Depression is a big, skittery spider that you tried to smash with a book or some other heavy object but it got away and now it’s hiding in a dark corner of your bedroom so you stay awake all night because you know it will be back.
Depression is a big wave in the ocean that pushes you over and pulls you out into dangerous surf and then gets in your eyes so that everything looks wrong and blurry, and it makes you cry (so much water, so much salt) and you can’t tell if your loved ones are reaching out their hands to pull you up to safety or to point and laugh.
Depression is that long, decaying wooden bridge in all those Indiana Jones movies, and you’ve got to run across it carrying your shining golden treasure (so beautiful, so fragile) and you don’t know which of the wooden boards is going to splinter under the weight of you, making you watch in horror as your rare treasure plummets through the air and shatters on the ground in a million shards.
Depression is the mean girl in middle school with the silken hair and the serpent’s tongue who tells you you’re too fat, too dumb, too ugly to be loved.
Depression is the sweet girl in middle school with the shy smile and kind eyes who tells you you’re too mean, too selfish, too cruel to be loved.
Depression is a fiend. Depression is a bitch. Depression is a thief and a liar.
When I was teaching, I had to confront students about plagiarism far more than I would have liked. Never once did I have a “gotcha” moment. I hated it. I hated feeling like I had failed as a teacher to impart the importance of original work and/or the basics of how to (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid stealing other people’s words. I hated the look of shame in students’ eyes when I said the word “plagiarism.” I hated the chill that settled over the classroom when I lectured about it.
But I’m realizing now that the reason the whole topic was so charged was that my students and I cared.
Not once, after they were confronted with evidence of plagiarism, did I have students try to deny it. Those who’d done it intentionally felt badly and gave reasons that they’d cheated. Those who’d done it unintentionally also felt badly and promised to do whatever it took to make things right.
Not once did I have a student say it was no big deal.
Trump’s campaign chairperson Paul Manafort chalked up the similarities to the commonness of the words and ideas expressed. (Well, there are no uncommon words in “to be or not to be,” either, but you don’t find people claiming authorship of Hamlet’s soliloquy.)
Manafort even had the gall to blame the debacle on Hillary Clinton, even though the plagiarism was first noticed by independent journalist Jarrett Hill. Per Manafort, “It’s just another example, as far as we’re concerned, that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.”
Ultimately, the Trump campaign is trying to pass this off as a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why it’s not, at least to me.
For me, writing is hard. Damn hard. I have to go in, in , in: I have to probe into the whirling mass of thoughts and information stored in my brain, sort through the details of calendars and menus and the periodic table and the conversion rate of gallons to liters (1 to 3.79ish). I have to push all this to the side and think myself into The Thing, the idea or emotion I want to convey. For me, this takes enormous energy and focus, so much so that I often have to type with my eyes closed until I have the words right (which is why it’s sometimes so awkward to write in cafes). Then, once I have a taste of what The Thing is, a feel for it (sensory synonyms fail me here), I have to see if there are words that can capture The Thing. Failing that, I have to verbally sidle up next to whatever The Thing is (thought or idea or feeling) and point to it, mime it, gesture at it evocatively enough that a reader or listener knows what I mean.
To somebody on the outside looking in, I’m just sitting at the computer, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on keyboard, DOING NOTHING. But what I’m doing actually takes a lot of psychological and even physical energy.
Some might say Melania Trump’s plagiarism is no big deal because both Michelle and Melania’s speeches were written by speechwriters. But by all accounts, both women worked collaboratively with their respective staffs, and if you’ve ever written by committee, you know that the capture of those words and phrases is just as hard won.
No, Melania didn’t just use “common words” that anybody might have used. She stole ideas. She stole emotions. She stole a person’s history and values and hopes.
Melania Trump stole Michelle’s words, and she needs to apologize.
It’s with some trepidation that I write a blog post about Brexit. I mean, I live almost 5,000 miles away from the UK, and most of what I know about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union comes from Twitter, newspapers, and magazines. I’m hardly in a position to provide any new observations.
What I can offer, however, is speculation about how something like Brexit might go down in the US.
I was really struck by the rhetoric and empty* promises of the Leave campaign , particularly by the pledge–splashed on posters, websites, and even on a massive bus–that the 350 million pounds the UK sent to the EU every week could instead be spent on the National Health Service.
