Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memoria de mis labores tristes

On the flight home from China Owl sat next to a man reading the newspaper in Spanish. Owl read over his shoulder for a few minutes (she has no shame) and then gave up because he was going way too fast. After the flight took off, the man popped open his laptop and pulled out a hefty dissertation in English. When his battery died, he whipped out a book in Italian. At this point Owl could no longer read over his shoulder and she fell asleep. When she woke up, he was reading poetry in French.

Owl nearly spontaneously combusted from jealousy.

The flight attendant spent a lot of time smiling at the man and slipping him extra peanuts. Owl was convinced it was because he was a polyglot and not because he was tall and distinguished looking.

Jet-lagged out of her mind, hurtling through thin air wrapped in metal and clouds, Owl decided she too would become a polyglot. Because polyglots are made, not born, verdad?

So the thing is, Owl spent nine years in school studying Spanish. All of it is a blur except for her last year. This was the class roster:

--girl who went to a Spanish immersion elementary school
--girl fluent in Italian
--girl fluent in French
--girl dating a Mexican student she met while teaching ESL classes
--linguistic genius #1 (aced all sorts of spelling bees)
--linguistic genius #2 (absorbed Spanish at her nanny's bosom and went on to become a beast at Chinese)
--resident school genius


Owl, um, kinda bribed her way into the class because she was flunking Economics and this was her only other option. It was the year of shame and stealth. By stealth, Owl means googling English translations of the assigned reading and praying to five gazillion deities before each exam.

To this day Owl associates studying foreign languages with  trauma and despair. 

Owl's dream of becoming a polyglot died a quick death the moment she got over her jet-lag.

But a few weeks later Owl picked up Rimbaud's poems at the library. Owl has been enchanted by Rimbaud ever since she read this review in the Economist.

Owl prepared to be dazzled.

…Yeah no.

Owl can not believe that Rimbaud, the gorgeous golden boy known for his filthy filthy mouth filled his poems with rhymes like stream with dream and fair with air. Maybe these rhymes aren't a linguistic crime in French. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe Owl got a really shitty translation.

Owl's going with that.

But she’s not sure if that’s true. Maybe golden boys with filthy mouths really like puerile rhymes. Maybe that's irony! Or something. Owl has no idea because the frustration of being unable to parse out the translation from the writing is messing with her thinking process. In school, on the rare occasion that Owl understood a piece in Spanish, she compared it to various English translation. And the gap between the two was always disturbing. 

Some translators focus on word-for-word translations, sacrificing elegance for accuracy. Others craft an elegant piece, and end up with well, an elegant piece, that's more like a second cousin than a twin of the original. Translators fight a good fight, but they always leave their mark.

Owl is not going to learn French. Not unless she gets run over by a train, and gets reincarnated as a polyglot. Or a French speaker. Owl loves Japanese writers and Chinese folktales and Hindi verses, and there is no way she's going to pick up all three of the languages for her reading pleasure.

But Owl's already devoted nine (mostly fruitless) years of her life to Spanish.

Accordingly Owl went back to the library. She poked around the Spanish section of the library, got frightened off by hefty nonfiction tomes, nixed translations of famous English novels (somehow seems counterproductive) and finally found a slim volume by Gabriel García Márquez.

Márquez! How can you go wrong with Márquez? And short Márquez too, because slogging through the verbal diarrhea that’s Love in the Time of Cholera in English gave Owl feverish hallucinatory dreams.

Owl flipped through the summary and picked up something about an old journalist, something about Márquez's first novel in ten years and she was happy.  Márquez reminiscing on his beginnings as a writer. Adorable.

Later that night Owl picked up her book and began reading. She started with the title. Because titles are good places to start:

Memoria de mis putas tristes

Memory of my sad whores.

How the hell did Owl miss that?

First line:

“El año de mis noventa años quise regalarme una noche de amor loco con una adolescente virgen.”

For a very happy moment, Owl thought "regalarme" meant to remember—an old man remembering his first night of 'amor loco' with an adolescent virgin. Then she checked. And found no, nope. "Regalarme" means "give myself." In other words:

"In the year of my ninetieth year, I wanted to give myself a night of crazy love with an adolescent virgin."

Owl has been reading steadily, book in one hand, laptop open to google translate in her lap. So far she has learned many words for brothel and many ways to request the services of a prostitute and this is not what Owl was expecting, this is not what Owl had in mind, and…

Owl wonders: will any of this get extra peanuts the next time she flies?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lost Horizon

The last of Owl's China entries. She's got another one written at the height of a bakery  & Georgette Heyer addiction stashed away. Literally, think Owl doped up to the eyeballs on sugar and white flour, and flying high on regency romance with pistols. Um. Yeah. Owl's decided the internet doesn't need to read it. Anyway. Instead, Owl is offering up a slice of Tibet and Paradise--really, Paradise--with some OH, BUT, NO, thrown in for added zing.


How do you feel about going to Shangri-La this weekend? Owl's Swiss-Tibetan friend asked her during a marathon study session.

Owl put down her Chinese textbooks. Owl pinched herself hard. Owl hyperventilated.  But it's paradise. But it's mythical. But how do you travel to a mythical paradise—in the shadow of angel wings? And then her brain stopped working and she just went yes, oh yes, please, yes, yes, yes!

And her friend looked at her sort of funny, and explained slowly and patiently that there are these things called airplanes and Shangri-La is about twenty minutes away by plane.

Owl sank back into her chair and was useless for the entire evening because Shangri-La! Paradise on earth! Owl was going to paradise! For the weekend. Just. Like. That.

This is what happens when you up and quit your job to study Chinese.

[Okay, another part of this reality is Owl has exactly $11.50 in her bank account after purchasing plane tickets because getting to paradise is expensive. But. Paradise! You don't need money in paradise!]

Then Owl realized she didn't actually know much about Shangri-La. She'd heard the term bandied about as a synonym for paradise, there's a super fancy hotel chain where they place fruit baskets and teapots in tea cozies in your room, and one of her high school friends fancied it as a nickname for Owl, only he shortened it to "Shangi."

Hell-bent on doing her research, Owl got a copy of James Hilton's 1933 bestseller Lost Horizon prontisimo. Lost Horizon is about four Westerners who survive a plane crash and find themselves in a fictional Tibetan valley of unsurpassed beauty where the citizens have unlimited wealth and live unbelievably long lives in perfect tranquility. Hilton named the valley Shangri-La.  

Lost Horizon dominated the bestseller charts for years and spawned a legend, a city, and a five star hotel chain all dubbed Shangri-La.

Lost Horizon has two realities. The first is that it's a beautiful novel. Hilton's prose has a liquid grace, his descriptions are piercing. Read, and the snow capped mountains solidify in front of you, the green terraces and lotus ponds of Shangri-La unfold before your feet.  

Perhaps, because Hilton was writing in the aftermath of WWI and in the looming shadow of WWII, Lost Horizon is tinted with a wistfulness for quietude and time. Time enough to sit still, time enough to think, and these leaks off of the pages as soothing as a narcotic.

