes while they’re at it, all set in contemporary Southern Spain. It’s one of the best cop shows I’ve ever seen actually. One of the main characters is a detective named Hector, who’s got PTSD from being in Afghanistan. He’s kind of wounded and obsessive and has very little sense of humor, yet he’s one of the most likable cop characters I’ve come across in any show. He’s also really tough: like jumping into cars from motorcycles tough, cars that contain heavily armed Serbian criminals. So he’s not vulnerable like he’s going to go in for confessing some jerky thing from his past in front of a bunch of corporate team builders. But he is vulnerable, insofar as he’s wounded. What makes him likable? I think it’s that aspect–the vulnerability, which is, in his case, bravery. But more important it’s his complete lack of swagger. The actor (Rodolfo Sancho) plays Hector as a moody but moral and compassionate loner. It works.

So we can say that the vulnerability is part of what makes him likable. He doesn’t pretend to be okay.

Another example is Lola (Nya de la Rubia), from the same series. She’s from a very traditional family of Gitanos (gypsies) and her father basically disowned her for becoming a cop. She’s also in love with Hector, but he doesn’t return the love. So those are two vulnerable points. But she’s also as brave and tough as Hector, AND, she’s always defending her family even when they turn their backs on her.

Then there’s Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben’s books. He’s got more swagger and humor than Hector, but he’s also got Achilles heels—he does occasional stupid things, he feels shit he doesn’t want to feel. But he’s also a character in a book, so you see his internal dialog. That’s a little different, he’s not getting up in front of a group saying that he once took ten dollars from a poor old lady across the street. Although if Myron Bolitar had done so, he would probably confess it, and then set about making it right. For the rest of his life. Because Myron, like Hector, has a morality code, and is obsessive in that good way.

And of course–Jane Eyre, nuff said.

So these characters are vulnerable, but that’s only a small part of what makes them likable. What makes them likable is that they are brave, and that they aren’t full of shit. Therefore, vulnerability helps make you likable as long as you have other stuff going on. Like compassion for others, or a sense of humor. I think I’m talking about “character,” as in the thing you build via misery. GREAT.

Accordingly, likability doesn’t automatically arise with the kind of confessional vulnerability I’m talking about here.

Second assumption: Vulnerability makes you feel better about yourself. You unburden, so you aren’t walking around armed to the teeth all the time, or ready to fight. Because that’s tension, and everybody knows that tension is bad for artists. Right? Right? (hmmm. But could a dancer spin without any tension? Could he leap or raise his leg above his ear? Shut up, Glena. Five sides to every fucking coin.)

I believe this kind of unburdening was, at base, what was being sold in the Vulnerability workshops. Telling something about yourself that you’ve always felt ashamed of, or weird about. For example (and this isn’t the first time I’ve told this story) When I was about 8 years old, I broke into the house across the street. Friends of ours lived there, but they were gone, and we didn’t know when or if they’d be back. You have to know I loved these people—a childless couple—in fact they saved my sanity back then. When they left, I felt lost. What did I do? This is so logical it hurts. I broke into their house. I didn’t take anything–oh maybe a triscuit, which was all they’d left in the kitchen. I didn’t feel what I wanted to feel from being there. There was an initial rush of excitement when the window I’d jimmied gave way, but when I went inside–pure sadness. This desolate little house. Without the couple in it, I swear the place mourned. I swear the walls changed color, went pale, the dust didn’t even swirl in the shafts of sun coming through the bare windows. Everything lay still and flat. It overwhelmed me—this intense, intense quiet. Nothing scary either, the house didn’t creak or sigh and the words GET OUT didn’t suddenly appear in dripping blood on the walls. It was just–sad. I think the couple was so vibrant that when they were there, the house seemed super full of books and games and color and light, but without them in it, you saw that they didn’t really have a lot of stuff at all. It was empty. All that fun came from them, not from stuff. Without them, the house was a lonely little box.

