PRESIDENT ELECT(ORAL COLLEGE)

Here we are, you and me.

Both of us in disbelief.

I can’t subscribe to #notmypresident. Not because I don’t feel that way. Because it sounds too much like not my problem. Assuming you do become our president, you will be my president and my problem.

I didn’t actually follow that you led the birther movement.

I don’t watch reality TV, I’ve never seen yours. ‘You’re fired’ only distantly rang a bell to me.

When you came on the scene as a candidate in the primaries, I was confused. Him, the hotel guy?

I never laughed at or mocked your candidacy though. Not because I’m above that. Because I was so confused, because I didn’t understand where you came from, your ascent. The disorientation I felt over you just wasn’t funny.

I feel a little responsible for your winning, for your not losing. I think a lot of us do. I regret I didn’t volunteer enough for Hillary. Didn’t send more than one small check. Didn’t stop being for Bernie.

But even more deeply, I feel there was something dangerous in how I turned my eyes away from the growth of my nation. The growth of the Apprentice. And a movement which surged with self-righteousness, insisting that President Barack Obama might not be a citizen. Why? Have you ever said why he might not be a citizen? I was too busy celebrating our advances and living my life to look at you. And maybe not looking at you caused you, the President Elect(oral College) to happen.

But, ultimately I reject the notion of my personal responsibility for you.

You will have an impact on my existence, but I did not and will not have an impact on your existence.

You’re very little. And this part is reassuring. There’s a universe and galaxies. There was a Big Bang, even if you deny it. There are black holes that stretch our solar system away from us into the mysterious abyss. There is a time and space continuum to contend with. Do you know how small you are in the universe? The District of Columbia itself is miniature, a few ugly Legos tacked together. The United States of America is like a plastic toy cowboy or businessman.

But you, President Elect(oral College), are an ant.

And yes, while ants can trail along with their friends, carrying 20 times their own weight, they just as often find themselves squashed under a toddler’s pointer finger, or drowned in a droplet of their spittle.

go vote. I’ll send you a book of your choice.

I’m okay with the fact that I’ve been distracted for months. Mildly to wildly distracted by American election politics and these particular candidates. This close to this unprecedented, flabbergasting election, I don’t care that I can’t concentrate at work, can’t write and that 80% of what I discuss with my husband, 15% of what I discuss with my 6 year-old, and about 95% of what I discuss with strangers is the election. So be it. It’s almost Tuesday. I’m losing my mind, I’m obsessing, I am wringing my hands, I’m making phone calls and you can be damn sure, I’m voting. One detail of voting that only occasionally crosses my mind is the fact that many people have to wait on line for hours to vote in an American presidential election. Do you? Where do you live? I live in a very populated neighborhood in Brooklyn. I vote at my local elementary school. Whether its morning or night, I’ve never waited more than thirty minutes to vote. I’m really impressed by voters who wait for hours to cast their vote, to have their voice heard; and very often, it’s in jurisdictions that really matter. We really don’t have a choice if we want that voice, but still, it’s a very hard thing to do to wait for hours to vote. While you’re on line, what do you read, or look at, or think about? Are your kids stuck on line too? If you read this, and you are one of the many people who wait 2 plus hours to vote, comment me here with a book title you’d like to read, and I’ll mail it to you. Thank you for waiting. Thank you for voting. Everyone, please – go vote. VOTE.

the orenda

the-orendaI recently read about 50 pages of detailed description of torture. Three quarters of the way through Joseph Boyden’s novel, The Orenda, I realized, Hey, I’m willingly reading a lot of torture. It would be a grave error to describe The Orenda primarily through its Native Canadian tribe-on-tribe torture, and the more gratifying torture of the French colonists who settled in Canada, but I’d have to say that for me, as a reader, that was the type of writing in this book that is most unusual for me to read. Joseph is a beautiful lyrical-prose literary fiction writer, and so even the torture is gorgeously described, words that caress, just as the Native Canadians called their torture “caresses.” There is so much nuance within the physical descriptions of broken and removed fingers, stabbings, bludgeoning, burns, amputations, cauterized wounds, boiling water and pitch, burning- interspersed with lovingly nursing the victim to keep them alive for more. There is respect in every page of this novel. Respect for the Huron, Wendat and Haudenosaunee Native peoples of Canada, respect for the land, trees, animals, water, canoes, children, sexuality, culture, dreams, colonists, religion and yes, for the torture. Joseph Boyden depicts a world, seventeenth century Canada, called New France by the colonists, that he doesn’t simplify or condemn. He opens the world for the reader to be there and to bear witness and to learn.

