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Amanda Sledz - 300 Feet Tall and Counting Amanda Sledz - 300 Feet Tall and Counting

Amanda Sledz

300 Feet Tall and Counting

April 14, 2015
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Amtrak PDX to MSP Part 4: No sleep

This is how you know you’re in coach on Amtrak: all the neatly closed and coordinated luggage has been properly stowed in sleeping cars. Coach is not a place of matching sets in modern colors, hard-shelled and adorned with stickers announcing far away cities that might not really exist. We are a tribe of borrowers and Goodwill shoppers, garbage bag packers and shopping bag haulers. There is no one in coach in expensive jeans, no skateboards covered in sponsor labels velcro’d to a brand name backpack. It’s men who shoved their personal possessions in a camping backpack and a bottle into a front pocket for slow sipping at each announced delay. It’s women with so many children they haven’t known a private shower or a hairstyle more complicated than a ponytail in years. It’s people who walk on in pajamas and stay that way, and confuse the courtesy of the kind chap selling coffee for friendship; a friendship that is revoked the moment his lunch break lasts a little too long and all the addicts tighten their line formation and bristle. Coffee. This is about coffee. And beer. Definitely beer. It’s people who are accused of things by other people, people who are a bit more tired at 30 than average, it’s people who Know Better Than You about so many things, if you wouldn’t only take the time to listen.

And in the midst of this is me: borrowed suitcase (check). Uncomplicated hairstyle (check). Personal weirdness to account for (check). Mounting exasperation and an inability to complete a sentence (double check).

There are very few women in coach during the journey from PDX to MSP, though two men in hunting jackets and John Deere trucker’s hats have managed to find one. She’s a Japanese tourist with an east facing seat in the observation car, and both of these men are eager to tell her everything she’s not asking about America. I’m seated behind her, barely remaining upright and thinking about disease. The American men are talking about how their parents can’t retire, early careers in dirt bike racing, and why Americans need to repeatedly renew their drivers’ licenses. The Japanese tourist mentions speaking three languages, and one of them tells this joke:

“Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks three or more languages is called multilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”

(Pause.)

“An American!”

Lulz all around.

Their conversation is slow and meandering and surprisingly intimate, as each produces a phone full of images of their respective hometowns to best illustrate their explanations of everyday life. I hear her comment that she doesn’t have the same journey that a lot of Americans feel compelled to experience, the journey of identity, because she knows exactly where her parents were born and what place they started from; she knows what village they belong to, what palace resides there, and what it means when the bells toll. Both men are silent at this, out of respect for the truth and the poetic delivery, and I’m thinking about it too, and my own need to inspect my genetics and identify as American plus something else. I wonder if there will be a time in the future with a single identifiable American ethnicity, one that has nothing to do with the Civil War and dates of immigration, and if during this time Americans will be a bit more interested in story, having been freed from the prison of memorized names and dates and graves.

These meandering thoughts sustain me and them until sunset demands retirement to seats for movie watching and pseudo sleeping. There will be no sleeping.

There’s a guy who is sleeping, and every third breath he yells, “whoa!” I got the seat with the light always on. This makes me feel responsible. Somewhere the whole train turned North Dakota, which means it’s occupied by oil men who make Montana snowboarders coy about their drinking habits. Everyone is sick, or at least sick of being on the train, expressed through repeated sighs, stomach clutching, head clutching, groans. We are the unwashed masses, and the smell is real. I steal a fork from the kindly chap peddling coffee to friends that aren’t friends to finish my giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Everyone doesn’t know they’re jealous, but I’m the least sick and the most delicious. The fork makes clink noises against the glass every time it takes a dive. The light is on. Dive. They know what I’m doing. Dive. I’m responsible. Dive.

Amtrak Hellride for the stripes.

 

 

 

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April 10, 2015
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Part 3: Montana has us

Once the woman finished her anecdote about bear shit and the obligatory bear shitting in the woods joke, an elderly man in a bright red hat with long white hair (who had been staring at me for hours) finally saw fit to ask a question. That question was: “Is that Yellowstone?”

My brain said, “It’s Glacier National Park” and then followed with “that’s too much work” and so I had no choice but to answer: “Okay.”

“Maybe Middlefort or Middle Fork River?” he pressed. Wait, does that mean he thinks the river is Yellowstone and not the park, or are there two places with the same name?

I try to formulate a word but my chin just rotates in a circle, possibly off my face, and I think about reasons to cry. Some alert young man in the official outfit of snowboarders everywhere explained that the river branches from Yellowstone and runs into Coochie River. (Note to reader: in other circumstances I might see fit to harness the powers of the Google and learn what the proper river names were, but for the sake of this story I think we should all remain on the same confused, sleep-deprived, and desperate level. Remember: there is none of the internets!)

It seemed like I should compliment this young fellow for his knowledge, and so I said, “You know Geography!” Then I decided I shouldn’t talk anymore.

Still, Montana: giant trees and snow and great gorgeous mountain tops. The sky filled with hawks and eagles and blue. Great green stained rivers running a track that defies time. The land seemed strong in a way it isn’t in most other places in America, like it knows it’s going to outlast you and won’t kneel to the demands of industry. If it needs to, it will make the bear shit smell permanent to keep you at bay.

Throughout the train people kept telling me it’s going to get boring eventually, but I couldn’t hear it. Montana let us through, but just barely, and only because we kept to our track even more tightly than the river.

 

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April 9, 2015
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Day 2: Closer to White Fish

Finally on the train, everyone around me immediately fell asleep, informing a suspicion that Amtrak avoided further confrontation by stuffing those free sandwiches with sedatives. Another way being gluten-free = torture. They thanked me for my services with a seat directly below a light that was always on. Even the observation car was empty, which made it look like a scene in an 80s movie right before a red leather jacket dance battle takes place that tears the whole place apart. The only people to trickle in were teenagers, the sort that buy Nirvana t-shirts from Target. Both sleeves of crackers were history, which left avocados, and I cut the first one down the middle and began eating little slivers with my knife. The teens looked at me, and tittered. Whatever. I was laughing at them the whole time, too. At some point I fell asleep and snapped awake when my glasses hit the floor. This is why I purchase pairs that cost less than $100.