The second reality is Lost Horizon is an Englishman's fantasy of the Orient. Hilton does a fairly good job with race relations considering that he was writing in 1933. There are no racial slurs, his protagonist is free from bigotry or so Hilton proclaims, but his novel has a Western-orientation. Although the valley is in Tibet, the majority of high ranking citizens in Shangri-La are Westerners and the citizens discuss Mozart and Chopin.

The single non-white female in Lost Horizon is referred to as "The Little Manchu," although, she is far older than the men who love her. She does not speak. She is given no dialog. The reader has no insight into her thoughts. She is lovely and that is all the reader learns about her.

"She stood for him as a symbol of all that was delicate and fragile; her stylized courtesies and the touch of her fingers on the keyboard yielded a completely satisfying intimacy. Sometimes he would address her in a way that might, if she cared, have led to less formal conversation; but her replies never broke through the exquisite privacy of her thoughts, and in a sense he did not wish them to."

She's a symbol, not a person, as are the rest of the Oriental characters in Lost Horizon. Few have speaking lines. Those who do, exist as vehicles to communicate information. They have no feelings, flaws, or identifiable personality traits besides tranquility. This, very subtly, weaves a message into the Western cultural narrative—Orientals are not real people with thoughts and feelings. More troubling, this is done so subtly, so unconsciously, it is easy to skim over as a reader. Owl would wager many people would say she's being oversensitive and should shut up and just enjoy the book. Owl herself wonders.   

Lost Horizon is the stuff of high fantasy, and fantasy can be just as dehumanizing as racism. Hilton offers up the Orient as a panacea for all the ills of the West, rather than taking the Orient seriously as a place inhabited by people who have more in common, rather than less, with their Western counterparts—the fact of being human.

Lost Horizon is all the more dangerous because it's compelling fantasy. Such compelling high fantasy, that Shangri-La hotels are the byword for excellent hospitality in Southeast Asia, cities from China to Nepal have fought over the honor of calling themselves Shangri-La, and, Owl?

Owl emptied her bank account to visit paradise this weekend.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moll Flanders & the Beach

 Another entry written ripped from Owl's China's notebook:


Owl is back from the beach town of Sanya located on Hainan island, burnt brown and coated in a layer of sand and salt like a bad tempered margarita. In Sanya men walk around in straw hats and cotton shirts, and the woman wear dresses that bare their shoulders and float in the breeze. The streets are lined with vendors selling cheap hats, ice cream, and every fourth store sells fruit. In the fruit shops, the mangos are the size of coconuts, the coconuts are the size of watermelons and the watermelons are the size of God.

These are all merely roadside accessories; people go to Sanya for its beaches: the palm trees set against blue sky, the white sand, the endless rippling ocean that goes on and on—

Theoretically Owl adores beaches, diving in to the blessedly cool waters, bobbing along the waves, letting them roll you about as they please, getting coated in sticky salt water…getting sticky salt water up your nose, getting sand down your bathing suit, and then doing it again, and again, until you're nauseous from the salt water and sun, because still the ocean sparkles tantalizingly under the sun, like a length of silk God spilled across the earth, and for all of that, it's beauty is inaccessible.

You can plunge into the ocean's depths, swim out to the horizon, but eventually the need for land and air will reel you back to the shore. The ocean runs too deep, stretches too far to be fully understood, and because of this it exerts and inexorable pull on each and every person who chances to walk along its shores.

Owl finds this unbearably frustrating, and she is torn between wanting to build a cottage by the ocean side or to leave and never ever come back. She dealt in a more mundane way. She memorized seventy five Chinese characters. And then she rewarded herself with Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders which she'd been dying to read ever since she opened the cover page and read the full title:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders Who Was Born in Newgate , and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve years a thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent.

Owl anticipated delicious scandals full of lurid details. You have to give Defoe mad props for having the best imagination ever. He writes about people who wash up on deserted islands, or you know, felons who marry their brothers.

She was sorely disappointed. The events of Moll Flander's life may be scandalous, but Moll Flanders herself has the personality of a farmwife who has been dealt a rough hand in life. Moll is the practical side of any person you would meet on the street. She would like to earn her daily bread. She falls in love, but earning her daily bread takes precedence over love. Most of the emotional impact of her life is divorced from the reader by lots of details about her expenses. Defoe fleshes out a scene where a pregnant Moll is contemplating bigamy, with a table listing the midwife's charges.

If anything, Moll Flanders is an argument that morality is contingent upon situation. Pressed too hard, anyone might commit bigamy/prostitution/thievery etc.

Owl can't argue. Still, she felt cheated. She wanted scandal and she got a doctor's bill.   

After all, what is scandal? It's the moments in life where the bare facts are known, but the emotional landscape is not. The bare facts are usually ugly, stripped of cause and effect explanation, the emotional landscape can only be guessed at, and there you have it—scandal—something known and unknown and therefore absolutely delicious to pick apart.

For example:

They broke up because he cheated on her. With a penguin.

Scandalous. Ugly. Why? The cheating. The penguin. But not so scandalous when you learn that she had a massive crush on Cillian Murphy and she'd watch all Cillian Murphy movies back to back until he wanted to scream, so he started watching March of the Penguins and Happy Feet and then he went to the zoo and there was a penguin, and it was sleek, it was very lonely…alright, bestiality is still scandalous but Defoe could probably make it seem like ordinary business by discussing the exact negotiations the man made with the zookeeper to get a night with the penguin. ($50 for a night at a Motel 6, $30 for the cab from the zoo to the hotel, $400 for the zookeeper to turn a blind eye…)

In Moll Flanders Defoe committed the cardinal sin of fascinating writing. He stripped away the mystery from scandal and replaced it with the mundane.

Potentially on purpose, potentially to make a good point, but Owl was not appeased.

Owl put down Moll Flanders, somewhat disgusted and plunged back into the blinding blue ocean. There at least, mystery remains eternal.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Love of Common Words

For the past month Owl has been haunted by this line about an artist from John Galsworthy's To Let:

"The quiet tenacity with which he had converted a mediocre talent into something really quite individual…"

Owl read this and flung Galsworthy across the room. Lines about mediocre talent have a way of searing themselves into Owl's mind where they throb for weeks before fading into a dull ache that never quite disappears, in the way of things you don't want to believe but know to be irrefutably true.

Owl went back through all of her work and read it exhaustively. Every so often she ran into a decent paragraph buried in the detritus of her stories, and the shock of it made her come away satisfied. There's something here worth fighting for, she told herself, and for a week she was happy.

Then one of her friends sent Owl a story to critique.

It was good.

Not good in the way of school assignments that get an A, or stories that are shown off by proud parents, but good in the way that Owl read it and felt the gaping hole in her that is always searching for beauty and wisdom wrapped up in a few elegant words, the part that is always hungry and rarely fed, that part read, and said this. This is good.