Anyway, it was summer, I was 8 years old and somewhat troubled, albeit largely invisibly. After the first time, I told my brother and a friend and we all went in. It was fun showing them how to get the window open and then put it back the way it was, but once we were in, the joy, as before, disappeared. They felt it too. We went in a couple more times, and then we stopped. But then, guess what? I started feeling this fierce, grinding guilt. Teeth-gnashing, you may call it, or twisting, because that’s what it would do: make me twist and writhe, trying to get comfortable, trying to get my evil act out of my mind. I finally told my mother. Punishment followed, although not as bad as I’d thought it would be. My parents tended to over-punish for relatively minor infractions–like “being smart,” and under-punish for things like B&E. The worst of the punishment was having to call and tell the couple what I’d done.

Did I feel better having confessed? Yes, in that the guilt was incessant and painful and obligated me to tell on myself. No, in that I didn’t feel “understood” or “accepted” or any of those things that I assume the Vulnors are looking for. But maybe that’s a function of time. Do I feel better for writing down that episode? Not really. I mean I’ve long since stopped feeling bad for that break in, so it’s pretty much just a story. But the Vulnor-man himself, the head of the Vul-trainings, confessed something similar–that he’d robbed some money from his first employer, who’d been such a nice man. The trainer felt bad about that little bit of larceny—small and mean. Telling it, the way he framed it, I guess, left him open to criticism. So he felt brave facing that. Yes, I get that. Facing potential criticism is hard.

Next, a white woman (I’m talking now about the video they showed), talked about a moment when she’d had a racist thought, and how bad it made her feel that she was that kind of person, a person who could have such a thought. So hers was less of a confession and more of a “I may look perfect but I’m not” moment. And, well, I don’t wanna get all “yeah, and?” on you, but most white people in the U.S. are racist, and/or nationalistic, and/or insert particular xenophobia here, to some extent, and yes, we should admit it. But THEN, we should try to see how it affects the things we do every day—the wars we don’t protest against, the environmental devastation that’s way worse in POC communities (and why IS that??), the laws on non-violent crimes, which give us the second highest incarceration rate in the world and disproportionately affect POC.  (The highest, apparently, is the Seychelles??? Remind me not to go there. They might have very long Statutes of Limitation, and I just confessed to a B&E). So, this woman’s confession was indeed brave. But, is that enough?

Back to the narrow discussion: did this woman’s admission of her racism make her feel better? Maybe, I dunno. Maybe she got a hug for being so brave as to admit it among such an enlightened and earnest bunch of folks as writers—NONE of whom, especially not the white ones, are at ALL racist, right??? But, what if she’d just admitted it to herself? Would she have felt as good? Probably not. But would she have used the information to do some “good,” even if that meant on a very personal level? Maybe. I don’t think the V-training was about actually doing stuff, other than hugging each other for sharing. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seemed to be about “me”. Kinda. The “ME”, I mean. THE ME.

Which brings me to the two reasons it made me a little queasy, the whole thing: One: It’s about “ME” feeling better about myself, feeling I can “open up” and people won’t hurl invective at me or hit me, or, in my case, set my hair on fire (yeah, really. You get why I’m not big on vulnerability?)

Two: It’s a commodity. I think this is, for me, the real turn off. Vulnerability as “new thing,” as “schtick,” as corporate team building. As means to an end—the end being success in our late-capitalist context. Sales, money, fame, all o dat. Hey, I can’t hurl stones, I went to the damn Conference to learn about the BIZ. But let’s be honest, folks, “vulnerability” is not something you have to buy. All humans are vulnerable to some extent. “Opening up,” whether in some Yoga or Buddhist or Team Building context, always seems to have to do with extroverts telling introverts they need to be extroverts. It doesn’t work, even when you couch it in lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, “sharing wall” and hugs and tears of the “I was so moved” variety. It doesn’t. Sorry. In fact, it makes this introvert freeze up. There’s something too, I dunno, unearned about all of it. The trappings of intimacy without the real blood and sweat of it. Aw, maybe I should just relax and admit it’s all good.