 

Light of dawn meant Montana, and I hurried to the observation car to take in Glacier National Park without even wearing a jacket. Every seat was cameras and conversation. There was a woman of about 40 with hair the color of sand and a face shocked red who was giving an on the fly science lesson about grizzly bears in Montana. She reported that 40% of the grizzly population lived in Glacier National Park, and then went on to describe a fault line you can actually see. Amtrak’s absence of reliable wi-fi services makes trains the perfect place to compulsively lie without a smart phone interruption. If it wasn’t for the olives I would have feared I was contributing nothing to the Amtrak community, especially since I only just then noticed that I’d failed to seize an opportunity to create an elaborate nature story that would shock the German tourists to the core. And just when my jealousy couldn’t get any thicker, the 40ish lady said, “you know, the smell of bear shit never goes away. There’s areas all over where you smell nothing but that. Nothing.”

 

Please, do go on.

 

Note from Amanda: super exhausted today, so this is short so i can sleep. More tomorrow!

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April 8, 2015
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Report on AWP Experiment, Day 1

I got off Amtrak today wearing 39 hours of train haze and a body odor generally reserved for detox diets, checked into my hotel, babbled at my partner, hung up on him, showered, and then collapsed for two hours. Two fitful hours of frantic arm itching as each hair follicle threw a tantrum, I thrashed the blankets all over while mumbling about how my hair is red, my skin is red. Then I wrote this in my dream journal with a certainty that this will make deep psychic sense later. Much later.

 

When I stood up I thought bedbugs, hives, eczema, dry skin, autoimmune issues. Then I looked down at ankles that had assumed the curvature of a redwood, with just as much spongy resistance. To the Internets! After reading about blood clots and kidney disease and liver failure and poking my ankles to measure resistance, I called my mother. She was babysitting my nieces, which is something I learned after I called her house phone, then called my sister, and then called her cell phone.

 

“HELLO!” my mother said. Her cell phone is a friend from another country who only understands English with exclamation marks.

 

I was trying not to cry. My cell phone is a therapist with opinions. “My ankles are swollen.”

 

“I’m with your nieces. We’re playing Sorry!” That was a good response, because my next thought was holy hell that’s a boring game, even more boring than the game where I’m dying of ankle swell on the 10th floor of a hotel. Then she said, “Have you been eating a lot of salt?” That’s when I remembered all those olives.

 

Let me back up:

Yesterday I got up late because I went to bed late, and ran around stuffing too many t-shirts and not enough anything else into compression bags I didn’t close properly. Then I shoved all these bloated plastic bags spun into knots that rendered them more cumbersome than folding would have been into a tiny suitcase, and then I said oh no, and flapped my hands until a friend came by with a bag designed to handle a whole lot of suits. Apparently this is perfect for 9,000 t-shirts and air-filled bags.

 

While I was flapping, my partner was doing things like depositing checks and dropping off rent and picking up prescriptions and not saying too much about the too many clothes I was definitely going to take. He also managed to not say anything about the number of books I was taking to sell at a conference where people notoriously scoff at self-published authors, and did not say a word about the giant bag of Trader Joe’s food that made no sense for any living being. Items included four watery avocados, two sleeves of rice crackers, two Stumptown Cold Brews, two snobby German mineral waters, chickpeas trapped in an oil stew, carrot sticks, and a giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Green was well represented.

 

Now that you have a clear image of the slapstick in progress boarding the train: I did not get on the train. At the Amtrak station I was ignored by one woman busy wishing she worked elsewhere, and then was handed a ticket by a pasty man who announced I was bound for Pasco. Huh? Someone was handing out boxed lunches.

 

“Where’s Pasco?” I asked.

 

“I don’t know,” was his response. I took the box labeled Turkey, because yeah.

 

The bus was all the things bus dreams are made of: fart smell and windows that don’t open and rotten food and babies with the lungs to scream for four hours and confusion. No one knew why the hell we were on the bus, and after a few shouted questions we learned an entire fleet of buses were headed to Pasco, because the train was not coming into Portland at all. Since none of us were new to this transportation experience we got over it in favor of trading cookies and chips with an efficiency that would put a playground to shame. As someone gluten-free I was an instant celebrity, as the entire contents of my box save for the apple were rationed out to people who like eating. The bus pendulumed my stomach, and I shoved crackers into it to keep it quiet.

 

At the Pasco station the Amtrak employees had a mutiny on their hands. Four hours on a bus is tolerable with a food bribe; we were now stuck waiting in a tiny lobby with no indication of when this would end. There was a great thunderous volley of complaint, as people jockeyed for status as Alpha Complainer, angry eyes encouraging the crowd to hoot their support for one of three Silver Backs. My favorite was a woman in her mid fifties with brown hair curled for battle, a hands-on-hips, this-is-bullshit strut that announced she was born to do this. There would be letters. There would be calls. There would be a sleeper car, and it would be clean! Not like last time!

 

Meanwhile, I was Tweeting to Amtrak, since I learned during a previous trip that this is the only real way to get a response. Fair enough; I don’t answer my phone, either. The Twitter exchange told me how far behind the train was and was quite apologetic, and I was quite apologetic too, because it’s not her fault that her time control device need new batteries and physically present Amtrak employees eat anger as a delicacy. Like any good coyote I kept this new information for myself, because I eat hilarious, and one of the would-be Alphas had just declared, “This is CRAZY!” A girl in newsprint pants glanced up, then unplugged her headphones and turned Snoop Dog way up. The complaints now had a beat. This was amazing. This was for everyone.