Owl read and her heart broke open in her chest.

It's one thing to be held in the thrall of some dead genius. The space created by death still allows for self-delusion—another ten years and I'll be able to do that—but it's another thing to realize belatedly that you have rubbed shoulders with genius, cleaned kitchens together and stayed up until 2:00 in the morning discussing spoons.

All illusions are stripped away. There is yourself and there is genius, and there is the distance between you, and you know with an awful certainty what you are and what you are not. And then you look into genius's face, and it's an ordinary human face, two eyes, nose, cupid mouth, spattering of freckles, and you peer at the rooms and roads genius inhabits and wonders what it is she sees that you don't, you ask yourself a thousand questions about innate talent versus hard work and in the end the all boil down the same wretchedness: Why not me too? Why was I passed over?

Because it's hard this love, this obsession with words. It demands a life, hours spent pouring over books, days spent spacing out in company, years at the table scrawling over sheets of paper, ripping them up, starting over, again and again, and yes, again. You quit your job, you give it your life, and in return there are no promises, no comfortable salary, no accolades, nothing but the casual amazement and pity of strangers.  You write? Oh. It's a hard life you know. Doesn't pay.

Yeah. Owl knows.

But there are the things you can choose in life and the things you can't, and then in the realm of things that just are, there's love. Sometimes that isn't enough, not compared to a salary or to that firm nod from strangers, You're a clever one. You made the right choices, but in the end, you pick up and you carry on because it was never about choices. Not really. Just about living.

You love and you live with it. But it is hard to know, in the end, that your love, this love, exceeds your ability.

How do you deal?

For a week, Owl was a ghost on the street. The misery went deep, cut to the bone, and was impossible to voice. What do you say anyway? I love. I am not enough for this love. The pain is killing me.

Owl spilled it all out over lemonades to another friend, one who does not write, and the friend blinked and said:

But why does it matter? Can't you both be writers? You love writing. Nothing can change that.

And Owl said, yes, but—and she thought of the sheer perfection of that story she had read, the way it opened a door into a new world where snow spilled from a pewter sky and men and women exchange cracked valentines standing on wet pavement, and she thought of her own work, brightly painted, cardboard to the core.

Yes, but—it hurts. My God, it hurts.

A few days later Owl checked her e-mail and found another story with from the same writer friend with a note attached. This story was a glorious mess, elegant bones, mad eyes, and a crazy titling grin tripping over its own feet. It had the most goddamn perfect ending Owl has ever read.

Help, the note said.

Owl panicked. Owl was truly out of her depth. Owl was still heartbroken and could not, would not. Owl shut her computer and looked out the window where the sky was a hard blue eggshell. There was dinner to eat, there was Chinese homework, and China full of winding side streets and alleys that Owl still hasn’t explored, and there was that story. And what it could be.

Owl went for long walks, Owl sat in a café downing mugs of milk tea haunted by bones and eyes and perfect endings, and Owl roosted in a library for hours dreaming of stories, muttering over her computer, cutting and rearranging, hissing grow grow grow at the screen. When she finished the stars were burning holes in the sky.

In the end it was pathetically little, some fat trimmed here, a few folds rearranged there, one or two observations, but it was everything Owl had to offer and it came from something deep within Owl that will not be denied, no matter how she rages and roils with the sick jealousy of being second rate. It came from the overwhelming love of written words.

You love something.

You do what you can.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Thorn Birds

 Owl is back from China, land where blogger and facebook are blocked, land where her internet broke, and land where she was fantastically and incandescently happy. She arrived home three days ago, but she's still enveloped in a mental haze that's the side product of jet-lag + culture shock (the blondes! so many blonde people!) and answers most questions about China in a mumble. Sometimes a grunt if she's feeling particularly talkative. Otherwise she spends most of her time under the kitchen table ensconced in a fortress built of books (her mother is not pleased). She plans to make brief forays into the world of words by posting back entries she wrote in China. Here's the first:

Thanks to some quirky twist of fate Owl is in China at the same time as her friend Pandabum. Owl and Pandabum go all the way back to the sixth grade. Highlights of their friendship include eating fried crickets out of a plastic baggie, constructing improbable gingerbread houses based on Jane Austen novels, and dressing up in bear suits to entertain small children.

Naturally there was a reunion, which manifested in the form of a week long backpacking trip in Sichuan province. There was horse back riding, long conversations about the future, butchering (well almost) and eating a goat, long conversations about values, walking into the heart of the mountain, long conversations about life, and Tibetan homestays.

(There were moments when Owl was pretty sure she was hallucinating. Especially the goat part.)

Owl packed lightly. By which she means she didn't pack books. Because books are frivolous when you are a rugged and hearty backpacker. Who needs the wood pulp page when the mountains slumbering under the blue sky have their own story?

The bookless mountains of Sichuan

Owl does, apparently. On day four Owl started getting jittery. On day five she started vibrating. By day six she was jabbing Pandabum in the side screeching "Boooooooks." Pandabum produced a Kazuo Ishiguro podcast. This made Owl think about The Remains of the Day which she had never finished and at that point she got slightly teary and Pandabum realized that she was stranded in the mountains with a deranged addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

(This is probably where Pandabum started wishing she was hallucinating.)

On day seven Pandabum and Owl left the mountains for the city of Chengdu, and Pandabum dragged Owl's twitching carcass into a bookshop.

It had English books.

Cheap English books.

Owl feel to her knees and went Oh My God. Pandabum fell to her knees and went Oh My God.

There was a very long silence and both of them forgot about things like luggage space and packing lightly.

And then Owl opened her wallet.

And did the maths.

And cursed the heavens.

Long story short, Owl left with Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds because it was huge and the other option for huge book was Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Which, like, no. Not on vacation.

Then Pandabum and Owl went off to explore the streets of Chengdu and eat a dinner that included munching on a rabbit head and slurping out the eyeballs. Actually, Pandabum did that. Owl chickened out after nibbling on the rabbit tongue.
Friendship= gnawing on rabbit heads together
On the morrow Owl escorted Pandabum to the airport at 6:00 a.m and bid her goodbye.

There was a time when Owl and Pandabum went home from school together every day, and it was a ritual they had down to a fine art. Raid the fridge. Fight about who is responsible for deciding on the snack. End up sampling a little bit of everything. Have a short gossip that sort of stretches into a long one. Spread the books and papers across the floor and settle into the homework. Occasionally take short breaks to chuck erasers and rubber chickens at each other.  

It's in these small moments of every day life, the moments where it seems like nothing is happening, that friendship is built.

But Pandabum and Owl graduated and went to different colleges. And frequently ended up in different countries during vacations. These days there are skype conversations, ridiculous e-mails, and postcards. But in the spaces between conversations there are changes, changes so miniscule that they are never mentioned. Only the small things have a way of adding up.

