Monday, November 24, 2014

Owl Attends the National Book Awards

In general Owl is not fond of ritzy parties. They make her break out into a nervous sweat. She’s usually kitted out in a dress that makes her look pot-bellied, from another century, like a depraved poodle or all of the above.  Usually she ends up hiding somewhere within easy reach of the desert buffet or lurking near the coat check. She’s never really understood why people like parties.

That is, until Shep invited her to the National Book Awards. Owl asked Shep if a onesie covered in poetry counted as black tie. He informed her it did not and he was wearing a tux. Deflated, Owl took herself dress shopping with a seriousness she usually devotes to procuring desert. This involved poking her head out of the changing room and begging a Russian woman who was also trying on dresses to make the final decision.

Woman: You are going to a wedding?  

Owl: An award ceremony.

Woman: Huh?

Owl: The National Book Awards! The National Book Awards! The---

The woman told Owl to get a navy dress before Owl could burst into song. Owl paid up and wrote the cost off as the price of worshiping at the altar of books. If you’re going to meet your heroes, the last thing you want to worry about is looking like a poodle. 

The National Book Awards were held at Hotel Cipriani, which has the kind of high-ceiling-marble-hallway grandeur found in banks from the Gilded Age. Shep commented his high school prom had been held here. Owl told Shep he was bougey and then stopped talking. The high ceilings had soft blue lights glowing from them, the dinner tables were all covered in books, and off to the side of the room was a red carpet. Owl was awed into silence.

“I just saw Neil Gaiman,” someone commented. 

Owl’s heart stopped. She read all of Gaiman’s books growing up and then reread them and reread them until her parents demanded she read something else. 

“Do you want his autograph?” Shep asked.

Owl managed to nod and squeak.

Shep pushed her in Neil Gaiman’s general direction. Owl tiptoed up to Gaiman, tapped him on the shoulder (that’s right, Owl touched Neil Gaiman and is never washing again) and vomited out a flood of words about being-such-a-fan-loved-your-books.  She added that one of her friends lives in his neighborhood, but ya know, neglected to say which friend or mention the neighborhood. In addition to being a killer writer, and super attractive, Neil Gaiman is also very very nice about talking to incoherent fans. He whipped out a fountain pen and signed Owl’s program, and said he was absolutely charmed. 

 Owl was reduced to a speechless pile of mush with huge pulsing gooey hearts in her eyes. 

Shep wanted to know who Gaiman was. Heathen.  

When Owl recovered, she and Shep made their way over to the tables and were seated. Owl must have looked dimwitted with delight because the waiter kept stopping by to ask if she was alright, and if he could replace her food with salmon or something vegetarian. Owl thanked him profusely and managed not to sob with happiness on his sleeve. She restrained herself from staking a claim on the books in the center of the table, but later set one—and only one—aside for a keepsake. 

Lemony Snicket—Lemony Snicket!!—got up to MC. Owl spent hours reading his books, puzzling out his numerous mysteries, and wondering who the man behind the name was. Snicket in real life, it turns out, is hilarious. He speaks in a deep ponderous voice—and says things that are slightly uncomfortable, and then while you’re wondering what he’s going to do with all the tension in the room, he tosses in a joke, and everyone dissolves into laughter.

Lemony Snicket: When I decided to MC the National Book Awards, people said I was only doing it to promote my new novel. But I ask, how could I promote my new novel, We are Pirates, when I’m about to introduce the presenter of the prize for non-fiction?

Neil Gaiman got up and talked about what Ursula Le Guin meant to him. (One of Owl’s favorite writers talking about one of Owl’s favorite writers. Owl had to fan herself.) Ursula Le Guin gave a killer speech on how important it is to remember writing is an art form, not a commodity. And Owl who used to write for the pure love of it, but spends far too much time obsessing over traffic and clicks, wanted to stand up and cheer.

Louise Gluck got up on stage in a killer vah-vah-vah-voom dress that was all black, with sheer gauze, and said brokenly, “I’m not going to cry because that’s such a waste of time,” and then so clearly was crying. “Losing is hard,” she said, “but winning is harder, because there is no script.” Owl wanted to pat her on the back, because it must be hard—to work and work, to lose (Gluck has been a finalist before), and then to suddenly, when you are least expecting it, to win. 