 

Then they made us get in line.

 

A theory: there are pressure points on the bottom of my flat, flat feet that trigger misery when I have to stand without moving for too long. Too long = five minutes. Standing in line, my brain said: what am I doing with my life? I don’t think I was happy enough my 36th year. Do I say that every year of my life? What year do I look back on as my happy year? What was happening then? I probably wrote about it as miserable at the time. Maybe this has something to do with the transition from hair metal bands to grunge bands in the early 90s. Went from ridiculous-spandex- high-kick girls-girls-girls nothing-but-a-good-time to I’m-still-alive and I-think-I’m-dumb in 18 months time. Maybe I should listen to more Motley Crue.

 

She took my ticket just in time, but didn’t direct me anywhere. So I stood there, five hours older, three bags heavier, 34 hours to go, before finally picking car 15 because an Alpha Complainer stood in front of it yelling, “Is this it? IS THIS IT?”

 

Amanda will be writing one thing or the other about this adventure every day this week for #AWP15.

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November 4, 2014
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Unpoisoning the Well: a few points on community

 

1.) I’m a mean, mean woman

About fifteen years ago I attended a party. A man I sort of knew approached and began the dance of the aggressive would-be molester, the push to see what my “fuck off” level was, exactly. I’m not talking about flirtation, but aggression demonstrated by someone making calculations based on how drunk I was (or could be), how bored, how unwilling to be assertive. You’re trying to get laid tonight with that outfit, I know you are, I can tell…no, you are…no, you are. I know I’m trying to get laid. Why are you moving away? Don’t be shy. What are you drinking?

It was uncomfortable, but I’d already learned that subtle clues don’t register with this special breed of asshole. I’d been to pagan festivals oozing with older folks looking for broken people to vampire, to clubs where shifty guys standing at the edges of the dance floor slip pills into unguarded drinks, to hippie-rich desert trip-out spaces where people try to accuse you of not being “free enough” if you articulate a boundary. There are people of all genders who will push and push and push and use silence as consent, simply because they don’t give a shit if you’re consenting or not. The objective is you giving in; not your enjoyment, not communication, not pleasure. The goal is the contents of your pants; this isn’t romantic. The lesson I learned from watching such people in action is to deliver a “no” with a hammer when a swat won’t suffice.

So rather than stand there and dodge unwanted affection (for hours) I made direct eye contact and said, “I’m not interested. At all. So stop.”

Then another man behind me said: “Aww, why are you being mean?”

This was just enough to encourage the aggressor to start up all over again. That was exactly what he did, and exactly why I left.

Overview: When you are clear, you are mean. If you let it happen, you’re being complacent; you should have been clear. If you express enthusiasm, you’re a slut; you should hold back. If you hold back, you’re a prude or a zealot; you should give in.

You will always choose wrong.

You have a thing that is desired. You are not whole; there is a specific thing separate from you that is prized. You? You are not prized. You are the keeper of the prize; she who keeps the prize is resented. It’s not fair that you get to be the gate and the key.

If my ascent to dark and clawed cousin of the manic pixie dream girl, the venom-injected sibling of the Sad Girl could be drilled to fit a singular event, this would be it. An army of Valkyries hatched inside my head and have since been busy harvesting and hunting. What I left behind was bullshit, things that have never been missed.

I left behind the parties that invite people like this. Adult-children, who perceive other people as an entitlement, a gate to break through. Actual adulthood is achieved through recognition that initial primitive impulse is not necessarily a call to action.

I will not be a gate that holds back animals. And I’m not willing to share company with those who think animals are simply adorable, and I am only there to feed them.

 

2.) Community as cloaking device

In any community, most people know who the liabilities are: the people who can fuck up any event, party, or family gathering through being lecherous, violent, or offensive for attention. Nevertheless, crafting clever disguises and escape hatches for unsavory sorts is something that often happens, from the Catholic Church to the NFL. This also exists in so-called alternative zones, and it’s time to stop pretending that it doesn’t.

Recent headlines draw attention to this, from the alt-lit community that supports predators, to Canadian television stations where pop celebrities are quietly discussed as someone to avoid if you’re female, to the Burning Man community that knows what to do to create an instant wired city for 60,000 but not what to do for rape victims.

Since long before Burroughs writers have noted their sexual proclivities and have absorbed a fair share of scorn for the less mainstream varieties, but only in recent days have these individuals continued to enjoy mainstream support, even after numerous victims come forward to reveal a pattern of violent, dangerous behavior. Tao Lin used a relationship with an ex as the basis of a book, including verbatim pages of correspondence; in this book he detailed a pattern of abuse, and then further abused his partner by publishing it without permission. It was only after his behaviors were detailed on Twitter that he felt inspired to offer this ex any future royalties on the book in question. And in case you’re wondering, stealing words to pen a heavily autobiographical account of manipulation and rape isn’t enough to compromise a book deal.

In the mainstream writing world, Lena Dunham has increasingly come under fire for using her sister as a human shield against accusations of homophobia, for violating her trust and using her stories to bolster her own, and for detailing what many would categorize as sexual abuse in her memoir. Dunham’s response to these accusations is demanding that people take it back, calling the accusations (not her actions) “not ok”, and completely failing to note that readers are simply drawing their own conclusions based on information she freely submitted. She seems to feel these accusations are misplaced simply because she’s Lena Dunham – and those who rally around her seem to agree. Not that the Hollywood set has ever been particularly inclined to heap scorn upon someone accused (or even convicted) of a sex crime; the difference is that Lena Dunham appears to be someone who would consider what she did a crime if someone else had done the deeds.

