I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine months ago. I’ve been struggling with how to write about it ever since. I wanted to find something funny, or at the very least, insightful, to say about the experience. But so far I haven’t found anything remotely funny about it and my insights are banal at best, self-indulgent at worst. Mostly what I can think to say is that I hate that have MS. (See, I told you.)
But I feel compelled to try to write something, because writing is how I make sense of the world. And if ever there was something I needed to make sense of, this is it. So here goes…
My journey to MS has been a long and complicated one. For almost nine years, I had troubling neurological symptoms and abnormal brain MRIs. I had some, but not enough, evidence of the disease. Then last fall, I developed new symptoms that my doc thought might be coming from damage in my spinal cord. Turns out, he was right.
In MS, the body attacks itself by eating away at the protective covering around nerves in your brain and spinal cord. It interrupts the way messages are sent and received throughout your central nervous system. Because your central nervous system controls most of the functions of the body and mind, this means MS can affect nearly anything and everything you do. It can affect your ability to see, speak, go to the bathroom, think clearly, and/or properly use your hands, arms, feet and legs. In one person, MS can mean a bit of tingling. In another, it can cause severe paralysis. And no one can predict the course your disease will take. It’s a crapshoot with your quality of life on the line.
The day I went to get my doctor’s suspicions checked out, I walked out of the hospital and his nurse called before I even started my car. “We need you to come in to talk about your MRI.” You know you are not getting good news when you get a call like that. My doctor walked into the room. He told me I had MS while he was still standing up. He said now that it was in my spinal cord in addition to my brain, it was time to start treatment. I asked if I had to. I was scared. He said that the spinal cord is “valuable real estate,” and while none of the medications could stop the damage from occurring, they could potentially slow it down by 30%. Those weren’t the best odds I’d ever heard of, but I put my money on the drugs anyway.
So that is where I am now. I don’t know if the medication is working. I won’t ever really know because how do you measure a drug that is 30% effective at preventing something that may or may not happen? I do know that it has made half of my hair fall out, which I’ll admit with shame has been harder on me than I thought it would be. (To all the women who have gone through chemotherapy: Every single one of you is a stone-cold badass.)
I take my pills everyday and very occasionally try to sort through my feelings about the whole thing. Some moments I feel like this is no big deal and I’m stupid if I feel stressed about it. Other times, I feel a resigned sort of sadness. Most of time, however, I am just not sure how to feel about it. Feeling sad seems defeatest, while feeling upbeat about it seems naive. The quote I keep coming back to about living with MS is from American writer, Joan Didion. In her memoir, The White Album, she writes about her experience of being diagnosed in the 1960s. “I had, at the time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old, but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife.”
Leave it to Joan to get it exactly right.
Practically speaking, I am doing fine. I have been extremely lucky so far. The worst thing I have is neuropathic pain in my feet. This pain, while not intense, is constant. Like 24/7 for months now, constant. So my feet hurt whether I’m sitting still or running around. They hurt in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, and in middle of the night. They hurt all the fucking time. And it is quite possible they will feel like this everyday for the rest of forever. Sometimes I catch myself feeling frustrated or sorry for myself about this. When that happens, I almost immediately send this transmission out into the ether: I don’t mean to complain! If this is all that I have to deal with, I’ll take it! I make bargains with my MS. I’ll take the pain, if I can keep my eyesight. I will gladly accept the numbness, if I can walk without assistance. Give me tingling in my hands, but leave me control of my bladder.
So in many ways, for me, that is the worst part. At least right now. It’s the fear of the unknown. I think we all fear the unknown to a certain extent, but in this case it’s a little different because there is a clear and present danger. To take Ms. Didion’s metaphor a step further, it’s like being locked inside a building with the stranger who has the knife. You know he’s coming for you, you just don’t know when, or how much damage he’s going to do.
This bit of writing aside, I don’t sit around obsessing about my health and I try not to give into self-pity. I am, at this moment, a healthy, active woman with far more immediate fish to fry. Like the literal fish I have to make for dinner. Or the metaphorical fish of throwing away a bunch of my kids’ junk before they get home from camp. I work every single day at making sure MS doesn’t become more important than it needs to be. This involves a healthy reliance on denial. And champagne. And Pringles. But most heavily, I rely on my husband, without whom I would fold like a cheap suit. And my dear, dear friends and family, who have made this stupid disease almost worth having by being so unbelievably nice to me these past months.
So as promised, this essay was neither funny nor insightful. It actually turned out a bit more self-indulgent and gloomy than I had hoped. I’m sorry for that. But this is just my first try and it has only been nine months (and honestly it has been a pretty shitty nine months at that). Please know I am working on getting back to the annoyingly positive attitude I once had. And next time I write about this, it will be filled with exclamation points and smiley faces. Because who doesn’t love writing filled with those? For now, I just thank you for reading. I’m not sure I made sense of anything by writing this, but I do feel a bit lighter for having shared it. And that would not have been possible without you!!!
