When I was a little kid, I saw no good reason to go outside.
There are often plenty of reasons to stay indoors in Minnesota, but even during those perfect summer days that once made hordes of naïve and hardy Scandinavians consider the Upper Midwest an ideal place for permanent settlement, I remained in my room. My own mom, the granddaughter of a Swede and a Norwegian, would lean her stout body into my doorway and ask out of amazement, “Why don’t you want to go outside? It’s PERFECT out!”
It wasn’t just that the suffering and hard work of my forebears enabled a world of air-conditioned comfort I was unwilling to leave. Nor was it a growing identification with the Midwestern idea that the ability to withstand misery is ennobling – an ethos that explains how millions of people tolerate entities as consistently heartbreaking and stupid as the Chicago Cubs or a climate that can fluctuate between tornadoes and blizzards in under a month. No, I would have gladly sought fellowship in yet another shared misery, had anyone shared mine.
To me, a scrawny, twerpy little dweeb, outside was an unlucky assemblage of dull woe; a salad bar of reckless and pointless adversaries.
Outside, big kids drove around on bikes with mag wheels, swinging plastic baseball bats at smaller children. Scott Burt, the kid who got kicked out of fourth grade for pulling a knife on the teacher, roamed around looking for things to steal. There was a batshit-crazy fifth-grade girl who still carried the liner notes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” everywhere she went and always tried to force boys and girls to kiss each other.
Outside there was also as much pathos as there were things to fear. There was a kid named Keith Stash, who was allowed to play in the middle of the street, and he’d be out there well past 9:00 PM, almost getting hit by passing cars as the sun and his parents gave up on him. The sight of his strange, un-abetted freedom was not enticing; it was sad.
There were also that pair of sisters who at a young age were obsessed with male genitalia. All of the male dolls they owned were stripped nude. Every time I saw them they would try to force me to take my pants and underwear off. They had no brothers and their dad wasn’t around, but because I studiously avoided them I can’t glean many insights into the realm of their preoccupation. They were outside too.
Outside is where one neighbor found a stash of male porn (completely unrelated to the aforementioned sisters, as it turned out) and where another neighbor found a stash of beer. Outside is where hit-and-run drivers killed a beautiful hunting dog named Malley and a friendly collie named Winston.
Outside was OK if it was the swingset in the fenced-in backyard or the tight front yard, shielded from the street by rose bushes, a cluster of thorns away from the unregulated freak kingdom that was my neighborhood, as I perceived it.
Of course, compared to a lot of places, where I grew up was downright idyllic. My neighborhood obviously wasn’t tough, it was just ugly sometimes, and like many ugly places, we were expected to respond to unwelcome compromises of social decency with brute force. The older kids, and many adults, expected boys to be eye-for-an-eye. Kid on a bike hit you with a bat? Stick a broom handle in his spokes! Scott Burt stole one of your Matchbox trucks? Kick his ass!
And people did kick Scott Burt’s ass regularly, with no complaint from his parents, who apparently knew the score. Ass-kicking, however, wasn’t my cup of meat either, so I didn’t fit in with the enforcers any more than the bullies. As someone who did not prefer to hit, to get hit, or hit back, I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.
So, I was much happier inside, filling a yellow spiral notebook with fanciful election results from the U.S. Presidential elections between 1789 and 1864. I titled this notebook “Papers From The Executive Branch.”
When I wasn’t doing that, I was probably playing with my Star Wars guys, pretending they were going to restaurants. “Hello,” I’d have Greedo the maitre d’ say to Lando the customer, “You can’t be seated until your entire party has arrived.”
“You need to get out of the house,” my mom said.
She and my dad spoke in the kitchen. They heard and understood my apprehensions about Scott Burt and all of the pervy dog-murdering Michael Jackson fans in the street at 9 pm, but were alarmed at my insular nature and lack of physical activity. For two parents in the ex-urb Middle West, they arrived at the most logical conclusion. They signed me up for soccer.
To that point, my awareness of my hometown’s Youth Athletic Association was that it sent older, more athletic kids to our door a few times year to sell us arcane local concoctions like Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls. To me, the idea of participating in a door-to-door fundraiser was as mortifying as soccer. There was nothing about this entire experience that would be “fun.” My parents, however, were unyielding. I was going outside.
Every team in the Youth Athletic Association had a color and this year, my particular group of third-grade boys were given the black shirts. This was enough to make us “the cool team,” and for no fault of my own, I was envied as a soccer player before I even attended a practice.
That was the last time in my life anyone looked at me on a pitch, field, diamond, course, rink, or sandlot and determined I was enviable. The coach assigned me to play defense, and about thirty seconds into our first “scrimmage” (where the team practiced against itself in a stripped-down mock game) any lingering envies were permanently disabused.
Soccer fields were kind of peaceful. I liked playing defense because I could just stand there and let my mind wander, and if the ball came near me, I would just kick it to someone else or get out of the way. In the meantime, I just stared off into space and thought about things I’d rather be doing.
My mom asked me how I liked soccer, and I said I thought it was okay, except for when the ball came near me. The smell of grass and the fresh air were a tonic for the imagination but the whistles and shouting broke my concentration sometimes.
Next year I was on a much worse team, less desirable for our maroon shirts and general lack of athletic competence. As such, more of was expected of me; I was promoted to wingman, an offensive position, despite showing a marked aversion to ball-handling, passing, scoring, drive or focus during my soccer career.