And so when Owl and Pandabum meet, it is not the old Owl and Pandabum, but newer versions who don't realize they are new, until they settle into the shape of the old friendship and find that it doesn't quite fit. So Owl and Pandabum meet, they say why hello you, and oh hello stranger, and adjust until the shape changes a bit, only by then life, in its relentless fashion, moves forward, and it is time to say goodbye again without the certainty of knowing when the next hello will be.

So goodbye, goodbye is always a bit difficult.

But airplanes do not care about hello and goodbyes, they come and go regardless, and so Pandabum and Owl said goodbye, and Owl was left in the airport with five hours to kill. She hadn't slept properly in days, she was still sore from the horse riding, and everything was a bewildering mash in her head—the silent unchanging beauty of the mountains, the fluidity of a good friendship, the strange pain twisted into euphoria that comes from knowing everything is ephemeral.

There was no one to talk this over with, no way for Owl to clear her head and she wanted badly to travel back in time to day when things were simpler, where friendship was just about chucking rubber chickens at each other and nothing changed, and all of this was entirely was entirely too much for 6:00 a.m. in a foreign country so Owl opened up The Thorn Birds.

Owl vaguely remembers something about a two hour flight delay, getting on the plane and getting off and getting in a taxi and then getting out of the taxi, but that's only because she finally finished The Thorn Birds during the taxi ride.

The Thorn Birds is an Australian family epic. It starts with four year old Meggie growing up on a poor New Zealand farm and follows Meggie as she and her family move to Australia, the rise of their family fortune, Meggie's maturity into adulthood and the fate of her children.

The Thorn Birds is a quasi classic. It has a rich setting and is imagined on the grand scale across generations but it relies a little too much on archetypes. Meggie is a beautiful girl surrounded by boys, ostensibly she's a strong female character, but her gorgeous red hair is more memorable than her personality.

The Thorn Birds does not ever transcend its own plot to touch upon a core human truth. McCullough attempts one, life is about pain and this pain has its own beauty, but she doesn't carry it through successfully. That is the reader doesn't shut the book with new insights on their own life— the hallmark of a true classic, but then it didn't need to.

The Thorn Birds lifted Owl away from her own life. When Owl finished, Sichuan's mountains were tucked away in some safe pocket of memory where they were no longer quite so real, the strange brew of thoughts on friendship and growing older had ceased to bubble and fizz leaving behind a clarity that allowed Owl to think about unpacking and doing her laundry.

In short, she was ready to face the new day.  

Perhaps that is all you can ask from a book.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Move On Up

The movers came today, two men dusted with tattoos. One was tall with a shaved head and a snaggle toothed smile, the other was short with sweet sleepy eyes. They spoke in slow thick accents I had to strain to understand. Until they came, I did not truly understand that I was moving, that I had deliberately chosen to break up the life I'd created over the past two years. Everything was dreamlike and distant, as if at any moment I could tell my boss I'd changed my mind after all, I'd be staying and he would take me back.  

As the movers carried the artifacts of my life out the door—the meditation cushion I'd bought with the best of intentions and then never used, the long couch for out of town visitors, innumerable boxes of books—I saw that I would really be leaving, that for me this city would fade from reality to memory, and in a few months this apartment would be the setting for someone else's life story.

Where are you moving, the tall man asked me.

Away, I answered, because I could not say China. He would have asked me why China and I would have no answer. No good answer. Not at that moment.

I wanted them to fill the awful hollowness of watching your life break up with words, good words about beginnings and endings, or at least small talk so I could befriend them and rest easy in my belief that all people are well-intentioned, bone friendly.

But they were movers not pastors, and they were not in the business of comforting people, they were in the business of moving, so they sweated and cussed as they walked my things out the door.

Fucker needs me to wipe his ass, the taller man said to me of the smaller mover before they left. Been doing this for three years, but it's like every day is his first day.

After they had gone, I swept out the dust that had accumulated in the hidden corners, unrolled my sleeping bag and took out a small duffle bag of belongings, exactly what I had when I arrived two years ago, before I bought cutlery and furniture and all the other things that shape a life. If you did not know me, you would not know if this was the first day or the last. I felt that helpless.

Then I sat on my sleeping bag and looked around. Most of my things had been packed for weeks and I'd been surprised by how little I needed them or missed them, surprised by how irritating it was to pack away a drawer full of things I cared very little about, only to find another drawer full of other things I cared very little about.

But now that my studio was empty, I cared very much. When I poured a glass of water, the clinking of the glass echoed, the thunk of the jug on the counter echoed. I would have given a lot for my never used meditation cushion. Not to sit on even, but because it would be a soft island on the hardwood floor, a splash of crimson to focus on in an apartment full of nothing.

Maybe it is because we come into life with nothing, and go out with nothing, maybe because truly, despite whatever else we may believe, we own nothing and are owed nothing more than our bodies, maybe that's why we spend so much time collecting junk like treasure, building ourselves thrones out of dead trees and dead animals, because we don't have the courage to face up to how little we can conquer:  precisely, nothing.

If there was a worthwhile epiphany in there, I did not embrace it. Instead, I fled to yoga class, the one where the instructor has a silvery voice and focuses on patterns of movement, the shift from downward dog to upward dog, rather than on the alignment of each pose, and fittingly, reads us bits of poetry at the end of class.

Here, perhaps because I was locked into a rhythm of movement, because I could not think about why I was doing warrior one or warrior two, but only execute each pose on the good faith that I was doing something necessary, it was easier to think about the last two years since college graduation.

Because I did not know that I had only two years, because I worried sometimes that this would be the rest of my life, I did not realize I had been given a gift, the gift of a long meditation. Yes, I worked, and yes I worried, but for the first time in eleven years I had time to myself, time away from a system that pushed mounds of homework into each corner of my life and filled me up with grade-neurosis, time away from my friends and family for better or for worse.

Mostly what I remember of the past two years is sitting in my apartment, the walk to yoga where I passed two iron leopards, the long winter nights of yoga practice where we  sat in the yellow light of the  studio and watched the sun slowly set, the walk back home that smelled of cold, long runs on lazy autumn evenings when orange and gold leaves drifted in dark puddles of water, Sunday afternoons at the grocery, and during all of that, I inhabited a silent space in my head.

In the silence it seemed like nothing happened, but then I would wake up every now and then and find I was questioning things I had never questioned before, things I took for granted, the value of learning Calculus, the reasons why I admired workaholics, the every day actions committed without much thought…what belief system did they stem from? Were they valid? Did I want to live like this?

I had no answers. I have no answers. But the asking, the very act of asking, surely that is worth something? At any rate, it is what my two years have bought me. I'd like to imagine that the next year and a half of travel, of wandering around the earth like a nomad learning languages and teaching English will bring me answers, but even then I am not so sure—I do not know. I do not know if it is even sensible to break up my life like this, if come 2013 when I return I will be jobless and broke, only that I am going to do it, I will fly blind into the night, and I will not be stopped. Not now.

The instructor ended class by reading Rumi.