My son’s first assignment from 6th grade English was to write a poem about where he is from. Poetry does not come easily to the literal-minded 6th grade boy, especially a literal-minded 6th grade boy who doesn’t like to write. We ended up working together on this poem for nearly two hours. And in the end, he did it. He didn’t like it, but he did it. I and thought his poem was great. (Don’t worry – I am not going to make you read it.)
The poem he was asked to write was based on the famous poem Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyons. Apparently, this poem is used as a teaching tool in schools and writing workshops all the time because it has a very definite structure. The framework of the poem is always the same; but each individual poem written by using it, vastly different. Having never taken a creative writing or poetry class, I had not seen this poem or template before – so of course, felt I just HAD to try it. My son thought I was insane. (This is not new.)
My poetry writing over the past 20 years has been limited to 2 categories: the multi-stanza-sorority-girl-bridesmaid-toast, and the limerick. Poetry with a capital “P” would spit in my eye. This was the first time I tried to write a real poem – maybe ever – and indeed, the framework and structure of the Where I’m From template made it feel manageable. I’m putting a link to the website where you can get the template, and I’d encourage any of you out there who think this might be fun, to give it a try. I really enjoyed this. Even though I’m pretty sure Poetry with a capital ‘P’ is rolling its eyes at me right now…
I am From by Jill Orr
I am from orange shag carpeting and dark wood floors, neon sculptures, stained-glass windows, and harvest gold refrigerators. From wide suburban streets, lined with tall old trees and faded chalk four-square courts. I am from radiators and asbestos in the basement, from the first house on the block to get a microwave.
I am from watery eyes and serial sneezes, from bug-bites and itchy grass. From grape Benadryl and asthma attacks and freckles and sunburns. I am from staying inside whenever possible. I am from air conditioning.
I am from family vacations in wood-paneled station wagons and silent laughter in the way-back, from my Mom who always knew the latest, best thing and my father who told me the truth whether I wanted it or not. I am from my sister who understands this all without me having to explain. I am from one family split slowly, painfully, into two.
I am from spending every other weekend in the city playing long games of gin rummy with my dad, from watching my mother rebuild her career, from vicious fights with my sister, to seeking refuge in my friends. I am from closing my door and writing it all down.
I am from “You can do anything you set your mind to,” and “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” From I love you’s not spoken, but never doubted. From the security of “I’ll always be here if you need me.”
I am from those Jewish enough not to eat ham on white bread, but not enough to stay away from bacon or attend synagogue; from Darwinism and the Golden Rule and Karma and always try your best. I am from pop culture, song lyrics, and fortune cookie wisdom. I am from the glass half full.
I am from hot dogs with pickles (but never ketchup) and deep dish pizza. From cheese tacos and peanut butter & jelly in a bowl when my mom wasn’t looking, from buttered noodles, fried Matzo, and the Joy of Cooking. I am from one tragic fat-free Thanksgiving where my mom made us go around the table and introduce ourselves to each other.
I am from the time my parents told me I had chicken pox by bok-bok-boking at me through my bedroom wall, and the way it still makes them laugh, from needle-pointed baby books, PTA presidents, homemade Halloween costumes, Kodak slide shows, and learning to drive a stick shift in the East Bank Club parking lot. From carnival birthday parties on the front lawn and trick-or-treating after dark. I am from knowing there would always be someone there when I got home.
Where are you from?
I recently had an interesting conversation while away for the weekend with my two best friends from high school. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I won’t use their real names. Instead I’ll call them Lady Mary and Lady Sybil. During our interesting conversation, we decided two important things:
1.) Downton Abbey is the best show ever. Obviously.
2.) Their proper names have become irrelevant, and should never be used again because they each embody the persona of Sybil and Mary so perfectly – their given names might as well be abandoned.
My friend Lady Sybil is a kind, hard working, free spirit, who follows her passions where they lead. She has loved the album Free to Be You and Me since before and after it was cool. She goes on long rants about Monsanto’s world domination. And she has her graduate degree in ESL. Had she lived in early 20th century England, she would totally have championed women’s voting rights and run away with the chauffeur. When we told her she was Sybil, she preened (in the demure, non-smug way that Lady Sybil would preen, of course).
Now, my friend Lady Mary… well, let’s just say she was a little less thrilled with her comparison. Which is funny because she is Lady Mary. Not the mean, haughty version – but the smart, fiercely loyal, beautiful, and snobbish-in-the-best-possible-way version. She has always been confident and unafraid to blaze new trails. Example: Once, when my husband told her felt like a fraud every time he sat in first class, she said it’s where she felt she always belonged. Then on a dare, she ate a hair from his head on a cracker. Total Lady Mary.