There were some boys on the team who seemed to be trying much harder than me, and were doing as least as bad. The scrimmages we had did not prepare us for games. We would get walloped by scores of 7-0 and 8-1. “I’m telling my team to play their best,” I remember my coach saying. “The problem is, most of them are.”
I actually made some shots on net, but no goals. For someone who had never crossed midfield in his life, this was awesome and terrifying and surreal, like someone from the Cook Islands seeing his first ice rink one year and playing in the NHL the next. It made me a better player, I suppose, being forced to actually play all the time.
I even got a mild concussion once while attempting a header, which for me was sort of a red badge of chutzpah. I remember being knocked on my ass, staring at shapes that looked like misty neon exploding grapefruit, and the coach, who was typically of the “rub some dirt on it and get back out there” school of sports medicine, let me sit out for the rest of the game.
I found that having a sports injury gained me some measure of respect. I was also told that I’d somehow expended some degree of effort and skill on the play that sidelined me. I was amazed.
Maybe this is where the story is supposed to get treacly, and where I’m supposed to tap into a hidden reservoir of inner competence and lead my scrappy underdog team to the all-city finals. This did not happen. I did realize that enthusiasm is a decent substitute for a total lack of natural talent, and that my positive attributes (speed, quickness) in combination with the negatives (dreamy detachment, total lack of coordination) could at least be a pain in the ass to the opposing team. I could be a spoiler; I could get in the way.
By ninth grade, I was done with the charade. I had fulfilled my parents’ objectives—I had gone outside for a change—and even though I didn’t score one goal in five years of soccer, I had exceeded my own expectations. I gave up sanctioned athletic competition for what I assumed was the rest of my life. A decade later in Italy, I would be proved wrong, with a clean slate and slightly different results.
For that time, however, perhaps I had convinced the souls of my immigrant great-grandparents that they weren’t entirely wrong in trying to make Minnesota a better place for their children, and that their hard work wouldn’t be wasted in an air-conditioned bedroom. Indeed, on one of those few Midwestern days that are actually enjoyable, a nerdy little descendant of theirs who’d never have survived their Oregon Trail-style privations can go outside, past the thieves and perverts and thugs on mag wheels, get awoken from another daydream by a salvo of authorized aggression, and maybe even get a concussion amidst flowering volleys of polite encouragement.
With my face in the dirt, whistles screaming, a breeze washing through the torn grass of someone else’s perfect day, and my head filling with buttery stars, outside, at last, would be OK.
In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me. One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.
“You’re a cynic.”
I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.
Not so with stories.
* * *
I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.
In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:
[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.
It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.
No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.
* * *
In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.
Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.
At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:
July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.
July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.
July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.
Six months later, I could only write about it in third person. It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.
* * *
“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.
I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment. One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”
In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well. To see my life as a story and myself as a character. I needed the grief to be outside instead of in. My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.
But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.
Paying a visit to Bittertown. Even after you leave, you still smell like it.
* * *
This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.
I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.
Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there. I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.
When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.
For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.
As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).
Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.
I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.
* * *
But remnants of the bitterness remained.
Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.
Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.
A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!
Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.
And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.
I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.
I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.
* * *
Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?
Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.
December 29, 2010
Sung to the tune of “Paint it Black”
I see a row of curlers and I want them taken out
My friends are on their way / I want them taken out
Sung to the tune of “Under My Thumb”
Under my name / Mom, this mail was not addressed to you
Under my name / What if this had been personal?
See it’s right there?
See how my name is there and not yours or Dad’s
The mail has come and
It’s under my name
Sung to the tune of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”
Let’s spend the evening together
Playing monopoly and eating Bagel Bites
It’s not weird because it’s Sunday
And you’re pretty funny when you’ve had a margarita
Sung to the tune of “Get Off of My Cloud”
Hey (Hey!) Mom (Mom!) / Get off of the phone!
I’m (I’m!) Still (Still!) on the goddamn phone!
Sung to the tune of “Brown Sugar”
Brown Sugar / You cook it on Butternut Squash
Brown Sugar / It’s good but really sweet
Sung to the tune of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,
But it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas!
But it’s all right, I’m just kidding, Mom!
It was a gas, gas, gas!
I write in a place some might refer to as a “man cave.” I prefer to call it my study. Many labels and tags of today, like man cave, seem crass and fleeting. I seek the world–at least in words–of greater tested substance. But should a person happen in here, he or she would likely think, or speak, “man cave.” Here are rough-hewed beams. I don’t know how old this building is in the Old Port area of Portland, but I suspect the beams were put here by hand for real reasons, and not a later aesthetic to appeal to those sensitive to such things. Strewn about my study is my rock collection: small stones picked up from world travels and labeled accordingly: Stonehenge, Loch Ness, the Great Wall, Hemingway’s garden in Key West, Rio Grande in Terra del Fuego and so forth. On the old chimney brick I have stretched prayer flags from Tibet. My photographs are strewn about, some in plastic sleeves, some matted and framed. A few pieces of photographic equipment, as well as developer chemicals rest against walls and in dark cabinets. Overflow books reside here, mainly books on fly-fishing, map and compass navigation, literary criticism and guide books to hiking trails in New England.