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

Breathe in, she said. Now, breathe out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From Sea to Shining Sea

Last week Owl attended Fulbright Pre-Orientation which was hosted at the kind of hotel where the foyer is glass and marble, the beds are floofy like exploded marshmallows, and people walk around in power-suits. While everyone got acquainted/slept, Owl ran around the entire hotel eeeeping. She found:

  •  Massage chairs in the fitness room (the receptionist stared at Owl and said, "You're here to explore aren't you?")
  • A secret entrance to the metro
  • A piano floating in a fountain
  • A lot of Buddhist monks. Seriously. They were everywhere.
When morning came Owl somehow managed not to explode over her pastries but she couldn't help squealing about the monks. Owl has a soft spot for Buddhist monks. She took a Buddhism class in college that left her with a lingering desire to spend a year or two living in a Buddhist monastery.

The young gentleman next to her mentioned that the monks were around because the Dalai Lama was staying at the same hotel.

Owl leapt out of her chair and pocketed a few pastries. She had some idea of oh, finding the Dalai Lama and presenting him with stolen pastries/asking for his blessing. Then she remembered she had orientation and sat back down.

To cheer her up, the young gentlemen mentioned when he studied abroad in Vietnam a few years ago he ran into a few Buddhist monks who invited him back to their hotel room. They all ended up cross legged on the floor eating dinner. Then the monks started criticizing the American government for the Vietnam War.

Young Gentleman: It was awkward. Obviously I had to speak up even though I don't agree with the Vietnam War. But I didn't know the protocol for arguing with monks.
Owl: What do you mean?
Y. Gentleman: Yeah…I get um, shall we say, aggressive when I'm angry? Loud? I start yelling.

Owl was flabbergasted. Perhaps the monks were out of line criticizing their guest's patria, but Owl can not imagine that the young gentleman improved their perception of Americans or managed to justify the Vietnam War by defending a war he didn't believe in. If he did manage to convince the monks, he ought to be sitting in Congress. They could seriously use him right now.

Owl had a lovely time at the Pre-Orientation. She met a staggering amount of people who had made it their business to live each day as if it were a wild and crazy adventure, who traveled far and wide, and read broadly. But at times she was surprised by how people spoke about how excited they were to teach their students about America and American culture rather than how excited they were to go to Malaysia and learn about Malaysian culture.

From whatever Owl has heard, classes will be anywhere from twenty to forty students each and meet once a week. Unless she acquires some serious stand-up comedy skills, for most of these students English class is well going to be English class. An hour a week that will maybe be memorable because there's a crazy American teaching it, but maybe get drowned out by six other hours of school, not to mention homework, family life,  religious life, extra curricular, friends and crushes (what teenagers don't have crushes?) and time to eat guavas. Never forget the guavas.

Owl will be happy if her students remember who she is.

If anyone is going to be learning, it's Owl, the person dumped in the middle of a new country she couldn't locate on a map a few months ago, Owl who still doesn't know much about Malaysia except that it's conservative, most of the females wear a headscarf, and if she wants to assimilate, Owl should consider wearing the baju kurung, a tunic over a long skirt, also dubbed the potato sack.

Baju Kurung, courtesy of Google

To be honest, Owl's pretty nervous about some of the gender dynamics. There was a lot in the orientation about wearing conservative clothing and dealing with sexual harassment. She talked to some fellow teachers who mentioned how this was an excellent opportunity to empower Muslim girls in Malaysia, which Owl got really excited about.

"We can tell them all about what it's like here, how we don't have to wear headscarves or super conservative clothing and what it's like to be liberated," someone added.

Owl thought deeply about what she'd be giving up by going to Malaysia. The night before Owl consumed enough salad to feed an adolescent cow. When she put on her business skirt in the morning there was an unfortunate stomach bulge. The she discovered she'd forgotten to pack a hair brush. Her hair stuck up at odd angles despite vigorous finger combing. Owl stared at herself in the mirror and wilted.

Owl was very sad. Owl wanted to hide under her comforter but instead she had to be social. She went downstairs to mingle with a crowd of well kempt females sleek in their skirts with hair as shiny as knobs of wood. Owl was wretchedly ashamed.

It is difficult to be social when you are worrying about your flub and the tangled Medusa creature that is your hair. When deserts came around at lunch Owl miserably passed them up and vowed she really would get back to the gym, shin splints or no shin splints, so she could eat again.

Owl calculated the number of hours she's spent at the gym—not because she's vested in her health, but because she really is that vain—the number of injuries she's picked up gyming and the number of hours she's wasted doing impossible calculations about calories and pounds and clothing sizes and the endless guilt. Guilt over eating too much, not exercising enough, worrying too much about her appearance when she should focus on more intellectual thoughts…

Headscarf? Potato sack?

Owl’s kind of excited.

Owl prepares for some skirt-bustin' 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just Gonna Have to Be a Different Owl

Last July in a fit of madness brought on by commuting to work at 6:00 a.m. Owl started composing her mother’s biography. Owl stresses that this is a highly normal activity common in all aspiring novelists.

Problem. Owl’s mother was born and brought up in Indonesia, and Owl, despite manifold affectations of foreign mannerisms, hails from the exotic reaches of heartland Americana, formerly known as the Midwest. Owl’s knowledge of Indonesia is limited to a few summers roosting in various relatives’ houses, eating shaved ice at shopping malls, and a reasonably sized arsenal of vulgarities in bahasa.

Owl’s imagination went splat three paragraphs into the bio. Owl realized she needed some hands on research experience. Owl thought about the red tiled roofs of Bandung, the green palms that line the roads of Jakarta, and running up and down the sparkling beaches of Bali while sipping coconut water. From a coconut.

Owl looked around. The bus smelled like gasoline. The woman across from her looked like she was going to be sick. In a few hours Owl would march into work, write reports, and her unborn novel—at this point, Owl was convinced would be a candidate for the Nobel if only she got the time to write it—would get a swift abortion.

Owl pulled a Rilke and thought: I must change my life.

Then she went home and applied for a Fulbright to teach in Indonesia.

(Owl has this slight problem where she takes her fits of insanity quite seriously.)

Summer faded into fall, and in turn fall froze over into winter. Owl picked up volunteer teaching jobs, enrolled in bahasa classes, expanded the language arsenal to include a few necessary pleasantries like hello, how are you, and you are beautiful like fried shrimp, dreamt of Indonesia, it's beaches, the sing-song lull of bahasa, mentally packed her bags and smiled through 50+ magazine rejections. A Fulbright, she thought, would be a sign from God that she was meant to be a novelist.

The rejection came in April.

Owl wept profusely. Owl grieved. Owl beat her chest. Owl realized she was better off anyway because Indonesia is hot and full of mosquitoes, and who wanted to go there anywhere? Plus, teaching. Owl is shy. Owl is self conscious. Owl is shit at teaching.