After we had sorted my two friends, I cried, “Do me! Do me!” They stared at me with blank faces. “What? Do you think I’m O’Brien or something?” I asked. They said they couldn’t really match me up to any of the characters. These two people who have known me for over three decades had no idea if I was a Crawley or a ladies’ maid! I was very disconcerted by this. What is wrong with me that I don’t resemble anyone in this vast and varied cast of characters? Am I that boring? Or am I that much of an oddity? Naturally, I had to give this a little thought (read: neurotically obsess over it). Here is what I came up with.
I think it is clear that I am not Lady Edith. As cozy as that would have made our little trio, I’m just not her. For one thing, she is prone to insecure negativity. For another, she loves to drive. I avoid both of those whenever possible. We may both be writers, but she writes about women’s issues; I write about spray tans. Plus, she can’t even have breakfast in bed. Nope. Not Edith.
Who does that leave? Anna? I’d love to be Anna, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be the lovely Mrs. Bates, with her impossible work ethic and the quiet dignity with which she accepts her station in life. But that doesn’t line-up either. I’m a horrible slob, completely lazy, and I’ve never been one to accept my station. Plus, I would have straight up killed the first Mrs. Bates myself. Nope. Not Anna.
I ticked through the other Downton residents? Could I be Mrs. Hughes? Mrs. Patmore? Daisy? No, no, no. I’m not a benevolent taskmaster, a great cook, or a timid but cheerful scullery maid. (I’m a rather resentful scullery maid, actually.)
Then I remembered a character I’d forgotten. I’d probably forgotten her on purpose because she is my least favorite character on the show. Countess Cora. I find nearly everything about Cora annoying: that treacly tone, her clueless equanimity, and what’s up with those weird facial expressions? Plus, why the hell can’t she see O’Brien for who she is? (She was the only one who had access to the soap! Think about it, woman!)
Anyway. As I was going through the mental checklist of why I could not possibly be Cora, an uneasy feeling took up residence in my gut. Doth I protest too much? Am I Cora? OMG, am I Cora?
I asked myself what we have in common…
- American? Check.
- Polite? Check.
- Love to eat luncheon and boss people around? Check and check.
The proof is irrefutable. I am Cora. Oh, the humanity!
I spent a few distraught moments in which I cursed my newly discovered banality and wondered if this meant I needed to get my haircut and/or a lobotomy. I was heading fast and furiously down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, when I remembered something from my weekend away with my high school friends. At lunch one day, my Lady Sybil friend had a very Lady Mary moment when someone mistakenly put onions on her sandwich. And my friend Lady Mary often has Sybil-esque moments of extreme selflessness and great compassion. I decided to see this as a thread of salvation. Maybe we don’t have to funnel ourselves into one character. Maybe we can be hybrids – like one part Cora; two parts Anna, with a dash of Mrs. Crawley for good measure. I like that idea much better.
Besides, as I was panicking with the thought of being doomed to be an emotionally void woman who sighs heavily makes and creepy faces all the time, the wise words from possibly the best Downton character of them all, Lady Violet – the Dowager Countess – rang in my ears, “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.” And even being Cora couldn’t be worse than that! 😉
Disclaimer: I usually write about my life and share things that I think are funny or entertaining, but that hopefully don’t get too personal or over-sharey. But to prove I’m not a one-trick pony, today I’ve written about something intensely personal that totally over-shares and isn’t funny at all! Enjoy!
My doctor tells me that he believes I may have Multiple Sclerosis. He isn’t 100% sure. He said it could also be this other condition that is apparently so complex that even Google can’t paint me a clear picture of it. But he says he doesn’t really think it’s that – and thank goodness because it would be so much more convenient to have a disease everyone has already heard of. Less explaining; more sympathy. And let’s be honest: Sympathy is the only good thing about having a disease in the first place.
Over the past few years, I have had every test imaginable. Some have been positive. Some have been negative. Recently, more evidence in the “for” camp has emerged. But MS is a slippery bastard and I’m told it isn’t always easy to diagnose, ‘a diagnosis of exclusion’ they call it. So at this point it appears that my white matter disease falls into a grey area. In other words, they know something is wrong in my brain, they just can’t tell me exactly what it is.
My doctor told me there is nothing to do but wait and see. Since I am nothing if not obedient, for a while I did this. And as I waited, I considered whether or not to fall apart over this situation. I even tried it for a short time – doing an internet residency in Neurology and learning just enough to scare the shit out of myself. This was not a good idea. But eventually I decided that the possibility of having MS – or the actuality for that matter – is not something worth going to pieces over. For one thing, who has the time? For another, I just don’t want to give my life over to that kind of fear. When I think like this, I feel righteous and strong and capable and in control. I like that feeling. And I feel that way most of the time. Most of the time.
