26 December 2010

Born with a weak heart / I guess I must be having fun

Another laundry-day dispatch, as I sit tucking my legs out of the way of a tiny woman dressed like a teenager (purple velour pants, pink plaid hooded jacket) whose voice reveals her to be fifty or so. My head is fuzzy from a weekend of sitting – in the cars between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids and the nameless woods north of White Cloud where my grandparents live, at tables and on sofas, at the cramped bedside of my grandfather in the hospital where he has been since damaging his 82-year-old hip. Hours of waiting. Sleepy though I have done so little to tire me, enervated by the cloying air of such close quarters. I'll be glad to ride through the wet chill of the evening to Heather's tonight.

My dad and stepmother offered to drive me back to the city to spend more time with me; we spent almost the entire time in silence. There is just nothing to say. I am snappish at the questions that emerge cringing from the quiet spells, which start from such incorrect assumptions that I grow exhausted at the whole world of information I must attempt to convey in order to provide an accurate answer. (Such as: “Do they have Panera in Chicago?” and “Are you still playing with your band? At least you can make some money that way.” Yes, and yes, but no, and this is all quite beside the point.) They are suspicious and na├»ve, in terror of and incurious about the big, strange city where, to their bafflement, I insist on living. “There are so many buildings,” my father says with disapproval over and over as we go up Lakeshore Drive. “Starbucks,” my stepmother reads out, and then, “The Uptown Lounge.” And it makes me so mean, so mean.

I got a birthday card from my father this past year and it occurred to me for the first time – in at least a decade, if not in my entire life – that he must actually love me. I saw him standing before the rows of Hallmark cards (“Birthday – Daughter”) and selecting this particular card after reading several others, because he thought it was the nicest, and this vision seemed produced not by imagination but by sudden knowledge. The thought made me terribly sad.

I'm very bad at all that sort of thing, filling out the social forms dictated by the flat fact that one has fallen into some relation to some other person. It is not this way for everyone – I know that this is true but it is not a state I can feel my way into very well. Some people are able, with conviction and without further explanation or qualification, to say that “family is important” to them – not that they like, or love, their relatives (as I do truly like and love many of mine) but that their being family is enough to make them matter, not just socially but personally, spiritually.

Perhaps it's a feeling of kinship, a happy recognition of oneself in one's family. But the traits I observe in both my family and myself are not the good ones; they mostly make me despise the both of us a little. So I hear in my voice my mother's nice-lady drawl (without having her commitment to being an actual nice lady); I see in my grandfather's unshakeable routines my own curmudgeonly rigidity; and in my father's greenish eyes, looking away, I see my unwillingness to risk confronting any truths between us. (The greatest unreasonable hatreds are produced, I think, by just such unwilling acts of identification. I have dropped friends because they made the faux pas I would make, told the bad jokes I had to force back from between my teeth. I felt complicit in their every infelicity because I had felt so deeply the impulse to commit it.)

And the qualities I don't mind observing in myself rarely receive their fullest expression in family situations. I am glad to have inherited my grandmother's entirely non-ideological atheism – a sort of natural irreligion -- for instance, and my grandfather's unfussy competence in handling practical affairs. But these are not the basis of a normal conversation. Most of the time, we speak of what we know and have experienced, not what we are – and appropriately so. My new and awful coworker is constantly making such asides as “Well, I'm a very social person” or “But then, I am extremely perceptive.” One doesn't do that. But the shared knowledge base between me and my relatives is tiny; it will support hardly a dozen sentences or so before collapsing into silence.

This makes it tough to buy presents for each other. We ask others for suggestions and after much struggle come up with things like gloves and socks and lotion. It seems that I am nearly alone in really liking to buy gifts for people, so my inability to think of something perfect and unexpected bothers me more than it does my relatives. I like the bright paper and the surprise; it matters to me that I try.

Sometimes I do okay. “Hey, you're good at this,” my grandma said after my gifts had been opened this year, and it was one of the best compliments I've received in months. But I am not getting permanently better at knowing these people. I will wring my hands over all of this again next year, not being able to fill the deficit of feeling in myself that keeps me from making any lasting improvement. I'll return and stand again coldly to one side -- a snowgirl with a heavy heart. But cheered by the surrounding colored lights.

Title credit: Talking Heads -- via the excellent mix Heather made me for Christmas.

16 December 2010

You Can't Fire Me

Outside it's the right temperature for snow to achieve a certain perfection, fluffy but still crisp, around twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit. This is not the snow that on colder nights seems to be dropped in from the darkness of the outer cosmos, the flakes landing one by one, their shapes precisely outlined as on microscope slides. No, this is a convivial, Christmasy snowfall, charmingly eager to cover anything grown gray and sludgy since the last snow. (It has its work cut out for it in the landscape surrounding the laundromat where I'm writing this.) It's nice.

I feel a general giddiness in winter. Big decisions or big catastrophes (big relative to the regular small texture of my life, that is) tend to happen to me in these months. The evening mood is restlessness, a dreaming of big projects that will not let me sleep. During the days I am held down by gray skies and the half-frozen slop of the roads, but between these heavy layers there is a twitching paranoiac intelligence felt mainly in the chest, an uncomfortable sharpening and branching of the senses which seems always about to resolve into some revelation. And when, as happens once or twice a month in the midwest, sunshine breaks through, the thaw brings into me a sort of blubbering gratitude; every motion is clumsy and bizarre because it is the holding back of a skip or a leap, and even the least heartfelt smile is accompanied by a welling of the eyes. In winter even relaxation is only a temporary recovery from some exhausting minor mania or other.