Owl promised herself she'd take a long vacation at the end of the year. Somewhere sunny. She went to work. She maybe didn't write as much as she used to. She realized she had a thoroughly excellent job and it would be pure madness to leave it. She moved on because that's the grown up thing to do. And her newly acquired adulthood comes the realization of a few sobering realities. Not all dreams are attainable, not everything is meant to be. Sometimes there's trying, and sometimes there's just madness, and when it's just madness, well, pray, pray that you aren't a mad dreamer, pray that you aren't doomed to spend your life howling for things you want very badly and will never get. Instead pray that you will never want.

And Owl prayed. And tried very very hard to not want. And it was difficult.

In May Owl got a phone call.

It was the Fulbright committee offering her a grant to teach in Malaysia.

Owl asked the man on the phone if he was a hallucination. He said no and told her to make a decision in two days. Owl sat down with a thump. Owl clean forgot to go to a meeting and her boss threw a marker at her and was an utter darling about forgiving her. Owl spent the rest of the day gaping at the computer.

Owl tried to discuss this Malaysia thing with her parents in a rational and grown up manner. It went something like this:

Owl: So what sane person gives up a stable job to teach for a year?
Parents: Sanity has never been your strong point.
Owl: I'm going to think this over for a few days.
Parents: Don't kid yourself. You've already decided.
Owl: I have?
Parents: Yeah.
Owl: So what's my decision? Wouldn't I like, be the first to know? Who did the deciding anyway?
Parents: Your gut.
Owl: Why wasn't I informed? Also, more importantly, what did it decide?
Parents: We don't have time to sort out your weird communication issues. Goodbye.

Owl's Gut: *whimper* I'm hungry.
Owl: Shut up and make a Malaysia related decision.
Owl's Gut: I want laksa and chicken satay.
Owl: Shut the hell up. You know I can't cook.
Owl's Gut: I want a new body.

[Ten minutes later]
Owl's Gut: Dear Fulbright, I will be happy to go to Malaysia. Please forward food samples to me and place me somewhere where the trees are thick with mangos and the mangosteens are luscious. Thank you. Love Owl.

[A day later]

Come January, Owl is going to Malaysia.

That's not all.

A few days later Owl went through her list of things to do before she dies. This is what it looks like:
  1. Live abroad for a year
  2. Write a novel
  3. Run a marathon
  4. Learn Chinese (preferably in China)

And Owl thought okay, Goal 1, check. Goal 2, ehhh writer's block sucks. Goal 3, on hold due to weird hip issues and shin splints, Goal 4, what on earth was I thinking? Like I'll ever have the opportunity to go to China…wait.

And Owl wrote e-mails to her lovely friend Kate, and Owl googled, and Owl researched, and Owl e-mailed and e-mailed, and come September Owl will be studying Chinese in Kunming, China.

Owl's apartment is littered with half-packed boxes and visa applications. In four weeks she'll be moving out. In six she'll be in China. Come New Year, she'll be in Malaysia. Two months ago she was pretty sure she'd spend the next ten years at her job.

Owl is in shock. Maybe she should be reading the Bhagavad Gita and meditating to cope, or at the very least attempting to shore up her nonexistent Chinese with a phrase book, but instead she's gulping down Korean dramas and Japanese manga trying to grasp the enormity of the changes coming her way, and now Owl is praying she doesn't end up with her throat slit in some random gutter because she mixed up "bathroom" and "brothel" in Chinese, or that her students don't throw tomatoes at her, and how on earth is she going to maintain discipline when she can't even speak up during meetings at work, and then there other questions like—to blog or not to blog? And if so, as Owl? Or…*gasp* in the first person? New layout? New address to mirror her journeyman status?

Whatever the answer is, Owl is sure of one thing:


They’re coming.

A new and more adult Owl deals with change
 Photo Credit: Richard Ercolani

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Memoir of a Sea Monster

Owl is suffering from writer's block. It's bad. Like, bad bad. Like, Owl can't read anymore because she's now allergic to words or something. They just slip out of her head. Like Owl's fairly sure she ain't never going to write or read again. Like, Owl's spending her weekends baking instead of writing, watching Korean dramas instead of reading, and composing spiteful messages to God. Or...wait, trying to and failing because writer's block. So most of the messages read something like this: Fooble. Snarl. Shitty poo poo pants. WOOOGLE. WAHHHHHHH! WAHHHHHH! And then Owl ends up on the kitchen floor clutching her stuffed whale and bawling. Gimme my words back! Gimme! Gimme!

Anyway, someone pointed out that a fair number of writers have said they ended up writing books they wanted to read. Owl should simply combine her writing style with the sorts of books she loves reading best and she will stumble up on a fountain of inspiration filled with glory. Not just water sparkling in the sunlight glory, but like chocolate rivers with strawberry slices and bananas bobbing along kind of glory. Serious glory.

Owl realized this was better than her other idea of experimenting wildly with other writing forms in hopes of discovering hidden talents. Owl did not discover hidden talents. Owl learned painful lessons like she's not cut out to write rap lyrics, someone who can't cook shouldn't write recipes, and writing obituaries about your friends is just...wrong. E-mailing obituaries to said friends and asking for writing feedback is just...well, yeah, don't do it. Just don't.

(Owl blames all of this on writer's block. Her judgment starts slipping when she loses her words.)

Anyway, the results indicated that Owl:

(A) writes memoir
(B) reads speculative fiction (yeah, Owl reads and blogs about all this other 'literature' crap and stuff, but speculative fiction is her drug of choice)

In other words, according to this analysis Owl should write an absolutely true memoir of her life as a sea monster.

New life plan.

1. Become sea monster.
2. Write about it.

At this point, Owl is pretty sure her writer's block is going to be permanent.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Happens in the Newspaper Stays in the Newspaper

When Owl was very young she was terrified of the news. Every day in third grade she and her classmates would take turns bringing in articles. Most students were content to bring in stories about lost puppies or the weather—except for Robert. Robert had a penchant for serial killers. Robert would hunt up stories about serial killers who lurked in parks or murdered women in their apartments. The gorier the better. After one particularly grisly description he ended by saying, “And the killer left Texas! He got on a plane. Guess where the plane’s headed? Here!”

Owl went home that day and refused to play in the park. Or leave the house.

After that she hid in the bathroom whenever it was Robert’s turn to present. Still, Owl could not stay in the bathroom forever, the teacher would fish her out, and once she left it was impossible to escape. In magazines there were stories about AIDS epidemics in Africa and orphaned children. Owl didn’t really know what AIDS was except that it killed parents and she could not understand what separated her from the children in Africa. If their parents could suddenly die why not hers?

Even the weather report was fraught with disaster. Sudden floods. Tornados that sucked up houses and cars and spat out the fragments. Hurricanes that swept you out to sea.

Facing the news
Owl did not know how people managed to get up, get out of bed, and carry on, when every five seconds someone was dying from hunger.

During current events one morning, Owl’s third grade teacher mentioned that students with any concerns should speak to the counselor. She’d once taught a girl who’d stopped eating, and the counselor had discovered it was because America had recently invaded Iraq and the girl was afraid of war.