But there are times, in the quiet moments when I’m not thinking about the things I have to do, or what to make for dinner, or how I can crash my minivan for the insurance money without hurting anyone– that the fear sneaks in. It pounds at my chest wall and swirls in my gut. It keeps me awake at night with images of “What if?” Fear will do that to try to get my attention. Just like a tantrum-throwing child, fear gains strength from my tolerance and responsiveness. I used to think that worrying about something could prevent it from happening. Like my worry was proof that I was not so egotistical as to believe that it could not happen to me. I thought that if I worried about it enough, the worry would form a shield over me forcing the Big Bad to skip me and move on to some arrogant sumbitch who thought they were invincible. (Ironically, it was pretty arrogant of me to think that.)
But now I know better. The truth is that things happen whether you worry about them or not. Fear – or the absence of it – cannot stave off disability or prevent disease from striking or keep your loved ones safe. If only it could. Unfortunately fear can do many things, but it can’t change your fate, except maybe to ruin the present while you are waiting for the thing you’re afraid of to come and get you.
This brings me back to my doctor’s “wait and see” advice. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that waiting for something like MS to show itself – or not – seemed like just another way to be afraid of it. So I decided against waiting. I’ve opted instead for denial –stuffing a sock in the mouth of my Jewish ancestry and giving my Northern Irish roots permission to take over (which is fine considering the Jewish part of me still has to whisper M.S. when she talks about it). Denial, while not normally my go-to response, is the strongest response to this situation. It is a brick wall, an impenetrable fortress. Denial will kick fear’s ass and stuff it down deep inside where it can’t take anything away from me. Because once again, like a whiny child, fear will not perform without an audience.
So even with my doctor’s advice to wait and see, I’ve made up my mind that I am not going to sit around and wait for MS. I know that it will get my attention if it needs me. And until that day comes, if it ever does- I will wait for my kids to stop fighting with each other, for someone to invent zero calorie potato chips that tastes the same as regular, for my husband to take an intense interest in housework – but I will not wait for MS.
Goodness knows it won’t wait for me.
Recently, my editor at Columbia Home asked me if I would write an article about how I came to live in Columbia. My first response was, “Are you kidding? 1300 words about myself? I’m in!” But when I sat down to actually write the piece, I felt a little stuck. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough material or narcissism (I have plenty of both), but rather I felt a lack of momentum, of motivation, of drive. As I telepathically willed my computer to burst into flames giving me an iron-clad pass on the assignment, it hit me: I am basically a pretty lazy person. And then it dawned on me that my laziness was the very thing that brought me to Columbia in the first place! I just love it when things work out like that.
I was born and raised in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and like so many others, I came to the University of Missouri to go to Journalism school. Writing was the only bright spot on my otherwise stunningly average high school transcript, so I thought I’d become a journalist. I liked the way it sounded. I’d practice saying, “Hello, I’m a journalist…” in the mirror. It made me feel very Lois Lane. Plus, to me “journalist” sounded better than “unemployed English major.”
The other reason I decided to go to Mizzou was that the application was one-page long. And ironically there was no essay. This pleased the lazy girl inside me and after a fun-filled visit, I had made up my mind. So much so, that I didn’t apply anywhere else. I knew what I wanted, and my mother’s anxiety over the fact that I filled out a single college application was mere icing on the cake!
When I first moved to Columbia, I experienced some predictable culture shock. I missed the little things about urban life, like people honking at you and giving you the finger when you hesitated a second too long at a green light. Or someone rapidly punching the “Close Door” button in the elevator when they see you coming. Nobody did that in Columbia. In Columbia, people made eye contact with you on the street. Some of them even said, “Hello.” Complete strangers saying “Hello” to each other? I wondered what black-and-white TV show I’d moved into.
Whether it was because or in spite of Columbia’s friendliness, I had a great experience at Mizzou. After four years I grew to love so many things about this idyllic college town. But even still, my plan upon graduation was to head to Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta and get a job in Advertising (the lazyman’s sequence in J-School). I fancied myself a city-girl! But four months before graduation, fate, in the shape of a goofy guy with the best smile I’d ever seen, stepped in and changed my plan. All throughout college Jimmy Orr told me that someday he was going to ask me on a date. I’d roll my eyes and tell him that I’d be waiting. Well, one day he finally did. And I was. So that was it for Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta. Jimmy was going to dental school in Kansas City, and you’ll never guess where I got a job.
One Year Later…
After Jimmy’s realization that he, in fact, hated teeth; and my brief stint at an ad agency, we moved back to CoMo. Jimmy is from Columbia and the promise of rent-free living in one of his parent’s apartments was unspeakably alluring to two crazy kids who had just chucked their futures out the window. It was time to decide what to do next. I should mention that while I am lazy, I am also an excellent procrastinator. And nothing says procrastination like getting another degree! So that’s what I did.