I’m a fan of non-human animals as examples for us humans. Many mammals, for instance, are “open” when they’re with family, herd, pack, whatever—meaning that they play. So I’ll take that as my definition for vulnerability—the ability to play. But those same animals know that in some contexts, you don’t let your guard down. And you need to know those contexts for yourself. If you’re lucky (like most cats) your ma teaches you. Otherwise, if you err on the side of “closed” you probably live longer. Or in the late modern context–stay sane longer.

One more thing on the subject, and then, te lo juro, I will STFU. Just this: I can’t imagine Thomas Pynchon ever taking part in a vulnerability workshop. There. Nuff said. I coulda saved the rest of the 3k plus verbiage.

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Of Dance and Octopi (and Writing) Part I

I’ve been reading a book about octopi. Oops. That’s not the preferred plural.**

So let me start over. I’ve been reading a book about octopuses–Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It’s not so much about octopuses as it is about intelligence–theirs and ours–and the similarities and differences between them. Mr. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, not a biologist. His aim is, as the title indicates, to muse on, or make a case for, intelligence, actually “consciousness,” having developed in two very different lines of evolution–cephalopod and mammal. Well, I’m not a hard audience for that. I think the idea that consciousness is limited to the human species is a blind one–a kind of Prince Harweda one (see below). So, for an audience made up of people like me, Godfrey-Smith has to spend time on the octopuses and the science rather than the philosophy. He does that. But, for his other audience–his fellow philosophers–he has to convince them, through accepted philosophical arguments, of his proposal. He does that too, I believe. In any event, there are whole chunks of philosophy in the book. I could actually read them and halfway understand them because (a) he’s a good writer, and (b) he sandwiches them in between the octopus-heavy parts (the fun parts), and thus tricks you into following along.

That said, a lot of the philosophical ideas he mentions made go “huh?” because I’m so very much NOT a philosopher. For example: the idea, prevalent probably in both science and philosophy, that you need words for complex thoughts. That strikes me as purely wrong. Godfrey-Smith does refute it with two very good examples, which, if I’d had the power of complex thought while reading it, I’d have come up with in a heartbeat (see how I’m sneaking the body in here? That’ll serve us well later on). The two examples are: (1) complex thought in deaf-mutes in a pre-literate society and (2) a very extreme case (fairly recent & documented) where a man suffered attacks of aphasia without warning. During these attacks, he lost all linguistic ability–all language: words, meanings, sounds. But he was still able to function quite well, for example by pointing at menus and being satisfied with what he got. (Of course, Billy Connolly might have had a problem with that approach.)

Again. If I’d had the power of complex thought at the time I read Godfrey-Smith’s examples, I’d have come up with one of my own: dancing.

I’m not taking about social dancing, really, although I’m not saying it wouldn’t apply. I’m talking about being onstage–maybe even a stage you saw for the first time yesterday–in the middle of a fast and intricate segment of dance, with bodies flying all around you, and the audience out there in front of you, and one wrong step and you crash, or you mess up the artistic vision of the choreographer, some of whom can be a bit unforgiving about that kind of thing. But that’s a second level worry–the vision of the choreographer. The first level thing is the crash, which leads directly to the body. What’s going on in this situation? Not words, if my experience is at all typical. There are the senses: sounds (music) sights, smells, etc, and there’s a physical knowing–kinesthesia. What I remember is that you don’t have time to think in words. You are thinking, of course, but it’s kinesthetic “thought.” Not based in words at all. It’s a lot more fun than thinking in words, actually. If something happens out of the ordinary, or if it’s an exciting show, you can put it into words later. But that’s a matter of translation–like describing a picture.