Along with these familiar moods, I lately had been feeling again as I did when I was least well (OpenOffice's autocomplete feature believes that I mean “least well-loved,” and this is probably also true), in high school, so desperate to be left alone by life as to be constantly inviting crises that might provide some valid exemption from it. If one can not act out, one instead walks along and conjures violence upon oneself: so sorry I could not come to work, but on the way I was stabbed in the chest. My apologies for the lateness of this exam; it is just that I fell off a building in the middle of Question 5. Some near-fatality from which one could slowly recover into a quieter, warmer new life.

But this is just a weakness of the will. (As eventually I learned.) It is a fear of making decisions, of the damage one might do if one assumes control of one's life, of the blame one might incur. I have worked hard at being less afraid. With much nail-biting I occasionally now manage to resolve to change my life rather than dreaming of calamitous escapes. Accordingly, on Tuesday, I quit my job.

I gave a month's notice. Besides my boss and the board, I've so far tried to keep the news to friends who will be understanding, rather than the anxious majority who will cluck at me with questions about what I will do next and do I understand how awfully unwise it has been to leave a job without having another lined up. To avoid such conversations, I've tended to lie when quitting jobs. More than once I have quit over the telephone with apologetic stories of the new job I have been offered out of the blue, which requires that I start in a week or two, or right away.

This is, according to an imprecise and paranormal logic, how I got my current job. I was sick to death of my job waiting tables, and wanted to spend more time with my visiting boyfriend, so I called and explained my imaginary situation, and never went back. Two days later, walking through the tropical bird house at Lincoln Park Zoo, I received a call from the temp agency I'd worked for months ago offering me my current job.

To avoid meeting with another such winking trick of fate, I told more or less the truth when I resigned this position. To be sure, I hung the whole thing on a rather minor reason for my dissatisfaction – my salary – and crossed my fingers against a counter-offer which, thankfully, has not come. Any efforts to convince me to stay have been so small that I am sure those making them must know how ineffectual they will be. And every day my relief to be leaving has grown stronger. I could withstand a lot in the way of persuasion now, I think, and still not turn back from the door.

Did I ever say what happened? No, not really. It involved an overnight ouster of my old company and takeover by a new company, the firing of my one remaining office-mate, an interview before the Board for my old boss's position (which seemed as close to campaigning for office as I ever hope to come), and my being given an absurdly adult and responsible job. For a month and a half I have been trying to do the work of three to four people, succeeding only well enough to keep up appearances. It has been almost no fun. There were almost no reasons to keep doing it, except for the ones that other people will seize upon immediately: the money, the authority, the experience (in a field I do not plan to spend my life in), the unusual and really underserved good luck having of a job at all. 

It will be hard for a while to deal these worried ones, parents and the like, so concerned for my well-being. I instinctively bristle at such lamentations (always barely hiding accusations), as when I'm told to “be safe” on my bike. But I am feeling rich with the good fortune I have just claimed for myself and must be generous. I must remember to remain polite, and hide my rather gauche smile. 

05 December 2010

I Dream Again Now of Spectacular Failures

I dream again now of spectacular failures,
to cushion me against the rude shocks
of success. In the unfortunate case
of my bosses, for instance, I will resoundingly
announce my verdict. (Tough but fair.) I'll let
the next blind shoulder that knocks into me
just push me down, and lie there in the street.
I will not suffer anyone to help
me up who is not of pure heart. (I will
wait hours, blocking traffic.) At last
I will become completely unembarrassable,
and make flamboyantly embarrassing

                 After this they will demand
so little. Once it was thought I would
not even go to college, my sickness be
my work. In such a state it's an accomplishment
to sleep eight hours soundly. In such a state,
to waste an afternoon in fabrication
of tiny beauties is still strange, but less so.
It is, at least, forgiven.

                                      So I
weakmindedly imagine. In truth in such
a state there are still bosses, they are doctors.
The work is not the sickness but the getting
well; one is demanded to perform it
with such haste, in such bad faith.
So what to do but to stitch closed that artery,
though it should mean forgetting the actual tint
and quickness of the blood.


On the above: just a poemlet written on a train, in the blank spaces of an advertisement about airports and computers since I didn't have any paper. It doesn't rise to the status of anything much, I think, but it is a way of saying in brief how things are with me right now. There are so very many things I could say directly about what is happening in my job and my life but I no longer have any time to write them down at work because of them. People keep congratulating me, but most days I would rather have been fired. I think of quitting but probably will not be brave enough. I just got back from visiting a friend who never is afraid to quit bad jobs -- a good influence. My blue-collar sense of responsibility and my fear of angering everyone and also never finding another job again will likely keep me at it, even so. Truly I feel that the entire United States of America will castigate me as an ingrate if I deliberately leave such a very good job.

Another good influence is Laura Riding's Progress of Stories, which I have been reading lately for the first time. Some things she has to say:

"The wisest course was for the young to be grateful to the old and to show their gratitude by seeming to understand how important it was to have worries -- instead of behaving as if worries were a disease. It was this kind of delicacy that sold art." -- "The Incurable Virtue."

"And this was the difference between the world of self and the world of knowledge: that the world of knowledge was only and endless prolongation of uncertainty, while the world of self was a prolongation of fear of uncertainty." -- "Miss Banquett, or the Populating of Cosmania."

It's possible that I won't be able to update this blog in any regular way for several months, and then after that the substance of my life may be different enough that the concept of it will have to be changed entirely. To my very avid and loyal and very imaginary readers, I apologize.