I spent the next couple of years getting my Master’s in Social Work from the University of Missouri. This was the only period of time I didn’t really like living in Columbia, though it had nothing to do with grad school. Columbia is an amazing place to be in college or to raise a family, but not so much to be in between those two worlds. At least, it wasn’t for me. In my mid-20’s I wanted to go out to clubs and spend Saturdays shopping at trendy boutiques and go out for brunch on Sundays. (It was the late 90s and everyone wanted to live in an episode of Sex in the City.) The reality was that I felt old when I went to the same bars I’d been to in college; there was no Elly’s Couture or Girl yet; and through some deep, personal failing, I hadn’t yet discovered Ernie’s. Columbia felt really small to me, and not in a good way. So Jimmy and I spent many weekends traveling to St. Louis or Kansas City to visit friends. We saved up to take trips to both coasts. We got married. And then, for lack of anything else to do, we had a baby.
After I’d had my first child, Columbia suddenly became the perfect place to live again! I cannot stress enough what a lovely and supportive community I think we have for young mothers. I got my very own Parent Educator from Parents as Teachers who came to my house and “ooed” and “ahhed” over how gifted my one-month-old clearly was. We had drive-through dry cleaners and pharmacies, which meant I could go in my pajamas. And Hy-Vee even added two special front row parking spots for New and Expectant Mothers. My life was complete!
However, try as I might, it was very hard to be lazy and the stay-at-home mother of two young kids. It was hard work filled with what my father-in-law aptly called “combat fatigue.” They were wonderful, stressful years, and the only time in my life that I have ever been needed so completely. One of the things that got me through the hard moments were the friendships I developed in a weekly play group that we started under the guise of “infant socialization.” We were 3 Amy’s, a Beth, a Dawn, a Jill, and a Kaisa (she totally threw off our Popular Names of the 1970s motif). And these six women were indispensable to me as a new mother. We met once a week, sometimes more, for six years and together experienced everything Columbia had to offer young kids. Going Bonkers, Chuck E. Cheese, story time at the Library– if it needed anti-bacterial gel, we were there! Being a stay-at-home parent can be a lonely experience, but these ladies made it one of the most special times in my life. (I mean, in addition to my kids. Yeah, my kids made it special too.)
I wanted to mention this because I have many friends who live in larger communities who don’t have the same kind of close-knit support system that I have in Columbia. Maybe that has to do more with luck than location, but I like to think that Columbia has more than its share of kind, friendly, and supportive people. It’s one of my favorite things about this town.
Now that my children are in elementary school and gone seven hours each day, you’ll be relieved to know that I am once again back on the lazy-train! In fact, to procrastinate getting a real job, I’ve even written a novel. Because nothing says I Don’t Want to Get a Real Job like writing a book! And while it’s true that writing a novel in itself doesn’t actually bring in any income, it does give the writer the appearance of working – which ought to at least buy me some time. And who knows? If my book ever actually sells, then my laziness and procrastination can be reframed as my “creative process.”
So the moral of my story (note: having a “moral” is the laziest way to end an essay) is: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that being lazy won’t get you anywhere! It got – and has kept me in Columbia for the past 22 years. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather live-lazy than in this friendly, supportive, drive-through-filled town.
My mother lost her father this summer. He was 90, frail in body and mind, and by all accounts, probably ready to go. In the end, he didn’t suffer. He died peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him.
But it’s still sad. It’s always sad to say goodbye to those we love, especially when we have years of long and complicated relationships to sift through in the wake of their passing. For me, it’s sad to think that the sweet, little, Irish-accented man who told me the legend of donut-trees is now no more than legend himself. He was a good grandpa, always ready with a joke and a hug, impossibly cheerful, a talented artist, an amazing athlete, a devoted husband, and a world-class whistler. I will miss him.
But mostly it’s sad for me to think of my mom who has lost her dad. Her mom died a few years ago and so she is now, along with her brother and sister, an orphan of sorts. And it makes me sad for her – for them.
Even the best relationships between parents and their children are complicated – some more than others- and my mom’s relationship with her dad was no different. But she loved him. She loved him the way daughters love their fathers – with a combination of respect and affection, pride and fear, ferocity and deference. And always with a longing for approval and acceptance. That is just how it is for girls and their dads.
In the days preceding my grandpa’s death, the hospice nurse called and suggested that my mom say goodbye to her dad over the phone, as no one was sure if he would last the hours needed for her to reach his hospital bed. She was caught off guard. She knew he was sick and that he “had started down a path” as the nurse had gently put it, but she hadn’t thought about what she wanted the last words she’d say to her father to be. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness, mostly out, but before my mom could react the nurse had put the phone to his ear and she was up.
Perhaps it was better that she didn’t have hours or even minutes to toil over these words. The pressure of the Last Words Ever would have been crushing. But in the abrupt moment that she was faced with she simply told him she loved him and that it was okay for him to go. She told him she’d miss him. And she told him she loved him again.