Owl sort of blanked on non-fiction, but cheered for Evan Osnos and let Shep explain Osnos's writing and career at the New Yorker.  “Non-fiction is the only important category,” Shep said.

Phil Klay accepted the award for fiction for his book Redeployment which was based on his experiences in Iraq. Klay smiled, cracked jokes, and then looked straight into the heart of the audience, speaking slowly, as if the words were lost and a long time coming. “I came back not knowing what to think,” he said. “What do you do when you’re trying to explain in words, to the father of a fallen Marine, exactly what that Marine meant to you?” 

The room went silent, as Klay asked impossible questions. What do you tell middle schoolers who want to know if you have killed anyone and are disappointed when you haven’t? What do you say when the unspeakable has happened to you and the people you care about? What do you say when it’s still happening? 

Klay didn't have an answer. Klay's answer was to write.

The book awards were over. Owl got up and went to the bathroom. This, it turns out, was a tactical error. By the time she came back all of the books decorating the tables were gone, including the one she had set aside. Owl swallowed her disappointment and dragged Shep out to the red carpet where the winners were getting their photographs taken.

They spotted Klay holding his award, talking to his wife. Neither Owl nor Shep had read Redeployment, but Owl wanted badly to speak to Klay, to let him know his words meant something and that she was going to read his book as soon as she could.

Owl and Shep gathered their courage and congratulated Klay. Klay was lovely. He asked Owl and Shep if they wanted to hold his award—they did—and laughed when then staggered under its weight.

Thank you, Owl told him. Thank you for writing. Thank you for writing about things we need to hear about. 

“Good luck with your own writing,” Klay told them. When Owl ran into him later, he had a smile and a nod for her.

Then they spotted Evan Osnos, the non-fiction winner, and it was Shep’s turn to wibble and Owl’s turn to push Shep to ask for an autograph.

Osnos told Shep and Owl to write about far-away places. “The world wants to hear about places they haven’t been to,” he said, and Owl and Shep took heart. Shep writes about China, and Owl about India and Indonesia. Both of them have been told that American audiences don’t care.

And finally, Owl spotted Jacqueline Woodson, the young adult winner. “Thank you for writing young adult books,” Owl told her.

“You don’t have a book,” Woodson said. “Nevermind, take mine.” She handed over her copy of Brown Girl Dreaming and signed it. Owl’s night was complete.

Owl looked hard for other writers, but the trouble with writers is that their words are famous, not their photographs. She couldn’t recognize anyone even though she knew Michael Cunningham, Art Spiegelman, and Marilynne Robinson were in the crowd. Even though she’d spent hours in English class staring at Michael Cunningham’s photograph on the back of The Hours, she was afraid to make inquiries on the off chance that someone who looked like Cunningham was actually just a doppelganger. 

Owl retreated to the edge of the dance floor. On the dance floor men and women dressed in their black tie best spun around and around in dizzying circles with books tucked under their arms. This was a gathering of people who worship the written word, and everyone was decked out in their best for the sheer love of books. 

And Owl was incandescently, indescribably happy. True, she had not read---honestly, any of the books on the short list or the long list. But she was delighted to have a chance to congratulate the winners. To dress up and attend a fancy party thrown in honor of books.

Owl was, in many ways, a strange misfit of a child. She was asthmatic and she was lonely, so she spent much of her time reading. Books saved her when she was too sick to go outside, they saved her during family reunions in foreign countries, and during awkward social events. 

When Owl read, it didn’t matter where she was, the world and all of its troubles fell away. All that mattered was Owl read, and having read, knew something more of the world. For that, she wanted to thank everyone who sets pen to paper and goes about the horribly difficult task of writing in a world that pays most writers in pennies and skepticism. 

Thank you, and thank you, she wanted to tell everyone. Thank you for being here, thank you for letting me be here. And in that moment of gratitude, Owl understood why people throw ritzy parties. Sometimes there’s no better way to say thank you than to throw a huge fancy party to show people that they are important, worthy of pomp, ceremony and splendor.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Disliking Gravy: A Friendship

"Madam, I've been looking for a person who disliked gravy all my life; let us swear eternal friendship."
-Sydney Smith

This is the story of a friendship.