I few weeks ago I wrote here about wanting to read the books of several friends which I hadn’t read yet. I started with The Orenda, and I’m so glad I did. One reason I’m glad is that it turned out I had a spontaneous trip to New Orleans in the last few weeks and I read a lot of The Orenda in New Orleans. I know Joseph Boyden through New Orleans and he mostly lives there, and I loved reading his book in the city where it was primarily written, lying outside by a pool in the French Quarter, turning the pages, drinking coffee at Café DuMonde dog-earing my spot, toting it with me to Louis Armstrong Park, and on the streetcar up to the Audubon Zoo or in a flat-bottomed swamp boat. I’m tempted to post a photo of my copy of The Orenda- it’s water-logged, dog-eared, and coffee stained.

I didn’t get to see Joseph while in New Orleans; he was travelling himself. But I felt so close to my friend while I read his book, and yet I didn’t think about him. The Wendat chief Bird, and his closest friend Fox, his kidnapped, adopted daughter Snow Falls, and the French Jesuit priest Cristophe Crow, the dreams, the tamed raccoon, the battles and torture, the newborn babies, the hunting, the disease, the spiritual healer Gosling, were all I thought about, just as Joseph intended.

The shorter the better

dino

This week my friend Leland Cheuk published a craft piece in SmokeLong Quarterly about how he began to write shorter and shorter fiction and why that’s working well for him. Like Leland, I spent many years only writing novels. For some writers, and readers, the novel is the ultimate form. I revere novels, I love reading them, I’m conditioned to that length and expanse and the long, slow arc that occurs within two hundred plus pages. But, this penultimate form not only takes years to complete, but more and more rarely are novels actually published. The bulls-eye has gotten smaller for what publishers want to publish, what will make them even a few dollars. Another writer friend of mine recently said to me, us literary fiction writers are the poets of thirty years ago. I understood right away that she meant we’re fringe weirdos. Leland embraced short and flash fiction a couple of years ago, and he found that his intelligent, humorous and very creative work was much more readily accepted for publication in literary journals, and now he’s published a collection of short stories, Letters From Dinosaurs, some of them very short. I would believe that if a dinosaur sat down to write a letter, it would short and to the point. I met Leland after he’d turned to shorter fiction (as well as his novels) when he joined my writing group, and I’m lucky to have read many of the stories in his new collection while they were still in development.

I’m trailing far behind Leland in my forays into shorter fiction. I’ve written about five short stories in the last two years, which is five more than I’d written in twenty years, but they’re not very short. I still fall into the old-school tradition of writing say a sixteen page short story. Leland has inspired me try something much more new and different for me, to go for the 2,000 word (four page) story. To pack action and character and theme into sentences that work triple time. To make a beginning, middle and an end occur in a tight, complete, satisfying arc that readers actually have the time to read, and journals actually have the space to print.

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop trying to write novels, and I probably won’t stop writing a 16 page short story when that story bids for my attention. But reading Leland’s article about his stories, one that takes the form of a letter, one all in bullet points, one that is a group email exchange, was a welcome reminder- have some effing fun with your writing- do strange new things with it, and you just might find more of it appearing in print while you’re experimenting. Life and writing are change, after all.

WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

The books of friends

My favorite thing to read is a novel. And my favorite thing in the world is being lost in a novel, pining for the story during the day while I work, eager to get in bed at night with the book or have half an hour alone on the subway with it. Reading a story that I get lost in is a very specific and palpable experience for me. The novel can eclipse the world. My husband has said that I look most at peace when I’m sitting, reading a novel. For every birthday and holiday, he gives me several novels, and I read them within a month. When I’ve finished a great novel and haven’t yet picked up another, there’s a limbo period that can actually get disturbing. Sometimes, I don’t find the right next book easily, and I’m stuck reading a novel I can’t get lost in, or I just read old New Yorkers on the subway for a month straight and don’t get the escape I crave. Well, I’m in one of those limbos right now. A few weeks ago I finished Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s latest novel, about the deforestation of the world, spanning 400 years and about 15 generations of “barkskins,” men and women who stripped the worlds’ forests of their trees. This book enveloped me and took me into its far-flung worlds, and since I put it down I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor short stories and New Yorker articles. Then it struck me this week. I have three friends whose recently published books I haven’t read yet; Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Joseph Boyden, and Leland Cheuk. Confession: two of these books, I never got around to purchasing. I’ve now rectified that. The books are on their way in the mail, and the plan is to read three friends, back to back. As friends often do- they’ve got my back. I’ve been excited to read these books for a long time, and I would have thought I’d have read them by now, read them as soon as they were available. I’m wondering if the reason I haven’t is that it’s a bit harder to get lost in a book written by someone I know. I might get distracted thinking, ah I know where Miranda got this idea, or did something like this really happen to Joseph, or is this how Leland really feels? I’ll read them and I’ll let you know. But I already know I won’t be disappointed. I’m excited and proud of these talented writer friends as I contemplate diving into their ideas, their words, their books.

Inspiration

My office building is directly to the north of the World Trade Center site and my windows look down on what for many years was “the pit,” and what gradually emerged as the memorial fountains, the completed Freedom Tower, and the breathtaking Oculus that just opened a few weeks ago. For the past ten years I’ve had a bird’s eye view of this urban transformation, this physical manifestation of renewal. I cannot be cynical about how New York rebuilt these six acres after the Twin Towers were attacked and felled. I don’t judge the impulse or the need, I share it. No matter the complexity and myriad circumstances that led to that horrible day, when two buildings fall down, you re-build them. When thousands of people die, you make a memorial. If you can do these things, you do them. So I was not one of the people who questioned the building of the Freedom Tower, nor did I scoff at the incredibly laborious process of selecting an architect, nor did I grow impatient as the building took an entire decade to construct.

What I did was watch it, one day at a time. I took my lunch hour outside, year-round for many years, with the thousands of construction workers that are still here in the neighborhood, doing the job. About five years ago, I stumbled onto the lunch-spot where the foremen and supervisors eat. My entire life, I’ve had deep-seated admiration for doctors, especially surgeons. I’ve thought that medical doctors possess magical knowledge; they can open people up and cure them, sometimes. I’ve always envied the magical knowledge they possess. Spending so many days and lunch hours watching the Freedom Tower construction workers, I developed the same admiration of them. How did these people know how to make a skyscraper? How do the engineers acquire this magical knowledge? Their work must be absolutely perfect; there can’t be mistakes.

During my lunch, I often eavesdropped on the supervisor’s conversation or phone calls. They were engineers, no doubt. They were skyscraper surgeons. They wore dirty pants, steel-toe shoes and hard-hats, and they were magicians of skyscraper construction. I would listen to them placing orders for materials, or describing fine points of the work, and I grew more and more admiring and even envious of what I could never know or begin to understand. And then I fell in love with skyscrapers too. I began studying them, reading about all of New York’s, looking at them with my head bent way back as I walked around the neighborhood, the oldest neighborhood in New York City, which contains over twenty buildings that were the tallest building in the world, the day they were completed.

This new hobby of mine inspired the novel I’m currently working on. My main character is an engineer. His passion and obsession with skyscrapers is lifelong, and he builds them for a living. He believes in the perfection of skyscrapers and he has faith in perfection in general. Which does not serve him well as he and his wife discover that their daughter has many disabilities and special needs. My engineer will have to figure out a lot of things as he goes. He cannot re-draw the plans, or fix miscalculations with his child. And maybe he cannot hold faith with perfection as a model for anything.

Three years ago, I stood with my co-workers on the 13th floor and we watched the spire of the Freedom Tower being raised from the ground by a crane and installed onto the top of the completed tower. The spire itself is a gorgeous piece of steel construction, a mini- Eiffel Tower and its 408 feet tall alone. I don’t know if every square inch of that building is perfect and mistake free, but I’d have to guess it is pretty damn close to stand there, immoveable and imposing as it does. But it’s not the perfection of the tower that inspires me, it’s the brilliant and fallible minds of the workers who built it that does.