After the call, my mom worried that maybe she should have said more. She wondered should she have said all those things we don’t say in the course of normal conversation: final absolutions, forgiveness for all the ways – little and big – that we’ve hurt each other over the years, thanks for the sacrifice our parents made for us that we can’t understand until we’ve become parents ourselves, gratitude for loving us, permission to leave, reassurance that we’ll be okay without them. These are not things we say when we talk to our parents. We talk about the weather. The kids. The job. The house. The traffic. The game. The damned politicians. We don’t talk about goodbye. We don’t talk about the Last Words Ever.
If the rightful order of the universe holds true, then most of us will outlive our parents. We know this. We grow up believing this. Our parents hope and pray for this. So why is there a question of things left unsaid at all? In a perfect world we would all make sure that we say how we feel while we still have time. But we don’t live in a perfect world. And we don’t always do the things we should – even when we know we should.
I guess we don’t do this because it’s hard. It’s hard and awkward and uncomfortable for most of us to even think about The End, let alone dredge up all those feelings we’ve had throughout our lives towards our parents. There are just so many of them… and they’re not all warm and fuzzy.
But I think the ones that matter are. I think the component of the Last Conversation Ever ought to be as warm and fuzzy as our selective memory will allow. We should use that last conversation for expressions of gratitude. For reassurance’s that even though they may not have been perfect, we know they did the best they could. For appreciation. For kindness. For love. For forgiveness. For approval and acceptance. For permission to go on.
I want my parents to know all of the above – and more. I want them to know that I forgive their shortcomings, I appreciate their sacrifices, I admire their strength, I know how hard they tried to do the very best for us even when it was hard. And I’m sure if I asked them, they would have a list of warm and fuzzy things they’d want to be sure I knew too. But chances are the next time I talk to them, we won’t talk about those things. We’ll talk about the debates, the price of gas, what a nice Fall we’re having, how the car is running, etc.
Maybe what we need is a code. Like, when I call to talk about my air conditioner that needs replacing, what I’m really saying is – “Thank you for all the ways you’ve been there for me.” Or when my Dad complains how expensive his medication is getting, what he really means is, “You’ve been a good daughter.” Or when my Mom talks about her Pilates class, what she means to say is, “You may not be perfect, but I love you anyway.” Maybe if we could do that – there would be no need for Last Conversations Ever, because everything we needed to say would be said – over and over, buried in the mundane details of our lives.
So, on that note – I’ll end my more-maudlin-than-most post with a simple message to all of my lovely readers out there: I need to clean the lint out of my dryer vent.*
*Code for “Thanks for reading – I appreciate you taking the time!”
This is the first in my three-part series, Don’t Hate the Playa; Hate the Game (alternatively titled, What’s With All the Judgy-Judgy?). In this series I will explore the many ways that narrow-minded people try to make others feel small so they can feel superior.
Specifically, I will examine the self-righteous judgments some people make based on three factors: the books you read; whether or not you stay home with your kids; and finally, the amount of food you choose to snarf down on any given day. I have found people to be especially judgmental of others where these three things are concerned.
Today’s installment is about the odious practice of book snobbery.
I think there is a special place in hell for book snobs. I don’t mean people who happen to enjoy well-written, thoughtful, literary fiction. That is fine. Great. Good for them. I’m talking about people who make judgments about what sort of person you are based on what you read. For instance, there are those who assume if you read Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham, that you are somehow intellectually inferior to people who read Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, or Michael Chabon. Or worse yet, that Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham themselves are intellectually inferior to the Dave Eggers, Joan Didions, or Michael Chabons of the world. Which they may be. Or they may not be. But the fact that they choose to write plot-driven books about sexy vampires or lawyers, as opposed to the rich interior life of tortured souls, does not reflect on their intellectual status.
Some people read to learn more about the world around them; others read to escape it. Most of us like the advantages that both literary and commercial fiction have to offer. Neither has the moral high ground. The people who read nothing but gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, soul-crushing stories about genocide are no deeper, no more cerebral, no smarter than those who read about shoe sales. Reading is, like any other art form, completely subjective and should remain in a judgment-free zone.
Even more upsetting is when people inside the publishing industry proliferate these kind of snarky attitudes. As an aspiring author, I read a lot about the world of publishing and frankly, I am shocked that an industry faced with such an uncertain vicissitude would engage in such petty in-fighting. I read articles everyday about how this author or that book critic discounts the efforts of writers who choose to write “chick lit” or “mommy lit.” (The genre titles themselves are misogynistic and patronizing, but that is another post.) Critics say the same about people who write mystery, horror, sci-fi, YA, etc. These critics suggest that authors who write books to entertain, and who are perhaps less focused on craft, are somehow “less than” those who write to enlighten the human condition with a precise and stalwart dedication to language. This kind of blatant snobbism is gross. It diminishes peoples experience of books – which is something the publishing industry can scarcely afford right now.