Owl spent last year at journalism school. She was absolute pants at it. Columbia has some mysterious definition of an ideal journalism school student. Owl never managed to figure out what exactly it was, except that she wasn’t it. She read too much fiction; she’s all about emotional truths; and talking to strangers upsets her.

She was also pants at making friends with her fellow classmates. They were well-informed, well-dressed, and well-spoken. In contrast Owl was two-steps behind on the gossip mill, never combed her hair, and was, you know, awkward. Owl felt like a beached whale attempting to frolic with seagulls. Often she wondered what she was doing at journalism school. 

In the spring Owl scored a place in book writing class. Book writing class, Owl had heard, was THE class. You apply by proposing a book topic (memoir not allowed) and if you get in, you spend a semester pegging away at a book proposal. The professor puts the living fear of God into his students. Book writing class is like going through the forges of hell. You get burned, you come out stronger, and afterwards nothing can destroy you. The gift you leave with is the conviction that you will write a book, so help you God. 

Owl stumbled across Shep in the dining hall of her dorm after the first bone shaking class. Owl recognized him from class: he’d seemed unusually serene while Owl wanted to be sick all over the table. But, they were both half-Chinese and both living in the same dorm. Owl figured this was enough grounds for a friendship and plunked herself down next to Shep. Then she started wailing. Her book was a memoir masquerading as a social history of Asian immigration and she had a nasty feeling she was going to get booted out of class if she admitted she wanted to nix the Asian immigration part and just write a memoir.

By contrast Shep had everything under control. His book proposal was about an imprisoned Chinese Democracy activist. He’d stumbled upon the family at a rally during his first semester of school. He’d already gotten the story on a radio show and had interviewed most of the immediate family. Shep was wearing a button down shirt, had his hair slicked back, and had accessorized with a newspaper or four. (Owl would soon learn this was a typical Shep uniform.) Shep was doing the two year journalism school track instead of the one year so he could pick up a side degree in computer science. In other words, Shep was everything Owl should have been.

Shep had very little sympathy with memoir writing and Owl's wailing. He wanted to know why Owl couldn’t suck it up and write a history of Asian immigration. Owl managed not to thump him. She’s noble like that. (Very noble. Shep requested the nickname Shep because he thinks his spirit animal is a majestic German Shepard. Owl is privately of the opinion a grumpy beagle would be more accurate.)

Somehow they agreed to edit each other’s essays before class on Monday. When she handed Shep her essay, Owl wanted to disappear. She’d written a piece about her father. It was a small, quiet essay that skated horribly close to being memoir instead of some glorious reporting odyssey.  

When Shep finished reading, he put it down and choked. “I can’t believe I got into the class when you can write like that,” he said. Owl sat a little straighter. She was still terrified of class, but she walked in the next day, comforted in the knowledge that someone thought she had value.

Editing became a Sunday night tradition. Shep would lecture Owl on being a better journalist and clean up her erratic punctuation. Owl would rip apart Shep’s structure and attempt to psychoanalyze him which met with varying results. They never stabbed each other with pens which is a victory. A lot of times editing turned into meandering conversations featuring serious gossip, the strange loneliness of growing up a little bit different, and country music. (Shep spent time in Kentucky which warped his musical taste.)

And somehow this became a friendship. Most of Owl’s friendships are built on the easy outpouring of emotions. Listen, share, validate, rinse, repeat. Not this one. If it’s after 2:00am Shep will occasionally share about his emotions. He shuts up rapidly if Owl is too validating and gets cranky when Owl tries to couch criticism in compliments. “Stop sugar coating everything,” he told her. He means it. Shep has told Owl off for being un-American, reading fiction instead of the news, and having no journalistic instincts. They squabble.  