As I said, I’m no philosopher. To be dead honest, I can’t read philosophy because it doesn’t make sense to me–there are no pictures in it. I mean that literally and figuratively–there are neither stories (which make pictures in my mind), nor actual images. I like when enterprising people on youTube explain philosophy with pictures, like these guys, but still I don’t get it. So it’s very possible that what Godfrey-Smith is talking about and what I’m talking about are two different things. However, I am delighted, DELIGHTED, that philosophers now accept that it’s possible to engage in complex thought without words flying around inside you shitting all over everything like furious bats. Most athletes (including dancers) could tell you that. And I’m glad he’s making this case, philosophically, because Descartes still seems to rule a lot of philosophical thinking about non-humans, instead of being relegated to the mental-masturbation files of philosophical history. What? Descartes, cogito ergo sum and all that jazz, is a very good example, to me, of the Harweda aspect of most philosophy. Huh?

Okay. Have you ever read the fairy tale of Prince Harweda and the Magic Prison? The prince is a selfish brat. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. King and Queen, despair of him every becoming a decent ruler. So a wise old someone (witch, magician) offers a cure. S/he puts the prince in a beautiful house with an equal amount of mirrors and windows. Because he’s so stuck-up, he spends no time looking out the windows, and a whole bunch looking at himself in the mirror. The magic house makes what you pay attention to grow, and what you ignore, shrink. So the windows get smaller and smaller every day, and the mirrors bigger. Until, finally, there’s no light in the house. There’s a bird in the story, too, and the kid learns his lesson–which people seem to think is empathy–but I think it’s something more basic: interest in, or curiosity about, what’s outside of you. Descartes et al. seem like Harwedas to me–always looking in the mirror (the human mind, or should I say the post-18th century western civ. human mind) and never out the window (the world and everyone else in it). So they go blind pretty quick.

What am I talking about? What’s any of this anti-philosophy screed got to do with dance, or writing?

Okay, I admit, not much. But–wait for it–here comes one of my should-be-patented clumsy segues: As I read about octopuses, I thought, naturally enough, about dance. (Octopuses have no bones or cartilage, and have so many nerve connections in their arms that their intelligence is somewhat decentralized–the limbs are intelligent. For a dancer, that would be an ideal sort of situation. Plus, the critters are graceful as all hell.) Thinking about dance lead me to my own personal trajectory, from dance (through law) to writing. It lead to a lot of other things, too, but I’m trying to contain myself from sprawling, octopus-like, over at least 8 topics. Talk about decentralized intelligence.

I started thinking that my background as a dancer is a whole lot different than most writers’ backgrounds. Sweeping generalization, yes (just watch my octopus arms swirl, encompassing everything!), but perhaps not so sweeping today, in the age of the MFA. Of course there are dancer/writers, scholar/dancer/writers, performing artists who combine dance and writing, all that. Yes. But they don’t tend to congregate in the MFA literary world. At least I don’t think so. If I’m wrong, correct me. More to the point: to go from someone who could barely string together an articulate sentence, and didn’t really want to, to someone who writes novels–100k word novels–well forgive me but I think it’s a bit out of the ordinary. I’m not saying good, I’m saying different.

And not at all comfortable, to be honest. As a dancer, maybe I needed words. I read a lot during that time, mostly science fiction (Larry Niven, William Gibson, David Brin, U.K.LeGuin), but also a lot of Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita is one of my all-time favorite books), and Henry Miller, a fair amount of Jorge Amado, Earl Thompson, and of course Mikhail Bulgakov–The Master and Margarita is another favorite. I didn’t write, much, although sometimes I kept a diary, and a lot of times I wrote very, very, bad poetry, usually with some lovelorn context, which was completely at odds with my preferred reading material. I had absolutely no concept of writing, as in working on it the same way I worked on dance. Dancing made sense to me–it was physical and there was music involved, and not a lot of thinking. I remember a friend of mine describing a jazz dance class she took regularly. She said, “I love it. You don’t have to think.” I got what she meant immediately–some choreographers work so organically or musically that you don’t see the steps–you don’t hear them thinking: OK, here I need a five count in the legs over a seven count in the arms.”

As a choreographer though–during my short and marvelous stint at creating dances–I noticed that sometimes the stuff that requires a lot of thinking to create and learn looks better on stage than the stuff that doesn’t. SOMETIMES. But what I really learned as a choreographer is that creating is hard.