It would seem that people in the business of writing and selling books ought to stick together during this tumultuous time in the industry’s long history. It would seem that We, the Book People, in order to form a more perfect union between those of us who write books and those of us who read them, should establish literary justice, insure bookish tranquility, provide for the common imagination, promote the generally well-read, and secure the literary blessings of freedom to ourselves and our book-choices.
Reading is reading, folks. No matter what book you choose to pick up, it beats the hell out of playing Super Mario Bros. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Next post on 5/15: Working Moms vs. Moms Who Say at Home: You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chances.
When I’m not driving the kids around in my sweet minivan or trying to get “that smell” out of the carpet, I freelance for a local magazine called, Columbia Home. For the upcoming issue, the magazine asked if I would write a book review of The Ruins of Us , by Keija Parssinen. I enjoyed the book so much, I wanted to share my review here in case you, like me, love nothing more than plopping down on the couch and losing yourself in a good story.
The author, Keija Parssinen, is a lovely young woman of enormous talent and was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of her time for a short interview. I think you will find the story of her background and how it gave way to her book is nearly as interesting as the book itself. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe National Geographic. They just chose The Ruins of Us as their January book of the month.
Book Review: The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen. Harper Perennial.
Keija Parssinen’s captivating debut novel, The Ruins of Us, explores the universal themes of love, betrayal, and resiliency set against the backdrop of modern Saudi Arabian culture.
American-born Rosalie Al-Baylani lives a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia. She loves her husband, adores her children, and has grown accustomed to being a wife and a mother in the country she has been fascinated with since she was a girl. But Rosalie’s life is shattered when she learns that her husband of 25 years, the wealthy and powerful Saudi, Abdullah Al-Baylani, has taken a second wife and kept it secret from her for the past two years.
A heavy curtain of heartbreak, bitterness, and isolation falls over the Al-Baylani family as they struggle to make sense of their new reality. Taking a second wife is a man’s legal right in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but Rosalie always thought her Abdullah far too modern and far too devoted to do such a thing. While Rosalie is incapacitated from grief, and Abdullah from denial, the couple’s 16 year old son, Faisal, seeks comfort in a Muslim fundamentalist group with controversial, even violent, ideologies. This gripping story follows Rosalie as she struggles with fear, country, and conscience to make the heart-wrenching choices that will determine her fate and that of her family.
Parssinen, who grew up as a third generation expatriate in Saudi Arabia, deftly reveals the intricate, and at times messy, emotional lives of her characters, while providing an education on the culture and mores of contemporary Saudi life. Her rich, evocative prose is part love-letter to the land where she was born, and part critical study of its complexities. Through Parssinen’s skillful exposition, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with the character’s most profound and visceral desires, particularly in the case of Rosalie, Faisal, and the finely drawn Dan. However, as the story rises to its harrowing climax – and readers turn pages faster and faster -they might just find that, much like the characters themselves, they are unsure of what they want to happen next.
There is so much to love about this book. There is the intriguing story, the graceful language, the authentically flawed characters – but one fact stands out among the rest: the only thing black and white about this novel is the ink and paper upon which it’s printed. You will find yourself thinking about The Ruins of Us long after you put it down. So be sure to pick it up. (It comes out today and you can find it in your local bookstore or online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or
Author Q&A with Keija Parssinen
Q: You, like Rosalie, spent much of your childhood living in Saudi Arabia while your father worked for an oil company. How did your background influence this novel?
A: When I started writing the book, it was a way to travel back to Saudi in my mind. I left when my parents moved us back to the US when I was 12. When you leave Saudi Arabia, they take your visa and you are not allowed to go back. So, in a way, it’s really like your home is taken away from you, physically anyway. I think I felt I was being robed of memories. But in writing the book, I did a ton of research and in 2008 since my Dad was living there again, I was allowed to travel back. I stayed with Saudi friends in Khobar and got to experience life with Saudi family and really study the city – what it looked like, the colors, the sound of the traffic. It was fantastic.
Q: What were you hoping readers would gain from reading this book?
A: I hope they enjoy it, first and foremost. But also, I think the book is an honest look at how cultures clash and why. At its heart, I hope it does convey my belief that the human emotional makeup is universal. Our cultural elements may influence and get in the way of our relationships, but we all experience the same emotions regardless of where we come from.
Q: Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s teenage son, becomes involved in a jihadist group. How did you decide to write this plotline into the story of this family?
A: The reality is I couldn’t write about Saudi Arabia in 2005 (when I began writing the book) without addressing the radical mindset of some Saudis. The anger and confusion of 9/11 was still very fresh in my mind, and I was trying to puzzle through why someone would think that way. I learned from Sam Chang, the director of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the purpose of fiction is to ask, not answer, questions. So in writing this book I was asking, ‘How would a group of young men who believe America is occupying and in some cases ruining their country act and react in certain situations? And also, ‘What if a man takes a second wife? Is it OK? Is it ever justifiable?’ I read a lot of materials by Arab writers and Saudi writers offering opinions. I learned a lot. In some ways, it destroyed the warm-fuzzy memories I had from my childhood. But I gained so much insight as well.