Back in my day of creative nonfiction workshops, there was much discussion of the lines we draw for ourselves in memoir, and places where the story isn’t our to tell, and what sacrifices we make for story. Dunham’s words would have been revelatory if they included acknowledgement of her own capacity for villainy and insight as to what she’s learned about consent in the years that follow; instead, it underscores her sense of exceptionalism and narcissism. Those who aggressively defend her perpetuate this delusion. Shelter and cloak.

Comprehension of feminist rhetoric, the ability to piece together a zine, or a preference for clothing ideas inspired by sci fi films or 80s sitcoms doesn’t exempt individuals from reprehensible behaviors. Whether Brooklyn-based man-boys or Marion Zimmer Bradley, sheltering of those who respond to no as if it were a suggestion results in entire communities that reek of fear and insecurity, where talent hovers on the margins of excess and is usually neglected out of fear of being supplanted.

There is no glory in taking advantage of a situation – or other people – simply because you can. An inability through disability of will to say no does not equal yes. Fear does not equal consent; it equals fear, and invites an enabling, cowardly community of insecure individuals who cannot achieve their heart’s desire without exploitation to be created, on the face of what could have been revolutionary. The destruction of such communities might not happen overnight, but it will happen eventually, and it is loud and ugly and public and awful.

 

3.) A cure?

The wolf blood in me demands an unambiguous morality and loyalty with rigidly defined lines that cannot be crossed. And yet I have remained friends with individuals who have crossed boundaries because I have chosen to call them out in blunt terms (“mean”) and have refused to indulge it or diaper it. This has involved targeted statements such as “you are fucking creepy” and “you don’t respect boundaries” and “you are being willfully negligent of the desires of people around you so you can get what you want” and “you are a self-serving douchebag taking advantage of naive young people and abusing your position of power.” When this doesn’t work, making them leave (instead of leaving yourself) could be the solution.

Real friends and loving family members occasionally call you out in a way that reduces you to a blubbering mess. I’ve done it, and it’s happened to me in instances where I was damaging people around me, simply because I could. The notion that people don’t change is bullshit, the sort of thing articulated by someone too lazy and self-serving to change.

Those who respond to accusations with, “you’re right, but stop making me feel bad” (as was the case with the alt-lit meltdown) are desperate to remain the only living person in the discussion. Acknowledging the real pain of the individuals on the receiving end would allow them to fully exist beyond immediate convenience or supporting narrative prop. Feeling “bad” is the result of the actual adult that operates beyond primitive impulse attempting to claw to the surface; maybe feeling bad is what’s for dinner.

Others will not register a “bad” feeling, but will instead seize the opportunity to argue better. The accuser is not a rational person; the accuser is overly emotional, and therefore not to be trusted; the accuser did not firmly articulate lack of consent with a notarized “no,” and is therefore not to be taken seriously; the accusers have a personal vendetta against me (all of them), and I was fired for the activities of my private life, not because I’m a serial woman abuser who has been protected by my community for years. Does a better argument eliminate the accusation? If an IQ exceeds expectations is consent implied?

Why does the number have to grow (and grow and grow) to be taken seriously? How many accusations are enough to suggest action? Why is it suggested that accusations come from scorn, but it isn’t suggested that the original actions came from an even uglier place? And why is the desire for this to not happen again not discussed so much as the desire for no one to be accused again? Why does it so rarely lead to discussions about cloaking and enabling in community?

Communities are strengthened when standards are established, and creativity and collaboration are the anchors. Where idea exchange and common interests inform a shared desire to see what can be developed when people support each other. Victimhood is not a culture, but the inevitable outcome of a world of aggressors ill prepared for interacting with others. The way to get people to “stop being victims” is to stop the people who create victims through actions.

Violent people holding court while terrified sad people quietly whisper about the reasons to avoid them solves nothing; encouraging the people who come forward to remain quiet for the sake of the community poisons the well. Call them out, and if behavior doesn’t change, kick them out. It’s only then that other ideas and real innovation can bloom, instead of fighting for sun around weeds.

And even as I write this, I wonder how my ideas about community and (for that matter, parties) would be different if I had chosen to stay, and he had been made to leave.

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August 11, 2014
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on suicide and control

How can I say this? There are many people posting things right now that offer insight as to how to talk someone out of suicide, largely in response to Robin William’s death. There are links to lists that outline preventative measures to intercept a suicide before it happens. These lists often assume that suicide is the end result of prolonged feelings of unhappiness that can be corrected with hefty doses of medication and therapy. There is no mention of other reasons — and there are many.

Here’s my issue: I don’t think tapping out on life, if you truly feel you’ve contributed all you can and no longer have the wish to exist in your body, is something that needs to be “corrected” by others. It seems reasonable to me that you might be done, and know it. It would be cleaner (and much kinder) to give your loved ones fair warning, so that it’s clear this isn’t a decision made lightly, and is not a decision that reflects an absence of love for others. Hunter Thompson, for example, knew he didn’t want to grow into a crippled old man dependent on others, and elected to exit earth by his own hand. He left clear instructions to have his remains shot from a cannon. There is no doubt that his family and loved ones mourned this, but an exit in such fashion is fitting of his character; it’s hard to envision him slow-rotting in a cancer ward. People use “right to die” legislation to end prolonged (and painful) battles with cancer and other diseases all the time, because not existing is a more peaceful option that existing as a shell of oneself. This could be honored, or at the very least, respected, even though it leaves a sour taste.

I’m not untouched by suicide, and people very close to me have committed it, and I’ve seen first hand the ripple effect of people wringing their hands and wondering what could have been done; I’ve done it myself. The lives of every living person adjacent to the suicide are altered in an instant, with each person nurturing individualized guilt over perceived failure to reroute an established choice. Those affiliated with certain religions might find it especially agonizing; I don’t have that issue to overcome. The part I struggle with is that my love and companionship were not sufficient gifts to replace personal pain (physical or mental), and if there was a spell to be spoken to reroute that pain, I didn’t know it, or I said it wrong. What remains is the same hole that is left when anyone dies, the plague of things said and unsaid; this grief can’t be avoided.

