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.