But they have each other’s backs in a way that Owl’s never quite seen before. Every Sunday night before book writing class Owl edited and re-edited Shep’s drafts on-call. The night before the Columbia career fair, when Owl was hyperventilating about being useless and unemployable, Shep sat down and tutored Owl on spinning her resume. Then he handed her a stack of his old newspapers and subscribed her to his weekly media round up. Owl walked out of the career fair with two internship offers. 

Later, when Owl got stuck on a story during her internship, Shep was there with angle suggestions and sources. And still later, Shep passed on freelance opportunities and job tips. When Shep gives Owl a compliment she believes it. Shep doesn’t deal in fluff.

And then Owl got hired and moved to San Francisco. And she wondered what happens to the strange alchemy of friendship when you up and away. Can you still be friends when the structure the friendship rests on fades away? Owl has friendships that are based entirely on conversation, she’s capable of spending six hours on the phone with her friends, and once pulled an eight hour conversation with her boyfriend, but she and Shep are more about sticking up for each other when life gets hairy than serious soul spilling ad infinitum. 

Owl moved. Owl messaged Shep about having no friends. Shep arranged for her to hang out with a friend of his and called to ask how it went. Owl gave Shep the down low on his lineup of professors and told him he absolutely would get a job when he was having a bad day. 

Last week Owl was attending a tech conference and peacefully scribbling down notes during her lunch break when she got a text from Shep. My life is so hard, it said. Attached was an invite to the National Book Awards. Shep had been invited by the president of the dorm, because that’s typical Shep. The text message exchange went something like this:

Owl: …I’m sorry, excuse me, WHAT?
Shep: I have class at the same time. 
Owl: Ursula Le Guin. Louise Gluck. Mark Strand. Marilynne Robinson. URSULA LE GUIN. FORGET CLASS.
Shep:  Who?
Owl: If you don’t go, I will gut you and eat your entrails. I’ll go. I’ll pretend to be you.
Shep: Okay, okay.
Owl: Can I come as your plus one? I’ll carry your tux tails and everything. Seriously, I’d fly from San Francisco.
Shep: Okay, if it means that much to you. Let me ask. 

Ten minutes later Owl’s invite was confirmed. 

 Friendship: when you move across the country but the essentials stay the same.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Motorbike That Didn't

When Owl was offered a Fulbright to teach in Malaysia for a year, she came up with a list of lofty personal goals and one very concrete one. Learn to drive a motorbike. She lusted after a motorbike. As a child, when Owl visited her cousins in India, they plopped her on the back of a motorbike and drove her up and down dark green hills. 

During orientation Fulbright officials explained the lay of the land. Everyone would be sent off to their towns and there local teachers would help them get settled and buy motorbikes, which were the cheapest way to get around.  

On the best of days Owl is an unsteady driver and has shit coordination on a bike, but no matter. Owl was going to learn to drive a motorbike. She pictured herself zooming across Malaysia on weekends, and becoming a road warrior. She was going to be such a badass.

Then Owl arrived at town and realized that it wasn’t going to be all that easy to materialize dreams of badassery. Owl’s mentor winced when Owl brought up a motorbike.

“Motorbikes are dangerous,” Owl’s mentor said. “I understand you need transportation…how about a car?”

Owl could not precisely afford a car. Also she had her heart set on a motorbike. She asked other teachers for help, each fobbed her off on someone else. Most said they drove cars, others redirected Owl back to her mentor. Everyone ended with a story about how dangerous the roads were. Finally, Owl’s mentor pointed her to a teacher who had a scooter for loan. 

Every week Owl went over to the teacher and asked about the scooter. Every week the teacher smiled at her and said something about waiting. It was a delightfully sweet interaction, Owl clearing her throat because she was nervous about being a pest, the teacher all apologetic froth. 

Meanwhile, Owl tried to picture herself on a motorbike and got more and more nervous. She heard stories about students who ended up in accidents. Owl herself tended to daydream when she was behind the steering wheel of a car. What if Owl got into an accident? 

And while Owl’s town wasn’t exactly walkable, Owl could make do. There was a small strip of stores within walking distance. Owl could figure out basic food and laundry. For anything else, well, it’s good to practice living a simple life, right?

On spring vacation to Laos, Owl convinced her friend Peter to teach her to motorbike. [Peter’s motorbike story was comparatively simple. He arrived at school. Teachers brought him shopping for a bike and gave him some lessons.] 