Death is inevitable; only sometimes can it be amended by action. There is great difficulty in learning to honor another’s choice, and letting go of the desire to steer others. Let Robin Williams death, and other suicides, be mourned as the sudden absence of a beloved someone — not a mistake in need of correction that cannot happen.

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March 16, 2014
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It’s a Purple Cow, and I’m a self-published author

A friend of mine once got a tattoo. She’s a Taurus, and the tattoo was of a bull. She picked it off the wall of the studio, and adjusted the coloring. Within ten minutes of getting it, someone asked: “Why did you get a tattoo of a purple cow?” She pointed out that it’s obviously a bull. Look at the horns! Look at the septum! It was pointless; it became the question she’d field again and again, until she gave up and started saying, “It’s a purple cow.”

I think of this when people ask where I’ve published. I used to say, “I’m independently published!” By this, I hoped to summon the literary equivalent of Ani DiFranco: I didn’t go with a label, I made my own! I’m not Suzanne Vega! All I need is a wicked debut and the next thing you know, stadium shows!

It didn’t take long to note that no one thought about stadium shows. They thought I was talking about a tiny press at a college. A trendy start-up with a typewriter logo. The side project of a major literary magazine. Most publishers of this kind don’t launch the endeavor with their own novel.

Now I say, “I self published.” Then I sit back and wait for what I was trying to avoid: the smug expression of someone with a limited edition chapbook at a tiny publisher, four minutes from being out of print, who is finally fulfilling her self-righteous dreams. Better? Good.

Or maybe I wait for the bookstore to confess the “special section” already has a lot of titles. Or for a professor to say, “you’re not really published then?” Or for a fellow author to say, “did you try to get published first?” even if the entire first part of the conversation was about a publisher’s lack of marketing support and their unwillingness to publish the book’s sequel.

Then: “So…why did you decide to go that route?”

Well, because I’m a woman. When James Joyce writes a long, complicated but well-crafted sentence, he’s fashioned a genius. If I write a long one, I’m accused of making my readers work too hard. If Cormac McCarthy writes a short, gruff exclamation, it’s poetry. If I do, what kind of emotion are you trying to communicate here? If I write a personal essay, I’m asked to make it a memoir. If I like a black cover, I’m asked if there can be a fish on it, or a girl with her foot in the water, or maybe a sunset, a pair of sunglasses, a bonnet. Almost every female book cover looks like a douche commercial. If I write on dark subject matter, there’s questions of who my audience might be, and whether the book would even sell. And that’s the keyword: sell.  Those doing something dangerous and innovative who get book deals (and happen to be women) really hit the lottery. Anne Carson clearly has naked pictures of everyone. I would like to send her mine. Or they’re writing about sex, which is the only acceptable form of feminism. Equal pay? You’re so second wave. Lean in, or something.

Two options: write differently to sell, or write the book you want to write, and accept the fact that maybe no one will read it, maybe no one will buy it, maybe no one can even find it — maybe it’s just the book you write.

Terror. If the story is just for you, then why would you even write it down? Writing is about communication, to present ideas and pictures and dialog that another will receive. Writing without response is the literary equivalent of the tree falling in the woods riddle.

And this is followed by: should I trust myself to know what is best about my writing? Sure, I’ve experienced dozens of writing workshops and excellent mentors, I’ve got a BA and an MFA, I’ve learned tricks and techniques and tools, I’ve buffed and polished myself into confusion and insanity and back around to hilarious. Really? Should I trust myself? Now?

In moments like this, the only question that can get me to stand at my desk and start working is: What would Virginia Woolf do?

This is an easy answer. She’d write her book. She’d agonize over it. And stick her foot in her mouth ten times in between.

This is still what I do. And just like her, I find myself repeatedly adjusting and pacing as my life changes and I learn new things, so it’s so very hard to call a book done without calling the same curse from yourself.

The downside: when you write the book you want, and no one reads it, it might be more devastating than writing the book you kinda didn’t want to write and don’t care if anyone reads.

I wrote the book I wanted, with the cover I wanted, and the quotes I wanted on the back. It took twice as long as I’d anticipated, because blood was squeezed from every word. There was no editor to herd me away from the book and urge an obsessive hobby that resulted in winter wear. There was no fact checker to consult with scholars about a village of immigrants in 1960s Cleveland. To this day I have the privilege of saying that the end result is exactly what I envisioned, and I compromised nothing. This is an achievement. This is joy.

No one would review it; most newspapers even have policies against self-published books. The accolades I earned came exclusively from online sources kind enough to note their reactions on Amazon or Goodreads or Powell’s. Bookstores that sold out of copies didn’t restock it, and offered no reason as to why. Others were left saddled with a stack of something no one wanted, and had to ask me to retrieve them and quietly slink away. The neglect I fretted about receiving from publishers was now arriving from other outlets, and it had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an inability to network and a deficiency of cash to pay someone to do it for me. After a year of being on some shelves but not enough, I was backing myself into my own bitter corner of self-published self-loathing, and lowering the gate with a dose of depressed laziness.

I got back on the purple cow after talking to my niece, Rayne, about writing. She’s doing a lot of the same things I did when I was 9, like filling one journal after the other, and writing a book series with character traits from different books put together like Mr. Potato Head. She’s got a leg up on me thanks to her illustration prowess, and every time I return to Cleveland she’s got another something finished to show off. When I talked to her about writing, she said, “I want to be a writer like you.” And my response was, “You ARE a writer.” I didn’t want her to think she had to wait for some secret initiation. It’s not something that’s granted through degrees or contracts or book sales. It’s something that’s announced by writing.

Oh yeah.