I marvel that Brexit, the most fiscally irresponsible, blunder-headed, ill-conceived political campaign in decades nevertheless promised to shore up the social safety net.
Many have compared Brexit to the American tea party, but I just can’t imagine politicians like Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan (darlings, at various times, of the tea party) making a promise like that. I can’t envision them pledging that kind of money to health care, or schools, or even to infrastructure like roads and bridges.
No, tea partiers, I think, would promise that the money would go back in the taxpayer’s pocket.
I wouldn’t be so bold as to speculate what that means about the character of UK politics, but I certainly can say that it highlights the toxic individualism that seems to be taking over American political discourse, especially when it comes to guns and health care.
In my community in Southern Oregon, voters have repeatedly turned down funding for libraries and public safety. I have seen many letters to the local paper that read, basically, “I’ve got my own books and I’ve got my own gun—why should I pay for yours?” It’s a weird sort of invincibility that ignores the horrifying truth: ours is a community in crisis. Our local social safety next isn’t just frayed around the edges, it has great, gaping holes. And it’s the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, the ill—who are likely to fall through.
I wondered what an analogous movement locally might look like, but it’s hard to find something similar when taking geographical scale into account. Oregon (98,466 square miles) is roughly the size of the UK (95,058 square miles). We do have a longstanding (since the 1940s) proposal to have sections of Southern Oregon and Northern California join together into a separate state called Jefferson, but that’s more of a secession than an exit.
I guess I’m still parsing out how I feel about all of this, but I do feel deeply envious of the assurances citizens of other countries have: health care, reasonable gun control, a secure physical infrastructure. And, despite the names that occasionally get hurled at me on Twitter for these opinions, I refuse to believe that wanting those things makes me a Communist.
I’ll just keep coming back to John Donne’s Meditation XVII:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
I’ve mentioned the funding crisis in Josephine County umpteen times on this blog. This FB exchange with my eloquent friend Kriston Eller sort of explains why:
KE: Every time I read that you have no funding for libraries and public safety, I get 1st surprised all over again, even though I have read it many, many times; 2nd confused that this is even a thing that can happen in our country; 3rd disgusted that people can be so wrongheaded and selfish; and 4th angry that you have to tolerate that.
me: YES! And while I feel kind of silly for repeating it again and again and again (and again), I feel like I have to help keep it from being normalized (the whole “frog in the boiling water” thing).
KE: Oh, for sure. I really do think I go into a sort of denial about it because it’s just too stupid to be believed.
A few months ago, I had a Girls’ Night Out with my friends. Digression: for us, “Girls’ Night Out” means three things: wine, food, and pants with elastic waistbands. While not actually going out.
In other words, it’s pretty much this:
On this particular night, we went to my friend Inga’s house and she made dinner, a delicious peanut squash soup. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This soup was everything: a little sweet, a little spicy, just the right consistency to be a comfort food. I asked if I could have the recipe, and Inga said, “Oh, it’s easy to find. Just Google peanut squash soup and it’s the first recipe that pops up.”
I remembered this exchange a few days ago because I was thinking about the ways recipes have adapted and changed over time. I sometimes write posts for the historical blog The Recipes Project, and even a brief perusal of that site shows that old recipes are both surprisingly familiar (quantities, instructions) and shockingly different (recipes for pimple creams and breast cancer cures can be found near recipes for preserving quinces).
That exchange at Inga’s house highlighted that as much as recipes have changed over time, it’s possible that–with the ease of finding things on the internet–the recipe genre may be having its most radical transformation yet.
Not so long ago, if somebody asked you for a recipe, it could feel like an imposition. You’d have to get an index card and painstakingly handwrite the recipe, making sure it fit on the card, that the measurements were correct (I’ll never forget the time I wrote down 2 TBSP of cayenne instead of 2 tsp), that you hadn’t forgotten any steps.
In short, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But the labor involved meant the recipe itself was a thoughtful and time-consuming gift.
With that gift came individuality. In early modern recipes, that took the form of instructions like “take the amount of rosemary that would fit on a two-pence piece.” And everyone’s heard stories of trying to recreate Aunt So-and-So’s pie or chicken or tamales but never quite getting it right because her ingredients involved “smidges” and “dollops” and “handfuls.”
(My own favorite quirky recipe is from my Grandma Sherman, whose fudge recipe calls for “5 cents worth of Woolworth chocolate.”)