“Oh, that’s stupid,” Robert scoffed. “Like Iraq could do anything to us.”

“Yes, well,” the teacher said and Owl saw that the teacher was not worried that she or anyone else she knew would die. The idea that across the ocean people were going to die did not upset her either. Maybe intellectually, but not emotionally, not in the way that your stomach sours and you can’t eat anymore because you can picture dead bodies and crying children.

That’s how you manage to live, Owl realized. You distinguish between yourself and the world. Slowly, Owl learned that there was a separation between real life and what happens in the newspaper.

The news is about other people. Who exist somewhere else. In a place like Owl’s world but completely unrelated to it. Owl stopped worrying about disasters, Owl started worrying about reality instead. Failing tests. Not getting into a top college. Friend drama.

Possibly Owl began to believe that her suburban life, with school and homework and clubs was what normal life does and should look like. Theoretically the average person in Nigeria lives on 2.5 gallons of water a day, but not really. In Owl’s reality, everyone has showers and running water.

Owl started getting cynical about human rights activists. Yeah, people are suffering and dying blah blah blah, but Owl’s got places to be and to be honest the rhetoric is kind of saccharine.

In college Owl took a class on International Relations and learned that war is a tool like a hammer or a saw that governments use to accomplish their purposes. The professor drew models on the board: war between two small countries, war between two large countries. Here, war was three or four points on a test, and an essay question. It has nothing to do with human suffering.

Anyway, Owl had to wonder, what was so bad about death? The world is overpopulated and straining for resources. Pruning the population might end up saving us. Owl used this as an argument during a debate tournament. The judge couldn’t stop smiling. “Fascinating argument,” he told her later. “Wonderful logic.”

Owl won that round. That’s how you win apparently. You say it doesn’t matter if people die, you say they ought to die.

Owl reads her news religiously these days so she can claim she is well-informed, a global citizen. It is slightly dry, but not difficult to do. She reads about murder, turmoil and hunger, death and war and then she puts away the news and plans out the rest of her day. Reading. Visiting friends. Buying groceries. Yoga. That's about it.

Sometimes she wonders about her ability to do this without batting an eyelash, if there’s any point to her attempts at becoming a well-informed global citizen. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hell is a Slush Pile

Every week Owl receives a parcel of essays. As part of her slush reader duties she’s supposed to read them, and write a short synopsis and evaluation, as well as determine if they should be rejected or forwarded to the board. (This is actually less power than it sounds, according to the magazine rules Owl is supposed to forward everything written in coherent sentences.)

When it comes, Owl gets a happy glowing feeling. Like, someone’s just handed her a treasure chest and keys and said—Go on now. Have a look. Like she’s going to plunge in face first and resurface with sentences that shine like ropes of brilliant gemstones, paragraphs that contain pearls of wisdom, like when she’s done reading, she’ll be looking at a richer and brighter world.

And then Owl reads her slush.

Most weeks the pieces are solidly constructed but a little off, the ending is a whimper instead of a bang, the essay is too interior to the writer to be understood by a stranger, attempts to describe raw emotion are well, boiled. Boiled potatoes. Without salt.

Those pieces make Owl a little sad. They are gallant attempts that well, weren’t quite good enough.

But sometimes, sometimes it’s—oh hell, see for yourself. Here are Owl’s evaluations from this week’s round of essays.

(Note: Actual evaluations were somewhat more civilized. These are the uncensored versions.)

Essay 1

Synopsis: Young girl goes to the beach.

Evaluation: This is a four paged essay. The second page is a wall of text listing all the songs she listens to at the beach. While the descriptions of the ocean are gorgeous, and supplemented by photographs the author thoughtfully included, there is nothing different or unique about this beach trip. She and her brother are at the beach. They ate ice cream and listened to a lot of music. At the very least, the essay needs to include a jellyfish attack, but preferably a nasty shark encounter, to justify its existence,

Essay 2

Synopsis: The narrator describes all of her teachers K-12 in a series of thirteen anecdotes.

Evaluation: The anecdotes are engaging but heavy of the fart jokes. (I think fart jokes are funny and even this was too much for me.) There was no cohesive thread that connected the anecdotes to each other, and while that may not be strictly necessary, it would have given the essay a broader appeal. As it is, it's a humorous read, but narrow in scope—hardly of interest to anyone who doesn’t know the writer personally. Also the end is marred by a multiple choice quiz asking the reader what the point of the essay is. Author listed eight possibilities but forgot to include (I) there is no point.

Essay 3

Synopsis: Woman explains her connection to her dead husband while going through her Tupperware collection.

Evaluation: The prose is here is beautiful and fluid, the images are very vivid, very clear. I will never look at Tupperware the same way again. However, there are five pages of Tupperware descriptions and one paragraph devoted to her husband’s death. Then she goes right back to describing Tupperware. Telling the truth slant is good, but there's such a thing as telling it too slant.

Essay 4

Synopsis: Woman discusses how hearing children cry "Mama" in Spanish during her spring break trip  lead to a life long love affair with Latin American culture and people. Literally. She spends the next twenty years trying to get impregnated by Latin men. Her goal in life is to have children who call her "Mama" with Spanish accents.

Evaluation: The style was simple which was good, because I had no sense of where the piece is going and why. The structure is as haphazard as the narrator’s approach to finding a partner. While her tangents are interesting they do not contribute to the overall development of the narrative. Five pages are spent describing a conversation with a priest, one paragraph is spent mourning her dead boyfriend, and one sentence at the end explains that yes, she eventually did marry and get herself Spanish speaking babies.

Essay 5

Synopsis: Two, um, beings eat delicious Mexican mole stew together.

Evaluation: Commendable effort at attempting to use language creatively in order to capture sensation. Unfortunately the result was so confused, after three reads, I still don't know if the narrator is a human or a cricket. Where are the characters? What are they are doing besides eating? Why does it matter? All mysteries the author does not bother to answer. As a side note, eating a sublime mole stew should never be compared to being infected by "a delicious hairworm." This is a direct quote.

After finishing her slush Owl took her red pen and stabbed herself repeatedly in the chest in an attempt to commit hara-kiri.

She should have listened to her mother and majored in economics.

To be or not to be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Art of Titling is Hard to Master

Writing is a brutal business. At its worst it involves staring at the computer screen for hours hitting the “k” button repeatedly as a coping mechanism for dealing with the blank idiocy of your mind. At its best it means refusing to shower for days because you’ll lose the ideas if you don’t get them out now.

If you do manage to finish something (usually at an ungodly hour the day before an important meeting), it’s like pulling a squalling baby from the womb. The story is wet and wrinkly. It smells. It’s covered in blood. It’s perilously close to ejecting blood/urine/fecal matter all over you.

And the worst part has yet to come.

It needs a name. A title.