This reminder doesn’t fully resolve the stall. Self-publishing requires business savvy and social skills, two areas in which I’m woefully deficient. On a good day I can make it all the way to the end of a conversation without bringing up the special deformities of a little known disease, or starting a telephone slideshow of cat pictures. An ill-timed question about my book returns a stunned expression that suggests I’ve never considered what it’s actually about. It’s a miracle if I can twist this gobbledee goo down to something resulting in monetary exchange. I’m more manic than pixie and only dream girl if someone wakes up screaming, but I’m not sure you can buy a book in the middle of all that racket. Still, I should have cards to hand people or something.

The same holds true if I ever want to tangle with the publishing world that is the PUBLISHING WORLD, and hope for a contract that isn’t adjusted for self-esteem deficiency and impatience when working with lawyers. These are skills. They are learned, and I wish I could just buy them.

See above, about the shortage of cash. 

 

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March 10, 2014
by admin
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The Discomfort Zone: Metal Machine Music, March Music Moderne IV

A while back I was contacted by Bob Priest, guru of Portland’s annual March Music Moderne Festival. Turns out he’s a fan of Psychopomp Volume One, and was wondering if I was interested in participating in the fest. His idea was to have me pen something of an introduction for a night dedicated to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and afterwards the album would be played in its entirety while Butoh dancers performed.

Then on February 11th, my father died. This fully altered my understanding of this album, which has always sounded like a car crash happening between my ears. Afterwards it articulated the calamity of death, each abandoned bone falling down to the bottom of a well and smashing, leaving memories and rumors and ideas. It resembled the absurdity of selecting urns and speaking to lawyers and cleaning apartments, in between thoughts of actual grieving, and sharing conversation with others who knew him in different ways.

On March 8th, this is what I read to kick things off. It’s called “Ostrich”. Much thanks to Bob Priest for putting together such a strange/wonderful evening at Three Friends Coffee.

*

Self-destruction and innovation sound the same.

Metal Machine Music: the lucky moment in Lou Reed’s life when he reduced Rolling Stone’s editors to red-faced rattle throwing toddlers screaming “I hate you!” tiny fists beating the air to spare the walls. It’s a headache hatched on vinyl. Some fans thought it was a mistake and traded it in for aspirin.

Lou Reed confessed to being really stoned, to listing instruments he didn’t use in the liner notes, but insisted the roast before the recipe was the finest cut of lamb. He declared it his 1975 effort to produce a novel in music form, even if it was an angry entity most would rather exorcize than read or listen to. It howls at my coyote ever hunting for the chance to laugh first and loudest about an Emperor’s missing clothes.

And yet.

Metal Machine Music’s second egg cracked into my ear in an airport on an airplane as I waited on the tarmac to head up and east towards Cleveland. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. They don’t change at all on the tarmac.

An interrupted dream called me back to the burning river. In the dream I met my father on a bridge, where he stood waiting with his camera, anticipating the perfect shot. After a moment or two I told him I was going back the way I came. He said that he would wait for the sunset. The question I never got to ask was split open by a ringing phone, and it was my sister, and my father was dead.

And there was Lou Reed placing a hood of his hated album over my head, whispering, “These are words for a limitless language.”

The flight attendant asked that I put up and stow all my portable electronic devices. I did, and Metal Machine Music kept going.

My father stamped his death shadow into a chair carried up the stairs by his best friend of forty years, who ignored my father’s insistence that this wasn’t a project for a man with a heart condition. Two months ago my father resuscitated his best friend after that heart attacked him, and in that moment my father must have known his own vessel was sinking. They were both 64, but my father was older. He went out as an armchair Viking, his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense. His best friend climbed the stairs again to find him.

Descending from 30,000 feet, wheels lowered, warnings about electronics for the second time. Metal Machine Music squeals like birds released from a flaming cage.

The first thing I did right off the plane was identify his body. It was in a cardboard box against a north-facing wall. He was thinner than I expected, his skin cold, and blue trails bloomed across his forehead, maps marking his exit. I remembered that the last time I saw him I thought he didn’t have long to live, but that didn’t make me write him more. He never wrote if I didn’t.

It was in an archive of those emails that I found a song that he wrote to play at the end of his funeral. The beginning of the funeral was reserved for taps, a pre-recorded mourning played as a naval officer in crisp blues mimed blowing a bugle. All I heard was ohms and crackles, another slapped amp for every ceremonial turn of the flag.

I’ve never been one to fold in predictable places. I spread all over the room. I talked to the plastic surgery scars of my father’s forgotten acquaintances, the facial hair of my sister’s high school friends, the cleavage of the woman delivering the service, the nostrils of the funeral director who couldn’t figure out mp3s. All that left my mouth was static. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. My father’s not in the air at all. He’s bottled.

My head is in the sand.

His ashes were heavier than I thought they would be, in a giant urn called a shaker with the image of a sunset sculpting it. He went from cardboard box to Parmesan cheese canister. There’s a reason cremation so often ends with comedy gold. We decided to spread his ashes later, because of snow blanketing his preferred parks and Lake Erie being frozen and none of us having any better ideas. Instead we talked about snow and cold and the impossibility of making angels with either ingredient.

In the final section of Metal Machine Music, amps challenge guitars to play themselves for a locked 1.8 seconds. I metronomed the loop and told anyone listening that I didn’t know when it would end.

There’s nothing to do after a funeral, except measure your own time beyond 64 minutes and tabulate what’s been wasted. So my sister tuned my father’s old guitars and ghost hands fielded strings. So I rode the pulse of 1.8 seconds of feedback all the way to a train station to launch my own Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, hoping for peace delivered by rear window.

I took my father’s camera, and waited for sunset.