Now, not only can we Google a recipe, we can sort by ingredients, cost, user rating, regional origin…the list goes on. Then, when you locate just the right recipe, you can pin it to your Pinterest board and download it to your phone, which has an app to find a coupon for the ingredients you need. And the quirkiness of those recipes have gone the way of the “update” button on the blog.
Perhaps because it has become so easy to find what you want with so little effort, online recipes themselves have become more personalized and narrative-driven. Some blogs are as much about the voice of the writer as they are about the quality of the recipes. This recipe for “Drunken Chicken Marsala,” for example, reads as though it wasn’t just the chicken that got a little tipsy. And this recipe for masala sauce: can we agree that calling a masala sauce “life-changing” is a wee bit hyperbolic?
Anyway, I’m not trying to be overly nostalgic and romanticize the past. I love the ease of internet browsing as much as the next person. But I do sometimes miss the old recipe box: the serendipity of finding some funny old recipe, that softness at the very edge of the cards that comes from years of thumbing, the memories that come rushing back with the sight of a beloved relative’s handwriting.
So, like the rest of you all, I’ll keep toggling back and forth between the new and the old, Google and the cookbook, the search function and the weathered old index card. And as I say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet (who IS that by the way?) for making it easy to find instructions for pie crust, I’ll also keep my flour-dusted recipe box near at hand.
I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).
But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.
It was a slap in the face.
After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?
The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.
And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?
I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.
Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.
These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.
I grew up in Humboldt County, California. It’s known for a lot of things, but mostly for marijuana, great coffee, and gorgeous landscapes like this:
Sadly, Humboldt County is also known for sometimes violent battles that pit economic development and conservation against each other. So I grew up thinking of forests, oceans, and lakes as contested spaces, places of both sublime beauty and imminent threat.
I now live in Oregon, one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse states in the US.
Given that I spent my youth learning that open land meant open conflict, I’ve been increasingly nervous about local land-use skirmishes. For example, last summer, a dispute over a mining claim at the Sugar Pine Mine, just a half an hour from my home, almost spiraled out of control as a call went out to militia and “patriot” groups to take up arms against the Bureau of Land Management.
The whole thing fizzled, but I was still on tenterhooks.
Then a bunch of gun-toting, skewed-Constitution wielding, cowboy-wannabe militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Schools closed. Offices closed. Residents were intimidated. Federal employees were harrassed and had personal information like social-security numbers and credit-card numbers stolen–in some cases they even had to relocate. As these stories emerged, I realized how close my own community had come to living out that nightmare.
The two situations are entirely different for a number of reasons, of course, not least of which is that England has a long and embattled history over enclosure, the closing off of common lands and restriction of their use to one or more landowners. In early modern England, enclosure was used to create deer parks and to convert arable land to the more-profitable pasture for sheep and cattle. Eventually, conflict over enclosure led to violent riots.*
While anti-enclosure acts were passed in 1489 and 1516, the practice continued and the situation grew worse as England’s population increased. Those who farmed grew increasingly resentful of those who tended herds and flocks. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclosure riots pitted tenants against gentry. In part galvanized by debates over enclosure, a new political movement emerged that espoused ideals of liberty and commonality: the Levellers (named after those who tore down, or “leveled,” hedges during enclosure riots).
Admittedly, I haven’t done much research on the Levellers, but graduate school friends had, and I was used to thinking of them as (problematic) foot soldiers in the long march towards equality and democracy (yes, I know that’s a progressivist view of history, but there it is). In other words, I was taught that I should admire the Levellers for their egalitarianism and proto-democratic ideals.
With the comparison of any two historical events one is tempted to draw parallels, and a cringe-y part of me wondered if the Bundy militia members who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge had ideological roots in the radical movements of 17th-century England (especially since the Bundy militia declared that the only legitimate basis of American civil rights was the Magna Carta, a claim the Levellers also made). I wondered: with their claims of taking land back “for the people,” were the Bundy militia the philosophical descendents of the Levellers?
There are similarities: both the riots over early modern enclosure and the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge were violent. Both had their roots in questions of power and authority over land. Both situations were influenced by changing population patterns and socio-economic realities.
But there is one critical difference: the land the Bundy militia attempted to take over is ALREADY public land, owned by the American people. It has been enclosed, in a sense, but access and usage are managed in such a way to balance agriculture, conservation, and recreation.