Owl clambered onto the bike. Owl’s shit balance kicked in, the bike wobbled, Owl revved up the bike, shot forward and nearly knocked over a backpacker.

“You almost killed me,” the woman screamed. “Stay off of those.”

“I think we better end lessons,” Peter mumbled. It took Owl’s girlfriends glaring at Peter and talking about strong independent women to get the lessons started again. This time Peter sat on the back. Owl’s girlfriends cheered and clapped as Owl wobbled around a street corner. 

“You aren’t bad,” Peter said. “With some practice you could learn to drive this thing.”

Owl went back to school and continued her campaign for a bike. The teacher with the scooter was even more apologetic than usual. She was busy, she said. Her mother had cancer.

Cancer! How could Owl be selfishly pestering someone about motorbikes when there was cancer afoot? She decided to wait a few weeks.

Shortly afterwards, Peter swung by Owl’s town to take her to a friend’s English camp. On the way they crashed into a pole and tumbled off, splattering against the road. They were lucky: they were wearing helmets and thick clothing. They walked away with no more than a few bruises. Still, Peter still has the scars and it would be a full year before Owl was able to run or walk without limping. Lesson learned: motorbikes are dangerous.

When Owl came back to school with a bloodied arm and knee, her mentor looked her over.
“I told you to stay away from motorbikes,” she said and stalked off. She did not speak to Owl for the rest of the day. It was up to Owl to figure out where the doctor’s office was, walk over, and get treatment. For weeks Owl figured if she got into a second accident she’d rather get smashed up and shipped home in a box than face her mentor and explain she’d been riding motorbikes again. She promptly gave up her campaign for a motorbike.

 In flat comparison, Peter was given the day off and a teacher took him to the doctor’s office to be patched up. 

Owl grew during her year in Malaysia. She walked places. Every weekend she wrote up a list of whatever she needed that couldn’t be procured on foot. She befriended a taxi driver who took her to the bus station every week so Owl could go out of town. They practiced speaking Malaysian together. Owl had the bus time tables and routes memorized.  

Owl got by. During Ramadan when everything was closed during daytime and Owl was too tired to walk to the restaurants and shops when they opened at night, she lost some weight. C’est la vie. 

During her last night in Malaysia, Owl went to dinner with the teachers at her school. Owl was fairly pleased with her year. She’d crossed off her list of goals plus a few more, she was sad to say goodbye, but excited to go home. The conversation swung towards next year’s Fulbrighter who would be replacing Owl. All anybody knew was he was male.

 “Ah, we’ve got to see about getting him a motorbike,” one of the teachers said. “He’ll need to get around. I’ll have to take him to the shops.” 

Owl ate a disgusting amount of dinner to soothe her feelings.

To cap off the end of the year, there was a closing ceremony where all the Fulbright grantees gathered to discuss how the year had went. Transportation came up as a point of contention. A lot of the females in the program said it had taken them a long time to get a motorbike, if they had managed to get one at all. The boys mostly talked about how they’d been taken to the shops immediately.

Everyone was tired. Everyone was somewhat out of temper with each other. It had been a long hard year full of routine failures, small victories and homesickness. Emotions ran high.

A Fulbrighter got up. He was the pull yourself up by the bootstraps type, and he’d bought a sick beast of a motorbike.  “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why couldn’t you all just cut through the bullshit and walk into a store and buy a motorbike by yourself?” 

Owl was filled with a deep shame that somehow it had never occurred to her to find the motorbike shop, walk in, spend roughly $500-$800 on a vehicle she didn’t know how to drive in a foreign country and get it back to her house without any help. Weak indeed.

If Owl could do it over again she wishes someone had sat her down and said: you deserve a motorbike but the cards are stacked against you. Fight. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s too dangerous, and don’t let anyone shame you for fighting. Fight like a motherfucker because this isn’t a fair game and there’s no way you’re winning unless you put in everything you’ve got. Don’t stop until you get what you want.

Owl lost that fight. She wonders how many other fights she’s lost because the cards were stacked against her and she didn’t realize.