Metal Machine Music is lava: destructive and fast, forging a fertile path for those who choose to climb or burn instead of run. Critics that couldn’t plot it and fans that found nothing to sing along to and strange sorts looking for something to slap them etched obscurity in stone. It was re-released a few years ago to delight and confound all over again, pasting a caveman painting on a glossy magazine legacy. Lou ostrich-tuned his outro.

Lou Reed’s musician hands conducted him away with the water-flowing 21 form of Tai Chi, the poetry of Laurie Anderson carefully framing his open-eyed exit in autumn leaves. My father’s musician hands placed his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, and it burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense.

*

There are still many events going on with the Festival, so check the link above for full schedule information! Thanks to Kugot Butoh for destroying everyone’s comfort zone. We totally needed it. Not only was the dancing itself a mind bender, but the facial expressions of the many folks having their first exposure to such emotionally potent and difficult dancing functioned as physical confirmation of its efficacy. Here’s to more folks facing their discomfort zone in the future.

 

 

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March 4, 2014
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Amtrek, Part 1

The Portland resident in me is better off in motion away from Portland during the dreary and too long winter months where nothing happens: not between my ears, and not anywhere else. Netflix feels like a relationship that’s a constant source of disappointment, and baristas feel like personal friends unable to escape my grim confession.

Weeks ago when my partner and I first discussed the idea of escape by rail, the plan was to take Amtrak from PDX to LAX and back, nodding off into mountain sunsets and waking up to redwoods. We ended up flying in. The week before our scheduled departure I made an unexpected detour to Cleveland, where my sisters and I were occupied with practical, terrible things like attending my father’s funeral.

Assuming half-orphan status isn’t something I’d recommend, regardless of whether childhood stories recall Harry Potter’s cupboard or Beaver Cleaver. In the aftermath of all the death events I was left glaring at my reflection like Ed Norton in every movie, wondering why I couldn’t be one of those collapsible people who inflates and deflates at the right occasions and is easily stored when not of use. Stupid flesh and bones. Why couldn’t I be a bouncy castle?

My nieces Rayne and Simone thought I should perhaps consider the strange fate of a banana marooned in a poisoned pumpkin patch instead of brooding so much. Clever girls.

After I returned we went south to Ventura, CA for my partner’s grandfather’s 90th birthday party. I never had the chance to meet either of my grandfathers, as the men on both sides of my family often choose professions and habits the inform early death. I didn’t want to lose the chance to meet my version of a unicorn. California taught me that everything such unicorns say is amazing, as is a steady influx of naturally produced vitamin D absorbed through head and hands. It’s also impractical to stay in a jacuzzi forever, tempting though it may be.

The return: 27 hours on Amtrak, Oxnard to PDX. An unexpected price spike in the tickets after the website went down (then back up again) = bitter grumbling, particularly since it was only our selected date that reflected the increase. Attempts to contact Amtrak by phone were a fail, as was attempting to contact them by email. Note to future travelers: you cannot contact Amtrak unless you go down to a station in person.

Still, last minute train tickets are cheaper than last minute airfare. Oxnard Train Station was irritability balm, with its comfortable classic train station aesthetic, grand wooden benches recalling church pews. People were mellow. One of the things that distinguishes train travel from air is the absence of an interior pelvic ultrasound prior to boarding. With trains you check in, get on, put your bag in the communal storage area, trust your fellow passengers, go to your assigned seat and stay there until a man in a funny outfit comes by to give the ticket an official scan. Then you get up and take several wobbly steps and apologies to the observation car, where travelers sit armed with awful and amazing stories begging for participation or ears. You might even play cards.

The outside waiting zone invited us to get in touch with our inner cattle, and likely informed a mini stampede when the train rolled in twenty minutes late to collect our bodies and bags and head northward.

Oxnard Train Station Hogwarts Invisible Entrance

Every observation car is loaded with interesting human specimens, and no one is going to convince me otherwise. I’ve never ridden a train and found myself bored by my fellow passengers, and the longer the trip the greater the likelihood of it evolving into a Breakfast Club edition of group therapy. The scene: to my right, an Arabic woman seated across from a soldier. They’re playing cards. They exchange a few awkward sentences about politics. She’s trying to be careful; he’s 21 years old and already convinced. The first smoke break allows him to locate another uniformed sort to trade fart jokes and tattoo ideas with. I’m relieved to return to my regularly scheduled stereotype; she’s already decided to move elsewhere in observation anyway.

Later the soldier talks to my partner about Americans being especially nervous about bombs, his Bud Lite breath hitting my neck, and I can only assume this is because he’s never been overseas or watched the news. Then I consider that he’s in a position where his own relationship with bombs and fear is about to be tested, and this is coping, so I say nothing and dodge living up to a stereotype all my own.

view from the observation car. Insert happy sigh.

There’s also a pair of newlyweds, still careful in the way they touch and smile at each other, having circular conversations about the past and future. As the day winds into evening she slowly divulges details about a stint in prison to the room. Meanwhile, a chick with a moleskine notebook and laptop much like my own operates with the same spy-and-tally gaze that leaves me wondering what she’s recording about my own disastrous presentation. I’m holding myself together with socks and scarves, and she could be on to me. She falls into conversation with a tattoo artist on his way to a convention, and I’m distant and distracted.

A camera I claimed from my father’s abandoned objects is capturing images out the window, and in each instance the lens steals something from the scenery and something of the train. I spend a second wondering if my camera is ghost locked.

Not bored, drinking in the California Coast
Scene from California’s coast
Farmland, desert dry

The memory card came preloaded with pictures detailing all of Cleveland Metroparks’ fauna. He mentioned in an email that animals were practically crawling into his lap of late, and now that I’m familiar with the zoom capabilities (and limitations) of this particular Nikon I can measure the accuracy of that statement. Many of the photos are gorgeous, intimate portraits revealing subtle coloring and patterns pressed into natural adornments. The only pictures that appear awkward are the ones of people, which is an honest reflection of someone who struggled in the company of others — an issue I experience in my own way as I adjust to sharing a train for 27 hours with strangers.