Keija Parssinen earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. For The Ruins of Us, her first novel, she received a Michener-Copernicus Award.
Like many quasi-neurotic people, I don’t really like to fly. But not for the reason you think. My aversion to flying isn’t so much the risk of plummeting to certain death in a large, metal coffin – it’s more that I can’t shake the feeling that I’m constantly being lied to. It’s just a “minor” maintenance issue that’s delayed us for three hours. No, you can’t listen to that iPod during take off, it might interfere with the planes electrical system. Sorry, we’re “out of” diet coke. Like anyone believes that. They treat us like we are children. And the bottom line is that once you’ve boarded the plane, they’ve got you. You belong to them and they can tell you anything and you have no choice but to go along with it.
Here are my top picks for most egregious airline lies:
1. I’ll be right back with that for you.
Right. I’ve been waiting on a diet coke since 1998.
2. If there is anything we can do to make your flight more comfortable, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Your lips say one thing; but your eyes say another.
3. Use of cellular phones may interfere with the planes navigational systems.
If a cell phone can bring down a planeload of people – then why would the FAA let 300 people get on a plane holding one? No one’s buying it; they should stop selling it.
4. We’ll be on our way soon.
‘Soon’ is a hoax. Don’t be fooled by ‘soon.’ The runways are controlled by very precise people who are required to time events down to the millisecond. They don’t deal in generalities like ‘soon.’ Air traffic control tells the pilots exactly when they will be cleared for takeoff. If they say something like soon, chances are you’re screwed.
5. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.
I call bullshit. I can’t say that I’ve tested the theory, but there is no way that nasty, polyester, piece of crap is going to keep anyone afloat in the middle of the ocean after it’s been squashed a thousand times over by America’s obesity epidemic. Then again, the whole idea of a water landing where people are alive enough to need a flotation device may be the biggest lie of all.
Maybe they think that the general population just can’t handle the truth. But they’re wrong. We can. Don’t tell us in your cool, polished, pilot-voice that you’re going to have the flight attendants sit down “out of abundance of caution” because we’ve just hit some bumpy air. For God’s sake, man! Tell us that the flight attendants are tired and they just want a freaking break from the annoying ingrates that keep ringing that humiliating call button and summoning them for more peanuts. Or tell us that we’ve lost the left engine and the flight attendants deserve to spend their final moments guzzling tiny bottles of vodka and texting their loved ones. Either way, don’t patronize us. Just give it to us straight. (Preferably with a side of peanuts and that diet coke that we know you stashed somewhere for later.)
One of the most useful things I learned in Journalism School, I learned in the first fifteen minutes of my first class on the first day. The two Deans of the University of Missouri J-School stood at the bottom of the large lecture hall and tag-teamed a speech about the art and science of Journalism; the rigors and importance of its study. I remember shockingly little of what they said. I remember that one of the Deans was a lady with short red hair who wore a pantsuit. I remember I didn’t see her again until graduation. And I remember that she began her portion of the lecture with the simple truism, “Good writing reflects clear thinking.”
Over the years, I have referred back to this sentence more than any other piece of writing advice I received since. It has become my writing mantra. These words focus and tighten my work. They eliminate pages of unnecessary qualifiers and distracting tangents. They crystallize tedious, rambling diversions into concise, readable information. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I hear the Dean’s voice in my head; picture her in her beige pants suit pacing back and forth like some kind of smartly dressed caged tiger – full of pent-up insight and knowledge.
But this advice applies to more than just Journalism. As I write my first novel, this dictum serves as my talisman – sitting on my shoulder, strong and true in its own little pantsuit; a beacon of efficiency. It reminds me that good writing is more than just stringing words together in a pleasing way. The words have to say something. They can’t simply be page-candy, there only to decorate and sound pretty. Even the most beautifully written prose must earn its keep by informing, enlightening, or advancing the story.
Here is how this all works in action: I write something. I read it over. If I decide it sucks (which I almost always do on the first pass), I repeat my mantra. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I re-read what I wrote. More often than not, the problem is not with the words themselves. The problem is I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It wasn’t clear to me –so how could it possibly be clear on the page? The words never stood a chance. I focus. I ask myself what I am trying to say in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter. And if I am lucky enough to come up with an answer, the words follow – lining up like obedient soldiers doing their duty to ink and paper. The writing becomes strong, if not good, and we move on to the next battle.
Good writing reflects clear thinking. My arrogant 18 year-old self heard this and thought something banal like, “No duh.” But fortunately my sub-conscious knew better. It stored this little nugget in the depths of my brain until I was ready to understand that no amount of clever word play will make up for a writer’s ambivalence of purpose.
I pass this on with the hope that it helps other writers as much as it has helped me.