The untitled masses

Ideally a title should wrap up the piece in an elegant package. More than elegant. Seductive. A good title sings out from deep within a bookshelf to passing stranger, who, without quite meaning to, will pick up the book, caress its stiff spine until it shudders open baring its pages.

It’s enough to make you want to stuff the story back in the wretched place it came from.

Yet, somehow titles like this do exist. Whenever Owl finds one she has to talk herself out of tattooing it on her wrists in 72 pt font.  

Some of her favorites:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
  • Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami
  • Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
Murakami is hands down the grandmaster titler. His titles are commands to open up his books. What’s a wind-up bird? What does the wind sound like? And who doesn’t want to dance, dance, dance? It doesn’t matter that his books answer none of these questions. The titles are a promise of better things to come, and therefore, irresistible.

Owl has considered cutting out Murakami’s heart and eating it in an attempt acquire his skills.

  • The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Owl loves The Beautiful and the Damned because it’s more than an elegant phrase, it could have printed on Fitzgerald’s calling card as his M.O. All of Fitzgerald’s characters were beautiful and damned. And so was he.

  • The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Owl’s favorite title. It conjures up images of an old man cleaning up after a party,
picking up the abandoned paper hats, turning over the discarded paper in his hands as the sun sets over his fading memories. The sadness is unbearable and exquisite, and in fact, that is the book exactly.

As the story goes Ishiguro didn’t actually come up with it, he was sitting on an Australian beach with literary greats such as Michael Ondaatje and tossing around potential titles. Ondaatje suggested something like Sirloin: A Juicy Tale and then someone (the name escapes Owl) mentioned a phrase about dreams and translated it into English as The Remains of the Day.

However, Owl is unable to attend Aussie beach parties with genius writers and has had to resort to other means. Her standard approach used to be type garbage at the top of the screen, write story, forget about title, send story to appropriately bribed relative/friend to be read and then have conversations like this:

Father: I read your story. Why did you see fit to call it Lechuga-Wooga?
Owl: Um, that’s a typo for “The Apple.”
Father: This story is about a duck who commits suicide by getting sucked into a jet engine. What apple?
Owl: Maybe I’ll change it to “The Regurgitating Apple.”
Father: …
Owl: Regurgitate is such a great verb.
Father: But the apple?!
Owl: Artistic license.

In an effort to improve, Owl has developed the following strategies.

(1)   The + Noun

Owl reads her story, identifies the most commonly occurring noun and puts it on top of the page. This leads to lots of stories with titles like “The Jam Pot.” But sometimes leads to stories with titles like “The Person.” This is when Owl just shuts her eyes, flips open a dictionary and points, so “The Person” becomes “The Vesicle.” If Owl feels really fancy she’ll sometimes add an adjective to the mix. Like, “The Sad Vesicle.”

(2)   Phrase

Owl picks out the most interesting phrase in the piece and slaps it on top of the story. Results may vary and include:

  • Reality’s Hairy Gut
  • Inviting Demons Over for Scones and Tea
  • Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find
Owl is a little confused about the last one, but there is indeed a file titled “Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find” in her stories file, and apparently she wrote it. She’s a little scared to open it.

(3)   Google-fu

When all else fails, Owl uses strategy (1) to pick a noun and then dumps it into Google with either: “quotes about…”, “poems about…” or “song lyrics about...”.

Owl worries about being clichéd so she skips over the most familiar part of the quote/poem/song and nab the part no one remembers. For example, instead of using “The Cruelest Month” from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” she settled on “Lilacs Out of the Dead Land.” Because obviously everyone will has memorized “The Wasteland” and will immediately understand the Elliot allusion Owl was going for, but simultaneously absolve her from T.S. Elliot sized expectations. Right? …Right.

(4)   Bastardization

If (3) is complete fail—for example, there is precious little quotable material on ankylosauruses—, Owl will steal someone else’s title and um, bastardize alter it so she doesn’t get slapped with plagiarism. And thus Owl has a whole host of titles like Letters from a Young Biologist, Letters by a Young Poet, Letters from a Young Owl,…Owl needs to look into stealing from different titles.

Owl is in desperate need of help. What are your favorite titles? What are favorite titles you’ve written? How do you title your stories? Tips? Tricks? Suggestions?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The History of Love

During yoga class Owl when twisted over into a warrior two with a bind—a painful and unnatural position especially if you have no thigh muscles—her instructor reached for a book.

Owl considered defenestrating herself. Owl adores yoga, and Owl adores being read to, but in her limited experience, yoga instructors have the most deplorable habit of picking out a poem about living simply or being a better person and reading it in a singsong poet’s voice eerily reminiscent of tape recorded ocean noises. Then they fold their hands and lecture on Morals. This can range from why you shouldn’t hit your dog to boycotting large corporations unless you approve of child labor.

This is usually intended to lessen the pain of the pose, but Owl finds that it deepens it. You can’t run away and you can’t argue. You can only suffer in silence. But I don’t have a dog!  But what if you’re a poor child laborer and you don’t have the money to shop at indie stores?

Then her yoga instructor began in a quiet voice that focused more on enunciating each word precisely than rolling out the vowels for emotional emphasis. This is what she read:

The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely…

If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms – if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body – it’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less.

The book was The History of Love, the author, Nicole Krauss.

Owl nearly stole it from her instructor after class. Instead she managed to wait until it arrived at the library, and then she read it in a series of delirious gulps.

The History of Love is about cranky Leo Gursky who lives alone in his New York apartment. Leo Gursky was young, was once a writer, was once head over heels in love, and once wrote a book about being in love.

Leo Gursky is still in love, still a writer at heart, but the book was destroyed in a flood before anyone could read it, he’s old, he’s retired from the business of unlocking doors for a living, and instead knocks over cups at Starbucks—that way if he dies, someone will remember him.

The History of Love is also about fourteen year old Alma Singer. Alma’s father is dead, her mother buries herself in translations to keep her love alive, and her little brother thinks he’s a holy man, and tried to jump out of a window to see if he could fly.

Krauss tangles up gloriously colorful narratives about people who seemingly have nothing to do with each other and then weaves them together in a story that twists and turns every few moments, and bursts into pages of brilliant and imaginative prose.

There are excerpts about the Age of Glass, a time when people were convinced that parts of their body were fragile and could shatter at any moment. There’s an obituary for Isaac Babel the writer who believed in the spaces between words more than words themselves, there are tips on how to survive in the wild, and notes on being a holy man.

Krauss must have laughed as she wrote, must sipped sparkling cider and hummed lullabyes. Maybe she did none of these things. Maybe she hit the dog. It doesn’t matter. Part love letter, part mystery, History of Love, is more than a love story, it’s a lesson that there are no limits to the magic of the written word.   

[Observation: Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love is very similar to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are dead fathers, children scrambling all over New York in search of someone, experimental prose, and both were published in 2005.  Which raised a lot of questions in Owl’s mind about influences and the intersection of marriage and writing. But Krauss is famous for being closemouthed about her marriage. Pooh.]