Creating is hard. That’s what writers do, so it’s kind of unfair to compare being a dancer with being a writer. The apt comparison is choreographer–writer. When you create, you’re doing something quite different than purely learning and interpreting a dance. You’re doing something with a lot more aspects to it. You’re thinking about how this will look on stage, WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY, am I trying to say anything at all, does it have to mean anything or can’t we just shut up and dance? And if we just shut up and dance does it have to be so technically stunning that people’s insides will drop through the theater seats, splat, and they’ll walk out on quivery legs thinking, “gosh, what talent, gosh what beauty. It’s got nothing at all to do with me and I understand that perfectly and I’m fine with it.”? In other words–are we about spectacle? Intimacy? Daring? Politics? What the body can do? Musicality? Are we about stories or sensation? Do we want people to want to dance afterwards? Or to want to give us money because we’re the elite corps doing what they can’t do?

I didn’t last long as a choreographer. I had some very minor successes. What started to happen was that I became interested in Theater–in truth I’d always been interested in it but I started to see words as useful to what wanted to do. Performance art, shows with both movement and words. I got interested in all that, and I’m still interested in it. Then, it all got very difficult. Financially, life-wise, every which way.

So I did a very sudden and weird thing, given who I was, who I am, who I wanted to be.

I took the LSAT, got offered a full-ride to law school, and went. It was not a well thought out decision.

I became a lawyer. Not a bad one either. But in so doing, for some reason, I felt I had to eradicate who I was. I had to prove that I was ruled by the neocortex rather than (as most people could have told me) by my reptile brain. (Nothing against my reptilian sisters and brothers. Bask on, man. I’m with ya in spirit). I had to prove how freaking smart I was. How freaking cerebral I was. Not a very good use of energy, actually.

I went to extremes. I decided I hated art, dance especially. I talked about how useless and elitist it all was. I hid my past. I brushed off questions with the line–“I quit dance because I got sick of waitressing”–which I still use. Listen. A lot of dancers I knew made the transition to the so-called professions–law, medicine, etc. Most took their background–their successes–with them. I didn’t. Suddenly, the whole episode, the whole fabric of Glena dancing in New York City in the 80s and 90s; the whole wild, patchwork and broken glass quilt of it, was an embarrassment.

What followed was years and years of cramming a pillow over the head of my performy, artsy, dancy self and suffocating her. Or him. I didn’t need to do that.

I started writing, I think, in self-defense. I started with poetry. Poetry seems the most physical to me. It’s interesting that Godfrey-Smith referred to poetry and philosophy as the most mental of occupations. I don’t think that’s right.

Anyway. Above, I said that maybe the dancer needed words. I think she did, especially when she started to choreograph–she needed stories, stances, things that come in wordy packets. I think so.

But I’m absolutely certain that the writer needs the body. Needs dance. Needs performance. I think that, for me, it’s the missing link. It’s what my writing needs-a performance or physical aspect. I’d love to universalize that–say that every MFA candidate has to take a year of dance classes, or singing or acting, along with her writing. But that’d be just silly. I think what I’m actually talking about here is putting the animal back in the writer. The book Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg, is an example of that–indigenous poetry didn’t exclude the animal self, or segregate it off in some “genre” type slot the way modern writing often does.

So here I am, waving my arms, with my crippled knees and my years of auto-suffocation, and my certain age, and my words. There has to be both, she gasps, the suffocated one. Can’t we be both?

La neta? (the truth? the gist?) We do not know. We simply do not know.

 

 

** I looked it up, because I had no idea.had to look up the correct version. As it turns out “octopi” “has no etymological basis” according to the Grammarist. Basically, the use of the word octopi arose with the mistaken belief that “octupus” came from Latin, when it actually came from ancient Greek. So the “i” ending is Latinate, and not appropriate for Greek words. However, “octopi” due to long usage, has been accepted by the language gods. So either one: “octopi” or “octopuses,” is correct. Since I prefer the latter, I’ll use it, although I’ll keep the eye-catching “Octopi” in the title.

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