In fact, while they purported to be returning the land “to the people,” the only concrete idea the Bundy militia espoused was one they recycled from the standoff at Bundy ranch in Nevada: allowing ranchers free access to the refuge (and, indeed, to all federal lands in the West). In essence, they wanted to re-privatize the land, to close it off to all but grazing. In that sense, they are more related to the landowners of early modern England, those who would take the lands out of public usage.
After a long and tense standoff with the FBI, the Bundy militia have now been cleared out of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of their members is dead, many others under arrest. They destroyed habitat, desecrated Native artifacts, and dug latrines near sacred ground. They left behind trash, firearms and explosives, and even human feces. And chaos. They left behind them utter chaos.
No, the Bundy militia weren’t part of some egalitarian effort to free the land for the people. They were selfish, deluded egomaniacs intent on misreading the Constitution for their own personal gain.
**These complex and heated debates over who owns the land—the federal government or the state—that have impacted me and my community in very immediate ways. The federal government ended payments meant to reimburse timber-dependent counties for loss of revenue, and now—because the voters in my county tend to be very anti-tax and voted down a library district—my local library closed for 18 months and is now only open thanks to donors and grantors. And public safety in our community is practically nil–if you live outside of the county seat, you have a handful of law enforcement officers available to return your call, and then only between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00 Monday-Friday. Our public safety system is like a car spinning wildly out of control…and about to go off a cliff in July when federal payments end.
There’ll usually be someone saying something incredibly weird and/or offensive. Once you tune in, you won’t be able to concentrate anymore, but you’ll be cool with it because it’s all fodder for the novel.
So far, I’ve overheard the following conversations:
A man, staring soulfully into the eyes of his companion, telling her she has a “luminous energy.” That his one regret is that he hasn’t spent enough time with her. That he wants to kiss her, then and there. That his wife probably wouldn’t approve.
A man discussing the remodel of his home, bemoaning the cruel fact that “toilets these days just aren’t constructed for the modern American asshole.” I’m preeeeettty certain he meant it in an anatomical rather than metaphorical sense, as he went into great detail (I will spare you).
A blind date during which the first question was “What kind of rifle do you own?” followed by discussion of the vast medical conspiracy behind flu shots and the following conversation:
Him: What’s your last name?
Him: Are you related to Ted Turner?
Read widely and well.
This will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better procrastinator.
You will endlessly compare yourself to another writer who is not you and whom you will never be. Ignore that the writer cannot be you and you cannot be that writer because that would defy all known laws of the universe and everything would implode. Wish you were Geraldine Brooks anyway, universe implosion be damned.
Bonus: If you read a wide variety of authors, you’ll return to your writing sounding like one of those old See ‘n Say toys that comes back with a different voice each time you pull the string. Paragraph 1, you’ll sound like Donna Tartt. Paragraph 2, Donald Trump.
Go to conferences.
You will get to spend a lot of money and sometimes it will be worth it but sometimes it will just be a chance to go out of town and drink a lot of coffee and wine instead of staying home and drinking a lot of coffee and wine.
On the plus side, the other conference attendees are likely to be cool and interesting. They’ll also appreciate the bookish-seeming shoes you’ve been dying to wear (like, I don’t know, maybe these which I bought for my birthday and that I love so much I want to marry them):
Do your research.
Before you’ve finished your first draft, go to QueryTracker. Research all of the agents who represent your work. Fall in love with one or two of them—I mean, just know in your heart of hearts that she/he is THE ONLY AGENT who could possibly really understand you and your work. Imagine the laughter and hijinks as you get together for drinks in New York to discuss the details of your publishing contract. Get so excited that you finish your half-assed manuscript and don’t really bother with editing or beta readers (because you’re certain that the #MSWL Your Dream Agent (YDA) tweeted out last week was just like what you’d written and A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE). When YDA rejects your query/manuscript (or worse, never gets back to you), assume that it’s not because you jumped the gun and sent out your work before it was ready but because you are the worst writer who’s ever dared put pen to paper (or, I don’t know, finger to keyboard?). Your ideas suck. Your words suck. You suck.
(The above has definitely not happened to me. More than once. Or twice.)
Keep being a horrible writer.
Because writers are doing what they’ve felt called to do. Because there’s something about writing that taps into a soul-deep core of human need for stories, for connection and meaning. Because when we don’t write the world seems a little flatter, a little grayer, a little less shimmery.