At each stop up the California coast people get on and off. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obespo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville. After my third “I thought there was supposed to be wireless on this train?” conversation with an angry mouse clicking guy in a tie, it becomes clear that those searching for a signal will never, ever stop, and will simply load and reload their browsers, ever more desperate to log in to something for affirmation of ongoing technical existence.

Can’t download music software = butthurt.

When all else fails, and even when it doesn’t, there is the bar car.

It takes no time at all for the lower level to light up like a bowling alley. Imagine a pod of shitfaced men in jeans and women in tube tops and too much hairspray somewhere between fist fight and free hugs, en route to a Poison concert. It’s that awesome. If you’re suffering a flirtation deficiency, a casual stroll down to this level will likely rectify the situation, and fear of being ejected from a moving rail inspires a degree of respect. If I were four notches less exhausted I’d join them in their loud binge-fired confessions, but I’m not ready to release my truth. And sometime in the next three hours they’re either going to be crying into their coat sleeves or trading blows during the next smoke stop over which branch of the military is superior, regardless of whether or not any of them actually served. I can’t believe I’m going to miss it. I won’t miss the sunset.

As meals are distributed to those who opened their wallets, sighed, and surrendered, it occurs to me that there’s no entitlement on the train, just a lot of laughter about what it might be like to travel in a car that allows for wine and cheese  before the evening meal. There’s debate about whether to call this first class or sleeping cars, or just perceive it as a safety net that ensures our leg of the train won’t be the one robbed first. This is also radically unlike a plane, where after being frisked and fondled by a security force paid to be overzealous about things like lotion bottles and fingernail clippers you damn well better get your free plastic cup of cranberry juice. Every announcement is met with laughter or cheers, and reminders regarding the prevalence of booze in tiny bottles that we’ll later stuff ourselves back into, just to smell something different. The faithful attendant of this slobbering bunch takes occasional meal breaks, to the nail biting chagrin of his new best friends, and I join the league of fanboys and girls when he promises me that when I come down for my third coffee refill it will be free.

War of the Worlds Sunset. California lasts almost as long as Kansas.

After sunset offers a fog heavy alien landscape, I abandon my observation station and collapse into my assigned seat, welcoming the dawn of a murderous rage that makes me understand what a complex housing situation prison must be. First, a couple propping up their sleep with a Spanish horror movie, live and without headphones at 3AM. Absence of English would make even my most bitch face comment useless, and I’m trying hard not to be the token temper tantrum. I am a bouncy castle. I am a bouncy castle. This sound is chased by my very own partner’s decision to go mining in a snack bag for the loudest bag of cheetos ever produced by Trader Joe’s. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE, chomp chomp chomp, screams and pleas for mercy in Spanish. Then, the negotiation of various cords and wires to ensure that every electronic gadget is sufficiently charged, should the non existent wireless connection suddenly surface and threaten all of the coach passengers with a whisper of first world mopey civilization. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE. Snap. I ask him to chill out with the cheetos and he shakes the bag in my face, and I realize we’re both train crazy.

The mood sinks further when we brush city limits and phones materialize out of no where for rapid facebook examination, and I’m still thinking about the fact that my father died and my best bet for communicating to as many distracted sorts as possible the insanity that immediately follows is a thoughtful status update that summons clicking of the “like” button. It’s not that the world is a terrible place, or that we are flanked by terrible people. It’s that we’ve gotten lazy, and don’t know how to talk anymore. I don’t know how to talk anymore. I need to work on this.

I pacify all of this this by relocating to the seat closest to exit.

When dawn hits I drag myself up in enough time to witness this:

Good morning, Mt. Shasta!

Oh, and also this:

Gasp!

This is what I took the train for. It’s the ultimate road trip without the pressures of changing lanes and keeping eyes on the road. Early morning fog creates an eerie entryway to the mountain, and it assumes the shape of hobbit homes.

Near Klamath Falls we pick up a couple of tour guides and I pick up the promised cup of coffee. The super power of this duo is announcing things they consider photograph worthy too early or too late, but overall their presence is pretty adorable.

Mount McLoughlin
Hello, Oregon

Somewhere around Eugene my brain came alive again with daydreams of home, and I thought about what it would be like to do this again when the days are longer and you can swallow every drop of sun and scenery from LA to PDX.

Not tired. Nope.

A woman with a collection of O magazines attempts to hater-bond with me when she notices me taking a photograph of a graffiti artist in action and suggests that I get an upclose shot of his face. From there she transitions to a discussion of Shirley Jackson inspired by the book on my table, questioning whether kids today can grasp the message. I confess that I’m fairly certain that anyone who can digest an episode of True Detective or Breaking Bad can perform the simple linguistic mathematics required to grok “The Lottery” and then I want to wish her away. I’m not up to being cynical and hater bonding anymore. It’s too much work to buzz kill every conversation with a dark eyeroll. I’m trying to be a bouncy castle here.

I’m afraid to be back at home. I don’t know what will swim up and slap me, and I haven’t even chronicled every awful notion of a visit such as this. It’s like I’m there, waiting for myself, demanding inspecting and isolation and a transition from another winter wrapped in Netflix and little else. Anywhere else I could be a new me that’s far less predictable, that lays  new tracks for trains headed to abandoned stations to collect ghosts and all their ornaments.

They’re around me all the time anyway. Might as well assist them with travel.

 

 

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January 16, 2014
by admin
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Where to buy where to buy…

I wholeheartedly encourage one and all to use my Square Reader store for purchase of Psychopomp Volume One, and to Preorder Channel Insomnia. Square takes less of a cut than Paypal and has been a seamless experience thus far. Hardcover and softcover both available!

https://squareup.com/market/one-eye-two-crows-press

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