About two weeks ago, my husband and I were casually chatting with our daughter. Out of the blue, she said, “Mom, you know how sometimes I hug you for an extra-long time in the morning and kind of seem like I don’t want to go to school? That’s because I’m wondering if today’s the day there will be a shooter in my classroom.”
She told me she and her best friend even have a bucket list, just in case they get shot at school.
I just don’t know what to say. Over the last few days, in person and on Facebook, I’ve had conversations with those who (like me) favor gun control and with those who don’t.
Those who would like to see more regulations are frustrated. We keep having the same conversations: why not? Why not put commonsense gun laws in place?
Those who oppose gun regulations are also frustrated. Our conversations go something like this:
I say there are too many guns. They parrot Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. (Ignoring that the police can’t possibly tell the difference between the two when entering an active shooter situation.)
I say we need better gun laws. They say that won’t work because criminals don’t obey laws. (Ignoring the obvious slippery slope—if the lawless won’t obey laws, why do we have laws about theft, or murder, or drunk driving?)
They say we don’t need gun control, we need mental health. I nod and say, okay, let’s have better mental health.
I say over 90% of Americans agree we need better background checks for gun purchases. They say that it’s a slippery slope to abolishing the second amendment.
The same conversation. Each time.
And now I feel like a massive raw nerve, shaking with anger and confusion and fear.
I want to kick and scream and yell into the universe, “WHY? WHY NOT AT LEAST START SOMEWHERE?”
Why can’t we start having better background checks? Start improving mental health access? Embrace logic and reason and empathy when we’re discussing guns and gun control? At least start and see if it works. See if we end up with fewer dead kids.
The sad, disillusioned core of me knows the answer. We can’t do these things because of the NRA.
The NRA has carefully crafted an environment of paranoia that makes people think having armed teachers in the classroom is a viable solution to gun deaths.
The NRA has purchased enough elected representatives that Congress recently extended a ban on research to even find out what forms of gun control work best.
The NRA has created a dystopian society in which it can produce a cartoon for kids, warning them to stay away from all of the guns lying around. You know, because it’s the grown-ups’ constitutional right to leave guns lying around.
And gun manufacturers just keep churning out more guns, more profits, more death.
I want to yell and scream and shout and holler, but I’m scared nobody will listen. Because I’m just a mom. Everybody expects parents to get all hysterical about their babies being in danger. It’s not like I’m a politician or a lobbyist or somebody important.
To be honest, writing this scares me. I’m afraid of voicing my opinions. I’m afraid of the scorn and ridicule of even my own friends and family, those people I love but disagree with.
But we’re a nation of cowards. America has been afraid of the NRA and gun manufacturers for too long. We need to demand accountability from our politicians. We need common-sense gun control, and we need research and respectful debate about how to balance constitutional rights with the rights of our children to grow and thrive in safety.
What kind of world do we live in that we can even think about debating whether a teacher should have a gun in the classroom? In which Congress would actually BAN research on reducing gun deaths? In which 5-year-olds regularly have “dangerous intruder” drills? This is complete fucking insanity.
I just don’t know what to do or say to my kids. We’ve left them such a mess.
Another Update, 5/18/18:
This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas. 10 dead.
Another Update 2/14/2018:
This afternoon, a shooter (again, I won’t say his name) killed 17 people and wounded numerous others in Parkland, Florida. I’m so afraid. Not just of shooters and bullets and seeing the bodies of my dead children, but afraid that as a society we’re growing numb, that we have no problem thinking about the unthinkable.
This could be a walk-out. Or a one-week strike. Or longer. Perhaps we could wait until the bell rings and then pull them out one minute for every student who lost their lives today? (Thanks to Ann S. for that idea that preserves school funding.)
Can we change things? Can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?
Update (September 14,2016)
Early this morning, in a nightclub in Orlando called Pulse, a shooter (I won’t say his name) killed 50 people and wounded 53. The shooter’s father said the shooter became enraged when he saw two men kissing on the street.
Or like when the American Library Association got its Facebook account hacked a few hours ago and librarians got all funny and beautifully weird and trolled the hackers, like in the screen shots I captured below.
Did I mention I freaking love librarian humor? These people are the salt of the earth.
Librarians are very discreet:
Did you know your library records are always kept private?:
Librarians can guide you to examples of words like “misogyny” (ya know, if you’re a visual learner):
No, but really, some good advice from Stephen and Steve here: