Friday, July 30, 2010

A few more questions for Marney

After letting Marney's Thanksgiving dinner digest for a while, so to speak, I have a few more questions about her sublime, yet puzzling manifesto/memo to her loved ones.

After the military harangue about containers WITH A LID, and NO aluminum foil (and what's she got against foil? It molds itself to any container, so you DON'T need an exactly-fitting lid!), "HJB" gets off with only two words: Dinner wine.

OK then, I demand to know WHO THIS HJB IS and WHY he or she is exempt from the rules everyone else must follow. My theory is that this is her lover, and they are speaking in code, sexting each other madly between courses. Hell, she doesn't even say WHAT KIND of dinner wine! It could be Wild Turkey or Ripple or some kind of foul home-brew.

The turnips are a real issue with me. Nobody likes these lousy things, they taste like dirt and wax mixed together, so WHY in God's name should the Mike Byron family have to bring them?

And why is this same family burdened with bringing TWO half gallons of premium ice cream, none of that supermarket shit, and bottled water on top of that, when HJB only has to bring a crappy bottle of wine?

I have other questions. Given the sheer volume of the servings, just how many people are coming to this shindig? Must be at least 40 or 50, if they need five pounds of each vegetable (and we'll get to the 15 lbs. of potatoes later. Or maybe we won't, this is all so fucking insane.) If that many are coming, why not spread out these demands over all those families, instead of loading on the preparation, not to mention the expense, on only a few? Are these the members of the clan she really really hates: or, worse, are they all bulimics who plan to stuff their faces, then run behind a bush after the dessert course?

The inconsistencies gall me. If she allows turnips, why not beans? Beans are life in some cultures. The NO COCKTAIL SAUCE rule is also a bit opaque. Hey, it's great on those shrimp you get in a plastic ring in the frozen section. You can pretend it's the '60s and you've just ordered one of those shrimp cocktails in a parfait glass full of ice where the shrimp are hooked all around, with the tails left on. And why can't Lisa just buy a goddamn plastic platter and transfer the veggies onto her platter (WITH A LID, OF COURSE)? Are hand-prepared veggies any better, or are you just torturing her by demanding 2 or 3 hours of preparation time?

The proscuitto (Marney's not much of a speller) pin wheel is a real puzzler. What's a "pin wheel", anyway? It's one of dem-dere thangs you stick in the ground in yore yarrd, and it spins around whenever there's a breeze. Prosciutto is ham, ain't it? Either that, or a big round chunk of cheese. In any case, the "no need to bring a plate" rule is puzzling in light of Marney's fixation on the correct containers (with lids that fit!). Is Michelle supposed to balance it on her lap or spin it around in the air or something?

Marney must really hate the June Davis family. Peeling potatoes for 15 lbs. of mash would be something like KP duty in the army. Forrest Gump comes to mind. And that oversized blue serving dish. WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH IT? ANYWAY? Doesn't it have a goddamn lid or something? If someone's willing to peel 157 potatoes, they should be able to bring them in a plastic garbage pail (with a lid!) if they want to.

Now, Amy Misto is my favorite. I could get along with Amy. Note that while she is required to bring two pies (as she's supposedly too idiotic to do anything else), she is NOT required to bring a pie knife. That particular duty falls to The Michelle Bobble Family. Why is this? BECAUSE AMY MISTO IS A CRAZED PSYCHIATRIC PATIENT and she can't be trusted with knives!

But I'll tell you this right now. Someone in the family is going to make sure she gets her hands on that pie knife. Oh yeah! She will get her revenge for that dig about "why do I even bother she will never read this", not to mention the insistence she bring her pie in a pie dish (when the prosciutto pinwheel doesn't even need a plate!). This will teach her once and for all that there's no such thing as a "silver palate" (though there may well be a heart of stone).

Who does this Marney think she is? Anyway? And is anyone really looking forward to the 28th, except to see the attempted murder in the bedroom (in which Marney is caught in flagrante delicto dusting the furniture with HJB)?

I have just one more question. WHERE'S THE GODDAMN TURKEY?

A real turkey

The Thanksgiving Letter (This has been floating around. Sounds like the potluck from hell.)

From: Marney
As you all know a fabulous Thanksgiving Dinner does not make itself. I need to ask each of you to help by bringing something to complete the meal. I truly appreciate your offers to assist with the meal preparation.
Now, while I do have quite a sense of humor and joke around all the time, I COULD NOT BE MORE SERIOUS when I am providing you with your Thanksgiving instructions and orders. I am very particular, so please perform your task EXACTLY as I have requested and read your portion very carefully. If I ask you to bring your offering in a container that has a lid, bring your offering in a container WITH A LID, NOT ALUMINUM FOIL! If I ask you to bring a serving spoon for your dish, BRING A SERVING SPOON, NOT A SOUP SPOON! And please do not forget anything.
All food that is to be cooked should already be prepared, bring it hot and ready to serve, warm or room temp. These are your ONLY THREE options. Anything meant to be served cold should, of course, already be cold.
HJB—Dinner wine
The Mike Byron Family
1. Turnips in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. Please do not fill the casserole all the way up to the top, it gets too messy. I know this may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but most of us hate turnips so don’t feel like you a have to feed an army.
2. Two half gallons of ice cream, one must be VANILLA, I don’t care what the other one is. No store brands please. I did see an ad this morning for Hagan Daz Peppermint Bark Ice Cream, yum!! (no pressure here, though).
3. Toppings for the ice cream.
4. A case of bottled water, NOT gallons, any brand is ok.
The Bob Byron Family
1. Green beans or asparagus (not both) in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. If you are making the green beans, please prepare FOUR pounds, if you are making asparagus please prepare FIVE pounds. It is up to you how you wish to prepare them, no soupy sauces, no cheese (you know how Mike is), a light sprinkling of toasted nuts, or pancetta, or some EVOO would be a nice way to jazz them up.
2. A case of beer of your choice (I have Coors Light and Corona) or a bottle of clos du bois chardonnay (you will have to let me know which you will bring prior to 11/22).
The Lisa Byron Chesterford Family
1. Lisa as a married woman you are now required to contribute at the adult level. You can bring an hors d’ouvres. A few helpful hints/suggestions. Keep it very light, and non-filling, NO COCKTAIL SAUCE, no beans of any kind. I think your best bet would be a platter of fresh veggies and dip. Not a huge platter mind you (i.e., not the plastic platter from the supermarket).
The Michelle Bobble Family
1. Stuffing in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please make the stuffing sans meat.
2. 2.5-3 qts. of mashed squash in a casserole with a lid and serving spoon
3. Proscuitto pin wheel – please stick to the recipe, no need to bring a plate.
4. A pie knife
The June Davis Family
1. 15 LBS of mashed potatoes in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please do not use the over-size blue serving dish you used last year. Because you are making such a large batch you can do one of two things: put half the mash in a regulation size casserole with lid and put the other half in a plastic container and we can just replenish with that or use two regulation size casserole dishes with lids. Only one serving spoon is needed.
2. A bottle of clos du bois chardonnay
The Amy Misto Family (why do I even bother she will never read this)
1. A pumpkin pie in a pie dish (please use my silver palate recipe) no knife needed.
2. An apple pie in a pie dish, you can use your own recipe, no knife needed.
Looking forward to the 28th!!
I have a couple of questions:
1. How can you make a pie that's NOT in a pie dish?
2. What's EVOO?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I can Diggit!

OK THEN. It has taken me perhaps twelve years to figure out how to post a video to a blog. It might just be here, and be playable! But I think somehow the two videos I'm comparing ended up in two separate posts. Well, go blow it out your ass, all you perfectionistas!!!

Who knows what brought me back to memories of Diggah (i.e. Digger the Dog, dragged along by an adenoidal little kid with a thick Brooklyn accent). Maybe it was seeing a much more sophisticated ad for an almost identical product called Gaylord ("looks kinda crazy, moves kinda lazy"). In both cases, you just pull his leash and he'll walkety-walkety-walk with you (arf, arf!).

I'm going to do a whole post or series of posts on Mad Men soon, as soon as I can write about it without having an orgasm at my desk. I LOVE OLD ADS. I love them so much that I've somehow transferred that love to my six-year-old granddaughter. On the weekend, during our sleepover, we did a Chatty Cathy commercial (this time called Chatty Caitlin - you can imagine).

Grandpa filmed it, or tried to, saying things like, "The battery is wearing out," and, "OK, wind this up now. . . ten. . . nine. . ." Needless to say it was high hilarity. Grandma dressed up in a frilly nightie with a bow and Mary Janes to play an obnoxious little girl getting a doll for her seventh birthday. All the doll could say was "I HATE YOU!" At one point the hard plastic ring at the end of Chatty Caitlin's string bopped her on the head and she started to cry, and I yelled "CUT!!" into the camera and sent everyone into convulsions.

I can't exactly go back to the '60s, and when I really think about it I wonder why I would want to. I wasn't a happy child, and I'm only a semi-happy adult. But these things are time machines! The first Tiny Tears doll (can't find a video, but watched it on my 1001 Vintage Commercials DVD set) looked Satanic: her eyes were so close together she was practically a cyclops.

I wonder if anyone found her freaky then, or if anyone knew how bizarre Diggah the Dahhg or his chief rival Gaylord were: two plastic canine replicas, legs rotating rapidly (or at least in Diggah's case: Gaylord moved kinda lazy). I picture them now being turned out in the same factory, last-minute changes added to make them look at least a little bit different. Then jacking up the price tag on one of them, probably Gaylord, the more sophisticated faux hound, to start a plastic dog price war. Hey, Gaylord has special features and a pedigree (but Digger is cheaper, not to mention faster).

Which one was I, then, a Gaylord or a Digger? I have to confess, it was Gaylord who stole my heart. He had that magnetic bone and all, and could walkety-walkety-walk upstairs.


Gaylord: let's rename him, shall we?

Carrie Fisher: Romancing The Stoned

Shock and awe

I don't know, I just keep stumbling across things, and they're so interesting. So long as that keeps happening, I guess my brain will be alive, or relatively so.

Bopping around channels trying to find something remotely watchable last night, I fell into a Biography profile of Carrie Fisher. I watched it half-wincing and half-gawking: she has made of her life a sort of public freak show, a dramatic "look at me, world, I'm a courageous survivor," running parallel with a train wreck that is not always in slow motion.

Think of Carrie Fisher and you immediately think of her "iconic" (wince! wince!) role as Princess Leia (or however you spell it) in Star Wars. She was sweet and innocent then, but there was a wild look in her eyes: at times they were glazed, other times spinning like pinwheels.

She was more than an actress, which was probably a good thing during the long dry periods between roles. Her numerous novels, thinly-disguised memoirs with titles like Postcards from the Edge, The Best Awful, and Wishful Drinking, allowed her to write about her distorted life without really committing to the facts. "Oh, that's not really me, so it doesn't bother me," her Mom Debbie Reynolds breezily comments on the Biography show. Meaning, the devastating Shirley MacLaine portrait of her as a shrieking out-of-control drunk in the movie version just bounced right off her.

Oh, and the drugs. This is too complicated to take blow by blow (and I do mean blow). Early in her career she hooked up with Paul Simon, and they did a lot of drugs. Married a man who turned out to be gay. And did a lot of drugs.

And did drugs. And did drugs.

There were blurry allusions to something more murky going on, even between drug binges. I was jolted to see her interviewed on 20-20 some years ago, talking with great gusto and manic, glittering eyes about a massive psychotic episode she'd recently had, requiring hospitalization. She mentioned being on nine kinds of medication.

I have never seen anyone talk about a "breakdown" (a term I despise almost as much as "iconic") with such verve and even excitement. The drama obviously appealed to her. She talked about announcing to her friends that they were all going to have "a race to the end of my personality". It was grandiosity in the farthest extreme. Her eyes were glassy and her gestures almost violent. "I'm mentally ill!" she announced, like someone telling us she'd won the lottery.

But hey, she was well now, it was all OK (because these shows/articles always strain for the happy ending that the public demands). Eventually she popped up again doing a one-woman show which was also a (real, this time?) memoir.

Then, oops. It all got strange again.

In the present-day interviews on Biography, Carrie just looked weird, like a bag lady. She had gained maybe a hundred pounds and was wearing mismatched clothing, florals with garish plaids, and thick glitter on her eyelids. She looked like a drag queen with extremely poor taste.

She talked about having ECT (sometimes called "shock treatments") for an intractible depression, and raved about how well they had worked. I also dug up an article about how she had experienced profound memory loss and hated the way she looked, as if getting back your sanity was a tradeoff in which you lost great chunks of your identity.

Not a happy story, and it ain't over yet. There is still a raging debate over ECT, and those who are against it call it barbaric, a form of brain damage that should have been done away with decades ago along with insulin shock and ice baths.

The other day I posted about Janet Gotkin, a young writer who was ground into hamburger by the state hospital system in the '70s. Janet was subjected to numerous ECT treatments, and at one point personally requested them (which means they must have done some good). The story ends very strangely, with Janet taking a massive overdose of Mellaril which does not quite kill her. Somehow it reboots the computer of her brain and she is "cured", at which point she realizes she has been "fucked over" by the doctors, treated like a cipher and tortured by ineffective therapies. So she devotes the rest of her life to raging against the system.

I couldn't find anything more recent than 20 years ago, but by then Janet was raging again, this time about being an incest survivor, the diagnosis du jour of the early '90s.

I don't know if there's a point to all this. The vibrant but obnoxious and egocentric Carrie Fisher claims she has been "cured" by shock treatment, while at the same time looking and sounding like a badly-distorted version of herself. This isn't just ageing, it's something else.

Her speech is slowed down, and her eyes don't look normal (not that they ever have). Could it be that all the past drug abuse has caught up with her, and her brain has begun to fall in on itself? Why shock treatments, when there are gazillions of drugs out there to treat depression? Was it really depression, or an even more extreme episode of mania (which is always less socially-acceptable, especially for women)?

Carrie seems convinced that this worked for her and gave her her life back. Meanwhile we have the "anti" faction, no less convinced that ECT is a killer. The truth is that nobody really knows how it works. It's supposed to be less violent and intrusive in its present form, but you still wake up with a wet nightie and don't know where you are.

What part of you is humbled or subdued by this process, then: the nuts element, the raging craziness, the wild delusions? To put those down "once and for all", you have to be pretty forceful. One part of you has to be killed so that the rest of you might live. Or so the naysayers think.

Dick Cavett has also gone on the record to say that ECT saved his life. He was diagnosed with severe depression, but at a certain point in mid-life, that changed to bipolar disorder (as if it can take years, even decades, for the ravaging shark to really get hold of you). I don't know how many shock treatments he has had, or if he will need more. The brilliant writer William Styron described depression perhaps better than anyone in his memoir, Darkness Visible. But depression became his career, and he had to revisit the shock wards again and again before he died.

Don't tell me there's no cost to this.

Don't tell me there "might" be "temporary" memory loss.

This treatment has a price, potentially a very steep one. Worth it? I don't know.

Another thing occurs to me. (Oh, what a ragbag my brain is!) I saw an episode of House in which a man's memories had to be erased for some medical reason. So. . . they gave him ECT. Before doing so, there was a sad discussion in which the reluctant staff talked about the "cost" of the lifesaving process. "But his memories will be completely gone. How will that affect his identity?"

Finally they decided, fuck identity, we need to wind up this bummer of a show. They went ahead with the ECT, meanwhile putting out there in the culture yet another myth: that this treatment leaves you an emotional vegetable, your memory slate wiped completely clean.

Shades of Jack Nicholson.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where have all the survivors gone?

seem to be in some sort of book-excavation phase. Books from my past, books which had a strong effect on me one way or another, will pop back into my mind, and because this is the age of the Internet, I can easily buy them used on Amazon for maybe one cent. The rest is shipping and handling.

These include Pathfinders, Gone With the Wind, A Brilliant Madness, Bitter Fame, and others, except I can't remember them 'coz I haven't had my coffee yet.

It's surprising how much these books have changed. Formerly brilliant and impressive works have turned to dust, while others, mysteriously, hold up. My perception of Pathfinders by Gail Sheehy was colored by the fact that, after selling a gazillion copies of her books, she was touched by scandal: she was caught distorting facts, making the data fit the thesis, mainly through creating composites (a little of this person, a little of that person, all shaken and stirred together to create the perfect "character": except that this was supposed to be non-fiction!).

The one I just received from Amazon seems to have turned into a foreign body in the 25 years or so since I took it out of the library. It's a prolonged anti-psychiatric rant called Too Much Anger, Too Many Tears: A Personal Triumph over Psychiatry by Janet and Paul Gotkin.

Janet Gotkin was an unfortunate young woman whose chronic misery and instability dragged her into the labyrinth of the American psychiatric system in the 1970s, where she was institutionalized in a state hospital dredged from Ken Kesey's worst nightmare. She was given dozens and dozens of rounds of shock treatment, numerous mind-slugging drugs, and subjected to useless psychoanalysis by patronizing/patriarchal psychiatrists.

Yes, I believe all this. I can even tolerate, sort-of, the melodramatic and novelesque treatment. Opening the book at random, I find this little bit of conversation:

"Dr. Sternfeld was very busy; the trip from his office took over an hour. He called almost every day, though, the nurses told me.

"You're very lucky to have a doctor who cares so much about you," they said.

I nodded, as the lurching of anger and abandonment ballooned inside me."

This book ends in the most unlikely way: after yet another suicide attempt through swallowing pills, Janet wakes up from a coma, and her mental illness has vanished: "When I woke up from the coma, I was truly happy to find myself still alive. I felt like a person who was rising from her death bed. You can't imagine how beautiful everything looks to me. The smallest, simplest things, Even the noise and dirt of this city."

So, is a near-fatal overdose "the answer", or was Janet Gotkin truly a phoenix mysteriously rising from her own ashes and transcending the horror of years of mistreatment? It puzzles me. No one beats schizophrenia overnight, if she was schizophrenic to begin with. The book went beyond fiction: it was a movie script, with the fragile, pain-ridden heroine sitting up on her death-bed and triumphing at the end while the music swells.

OK, this is a very long and roundabout way to get to my thesis. There was an epilogue added to this "new" edition, and I was jolted, but not surprised, to find that it was an update by Janet Gotkin.

Apparently, she had never had another episode of mental illness: but, in the interim, she had made the gruesome discovery that she was an incest survivor.

In her typical purple prose, she describes the torrential return of long-repressed memory: "The memories come, and continue to come, curtains of secrecy ripped aside, decades of blindness swept away. With each new memory, with each moment in time brought an agonizing consciousness, I find myself nodding in appalled recognition. "Yes, that is how it was," I say, as tears stream across my cheeks."

I'm not saying Janet Gotkin is lying about all this. She seems to believe she has found the Rosetta stone for decoding her decades of pain through the miracle of recovered memory.

There's only one fly in the ointment. All this was written in 1991.

Ah, the early '90s, when incest memories were front-page news, when Ellen Bass and Laura Davis made millions with their incest Bible, The Courage to Heal, when scatty-looking women went on Phil Donahue to talk about "alters" and demonic cults.

From women's magazines plastered with sensational articles about sadistic Dads, Satanic ritual and multiple personality disorder, which supposedly ran rife, we now have exactly nothing. No one is writing a thing about it. Maybe that's because there were lawsuits, and a formidable juggernaut called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (suspiciously, headed up by a couple whose daughter had "falsely" accused her father of incest. The daughter, a psychologist by trade, wrote a scathing book debunking the entire false memory movement.)

Personally, I think the false memory brigade with its complete refutation of the incest canon did a lot to push this issue back into the closet. Sexual abuse, when we refer to it at all, is something that happened to altar boys 40 years ago in the Catholic church. The sanctity of the nuclear family has more or less been restored.

It's called "recanting", and an awful lot of women must have done it. As with Janet Gotkin, the whole thing looks mighty murky to me.

I've been reviewing books for 25 years, and I think I know when facts are being manipulated (see Sheehy, above). The Gotkins don't just create sympathy for poor Janet, they paint her as a sort of latter-day Joan of Arc, sacrificed on the altar of heartless and dehumanizing psychiatry. To muddy the waters even further, she sometimes begs for a form of treatment which she frankly believes is barbaric:
"I want shock treatments," she said.
"Shock treatments?"
"I've been thinking about it. I don't want to go through all those years of torture and agony again. If shock treatments can lift me out of this episode of anxiety, then. . . "
Oh brother.
But in spite of her bizarre complicity in all this torture, the author seems to need to come up with an explanation, however delayed, as to why she got so sick in the first place. In 1991, the most prevalent explanation for everything that went wrong with women was incest. From a murmuring, it gradually escalated into a monumental scream: j'accuse!

Predictably, this didn't go down so well with families. It was civil war in most cases, with lawsuits ripping the fabric apart, and survivors mostly losing. This was because it was nearly impossible to verify memories, and in most cases there was no evidence that would hold up in court. Many survivors had their victories overturned, and Daddy was let out, grinning and glad-handing, proving to the world that he "would never" do such a thing to his daughter or anyone else.
But it happened, this toxic flood. I was there, I saw it. Women with vivid imaginations, Gotkin types, were most susceptible. In her case, she already saw herself as a sacrificial lamb, nearly losing her life that others might live. So the same thing must have happened to her that nearly destroyed millions of others.

OK, then: explain this to me. Where have all the survivors gone? Why are there no more memoirs of abuse, no more articles about dark memories flooding back, or multiple personality, or Satanic ritual abuse? What the hell happened?

Maybe everyone got sick of it, sick of the impossibility of proving it in court, and decided to just pick up their lives again. I don't know. But it's interesting to me that Gotkin was one of the incest crowd. I know I sound cynical; I know I sound like I don't believe all these women (and shouldn't we always believe women, especially women wounded by the system?).
But the truth is infinitely more complicated than that. It isn't a matter of a clean polarity, of either "yes to all memories" or "no to all memories". The truth is, when it comes to the veracity of what we call recovered memory, nobody really knows.

How did I arrive at this huge and perhaps unresolvable psychological question mark? I too was one of the incest crowd, utterly convinced that I had been horribly abused by my father. I had all sorts of therapeutic support and sympathy as I moved through the excruciating ordeal of recovering traumatic memories. The main result was that my family of origin never spoke to me again.

I was never hypnotized or coerced, as some women were (some of whom sued their therapists after the fact). But like most writers, I have exceptionally long emotional antennae, and I will pick up whatever vibe is dominant at the time. This will inevitably set me vibrating like a tuning fork.

So what happened to me? I don't know. It must've been something, something awfully big. But I am convinced a lot of those specific memories were either distorted or unintentionally/unconsciously constructed by a mind desperate to make sense of a baffling, unbearable pain. Add to that the powerful template of what looked like a giant social movement, gruesome women's stories coming at me from every direction, and, well. . .

It took a long time, but eventually I got past it all and took up my life again. It hadn't been a particularly enlightening experience. I could have done without it. And the cost had been astronomical, like losing an arm. Being completely ostracized from one's family, forever, is not a pleasant experience. There is no going back. Even if I threw myself on the ground before them, which I will never do, I would always be seen as the "bad guy", the one who did irreparable damage to the family by accusing a completely innocent man of a heinous crime.
It was ugly. So ugly it nearly did me in.

"I still hurt a lot, but I know that I am healing, from the inside out, slowly but cleanly, wounds open to the light instead of festering in darkness," Gotkin writes in a style that is both eloquent and distressingly purple. What played well in the early '90s is wince-inducing 20 years on. But I remember that myth, promulgated in nearly every incest book I ever read: all this horror and pain would inevitably lead us to "healing", "wholeness", and a renewed joy in life. This would be great if it ever really happened, but I never once saw an example. Most of the survivors I knew were obsessed with their "issues" and never resolved them. They retreated into a sort of emotional twilight before disappearing altogether. The "healing" we had all sought with such desperation was as theoretical and as impossible to prove as the dusty, woman-hating theories of Sigmund Freud.

I wonder where Gotkin is now. Sometimes I wonder if she has had a relapse. When she speaks of the agony of recovering her memories, it makes your scalp crawl:

"I wanted to be crazy, to be sick, to be dead. I wanted to cut my wrists, take pills, jump off a dam, lie down on the railroad tracks as the train pulled out of Grand Central Station. Anything to blot out this knowledge. 'How could this be?' I asked myself, over and over, an incantation against evil."

Gotkin is a little vague about who in her family actually abused her, but one wonders what the fallout was. Published in a memoir as "fact", these are immensely powerful allegations, and they aren't backed up by anything solid. Back then, memories were enough: for a while. Then the whole thing went haywire. It sputtered, spun around a few times, and disappeared.

The anti-psychiatry movement has been around for a long time, and it would have us believe that there are no good psychiatrists, no good drugs, no good therapy at all. In truth, I believe that human beings grope around, sometimes (though not always) with good intention, to try to help people whose brains have sprung like a tightly-wound coil. I can't believe all psychiatrists are sadists or patriarchal misogynists. Some of them are women, for God's sake (though my own experience tells me that female psychiatrists can be the worst oppressors of all).

The truth is, we don't understand mental illness very well because the brain is an exceedingly complex organ, an organ which must try to understand itself. We use our brain to understand our brain. Luckily our spleens don't have to do that. Genetics, environment, personality, family history, and (yes!) abuse all play vital roles in how a person's brain develops.

OK, here's the theory of the day. (It's my blog, and I'll theorize if I want to.) I think some people are born with a vulnerability for mental illness entwisted into their DNA, but if they are nurtured in a home which is loving and supportive, they may just escape the horror and turn into artists or opera singers or Steven Spielberg. But here's the problem. If you're born with a genetic predisposition, it's likely that those around you (especially your parents) also have this predisposition, which may be manifested in its full-blown form. So how do they know how to love and nurture an unusually sensitive, emotionally vulnerable child? Will they have the psychological supplies, when their illness already takes up so much space that it's more like a space-and-a-half?

Mental illness is so hated, dreaded, and abhorred in this culture that it spawns considerable self-hatred in those who endure it. This doesn't help in treatment, because it leads to some pretty powerful self-defeating behaviour. Often, addictions and other compulsive behaviours get tangled into the mix, making recovery difficult, if not impossible. I'm not blaming the victim here, just stating something that somehow never gets stated. Like Janet begging for shock treatments, a person with mental illness can be her own worst enemy. To get better, significantly better, you simply have to get on your own side.

I am tired now. This post is probably not very well-organized, but it's not an essay, just some thoughts, thoughts deeply distilled over many, many years. This is a monster topic for me, because it affected me so dramatically 20 years ago. Where are all the women who told their hair-raising stories in The Courage to Heal? Whither the survivors? What are their lives like today?

I can't say. I can only put one foot in front of the other.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Up north

My mother had a funny way of saying things

she'd pronounce them a little off,

and when she'd start talking about "going up north"

we knew she meant "up at Bondy"

her name for our paradise.

I don't know if the perceptions of children are
compressed because of their short time on earth,
or infinitely vast, as yet unimpeded by "you can't" and "don't".

"Up at Bondy" meant Nancy and Brian
and a couple of weeks of unlimited freedom
and running around in our bathing suits
jumping off the dock

the magic of July nights
of bullfrogs booming like bassoons

of lying face-up on the swell of the hill
and staring at stars ripped free of all veils,
with the eerie music of loon-flutes quivering.

I can't tell you about the smell of small-mouth bass
in a pail, fishy and sandy
and fried up in butter
and heady smells of bacon
and burnt coffee
and the perpetual barbecue.
Great slabs of meat, porterhouse steaks
and kippers for breakfast
I don't remember eating anything else
but potato chips and brandy snaps.

Bondi was playing horses with Nancy
(we wanted a horse so bad we could die)
we knew it would never happen
so we would BE horses
prance like wild things on the ridge,

not knowing we'd never
be this carefree again

I can't express a summer in my mind,
the smell of lakewater, Noxzema cream
on burnt skin,
and a Camelot built from wet sand.
I can't express a memory
of a red bathing suit
and a baby kingbird
somehow, impossibly sitting
on my outstretched hand

like some Bondi falcon.

I learned lore from Nancy
whose grandfather was an opera singer
and when it rained, we'd
climb up the shelves of the linen closet
into a hole, an attic trove
of old things, dusty costumes
and dried-out makeup kits
from Gilbert and Sullivan productions

a gramophone you had to crank
and impossibly old records:
Keep the Home Fires Burning
My Little Grey Home in the West
(and our favorite)
A Cornfield Medley
which was shockingly racist:
"Some folks say dat a nigger don't steal. . . "
We saw that the record
thick like a slab of slate
had grooves on only one side
No one had thought to record on the other side
and I was later to learn it was made
in the 1800s

when sound in a bottle was still a miracle.

The two weeks "up at Bondy" blew by too fast
Nancy and Brian went back to being
the owner's kids,
and even on this day they own it,
still own Bondi:

it exists in an unchanged form
that seems like time suspended.

Humans hang on to Paradise, to a
place or state of mind eternal
as if it represents the ultimate reward,
finally, finally letting down the burden
of constant change.

I would go back to Bondi,
I will go back to Bondi,
and I know I will find it pristine,
with a few things added, a horse arena here,
an indoor swimming pool there,
so people don't need to rely on the weather;
Nancy and Brian still live there, but they
aren't the Nancy and Brian of old,

nor can they be,

any more than I am that child who dreamed
she was a ridge runner

and held a bird in her hand.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rocky, run

Like almost every girl I knew, I longed for a horse of my own. I'd read all the Marguerite Henry stories, Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, and Walter Farley and Black Beauty, so I knew I understood them.
But I also knew I stood a fat chance of actually getting one: they cost too much money, my Dad kept saying; we'd have to board him; I'd never really had riding lessons and couldn't handle much more than an easy tourist trail.
All true.
So what was it that changed his mind? His business rival bought a horse for HIS daughter, and suddenly the race was on to find a tonier, more expensive
How I ended up with Rocky (who was neigh-ther) was this. Dad got me a very beautiful but semi-wild two-year-old palomino mare named Pot 'o Gold. I discovered the first time I tried to ride her that she hated anyone getting on her back. When I put my foot in the stirrup, she took off.
Dad thought this was my fault. He had the vendor's daughter work with me, but the thing is, she was much more experienced, practically a trick rider, able to achieve a flying vault, catching Goldie just before her hindquarters faded off into
the sunset.
Finally we had to admit defeat. I couldn't have a horse. I was desolate. I kept nagging and whining and saying we could buy a better horse, a tamer horse. A horse I could handle, a horse I knew personally! Suddenly the light bulb went off over my
At the Lazy J Ranch, where I spent most of my Saturdays riding the trails and helping the staff groom and muck out, I had a favorite, a strawberry roan named Rocky. I couldn't say exactly why I liked him so much: he wasn't much to look at, a bit stocky, Shetland pony genes poking through the one-quarter Quarter Horse of his
Maybe because he was a rent-a-horse ridden by dozens of non-riders a day, he was stubborn. He did weird things. He pawed at streams until the water flew. He also pawed at mud.
He had a ridiculous whinny, sort of a show-off whinny, and when I chased him around the pasture with a bridle, he arched his neck and did a ridiculous takeoff of a show horse high-step. Just to annoy me, he pretended to spook at harmless things like gum wrappers.
He had a rubbery pink-and-grey nose, perfect for kissing. He was a shade over 14 hands, small enough for me to just hop on.
"I want Rocky," I told my Dad.
"You want Rocky? Can't we do better than that?"
"No. I'm used to him. He knows me."
My Dad was naive enough to offer the same amount for Rocky that he had paid for
Goldie. Horses were horses, weren't they?
It was the beginning of several years of idyllic moseying along beside the railroad tracks (and I have no idea how we handled the trains). Of picnic lunches in the fragrant grass, my girlfriend Shawne sitting behind me and hanging on tight as we bumped along.
Time stopped when I was with Rocky. I groomed his white-mottled red coat until it (sort-of) shone. I cleaned his feet with a hoof pick, tenderly removing stones. I would have braided his mane, but someone at the stable kept shaving it off so he looked like a merry-go-round horse.
There were a couple of hair-raising episodes with Rocky that were at odds with his implacable reputation. Once in a while in the summer I rode him the two miles or so from the stable where we boarded him (along with a bunch of tall Standardbred race horses: he became the stable mascot) to my house on a quiet street in
Neighbors were a little disconcerted by the sight of a horse on their street. Silverwood Dairies had stopped delivering milk by horse and wagon several years earlier; what was this nag doing on the street, leaving great steaming deposits to step over?
It was grand to promenade the street like that. Once I even took him to my high school, and he was an instant hit. It was the one time I felt popular.
Anyway, this particular time, he seemed to be perfectly content in our back yard mowing the lawn while my dog sniffed around his heels and (disgustingly) ate some of his poo.
As we had dinner, with the usual genteel classical music playing in the background, I suddenly heard a sound like coconuts being hit together. Buddle-up, buddle-up. We saw a reddish blur out the window.

My mother exclaimed, "Oh dear Lord, it's the horse."

Rocky had somehow broken free, and was high-tailing it back to the barn. Literally! His tail was held as high as an Arabian's, his head thrown back
We jumped in the car in a panic, trying to stop him or at least get him to slow down. He was galloping flat-out in the exact centre of the road, getting more and more lathered. My Dad tried frantically to swerve him over to the shoulder so he wouldn't be hit.
When he saw the big barn full of Standardbreds, he immediately checked his pace. Threw up his massive head and let go with one of those ridiculous whinnies. Then trotted elegantly through the gate.
The other episode is not so funny, one of those things that ended well, but only just. I had a bad habit of riding Rocky in unusual places (railroad tracks?). One afternoon we clopped our way through a cow pasture where a gorgeous Jersey named Bambi lived. The mud was maybe an inch or two deep, no
big deal.
Then - I will never forget this, a feeling like an elevator dropping away beneath me. My horse slid down into an invisible bog, and was instantly mired up to his belly. I had no idea what to do but hold on as he bucked and heaved, trying to pull himself
I wondered if I should try to get off, try to get help, get a rope or something, but no, Rocky insisted on lurching ever more violently to free himself. My heart was in my throat. I was sure he'd break his leg and have to be put to sleep.
Then, with a great shuddering heave and a sucking sound such as you've never heard, he was out. We both stood there trembling. He had his head down and I gasped with fear, wondering how he could have come through such a thing
Then, beginning at his nose, he began to shake himself, the great wave travelling from his head to his shoulders to his whole body to his tail. He must have taken shaking lessons from a wet dog. Remarkably, he seemed to be OK, though coated with glistening brown as if he had been dipped in chocolate.
I carefully hosed him down, though it took an hour, since he stopped me several times to shake everything off. I was so proud of him, so relieved, and my, didn't he look handsome, all wet, his sorrel coat glistening in the summer
Feeling that a reward was due, I turned him loose in the pasture. He walked around with his nose to the ground until he found a suitable patch of mud.
Carefully lowered himself down.
And rolled until he was so upholstered that I could barely tell he was a horse at all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My love, she's like some raven

When I first moved to the Vancouver area, I liked to explore the maze of trails that began right outside my door. Witnessing the salmon spawning in a creek where high school kids threw stones at them was awesome enough. But then there were those birds.

I couldn't see them at first, and to be aware of them at all, I had to go off-road, so to speak, on to a trail that wasn't very well-developed. Hell, not developed at all. After a few hundred yards of firm-packed gravel, the ground began to give way under my feet.

It was spongy, and every so often a tiny trickle crossed the path, an actual stream making its way from who-knows-where to who-knows-where.

As the forest grew more dense, it gradually got darker: Bob Dylan's "darkness at the break of noon". There were strange sounds, ominous. Creeeeeeeak, creeeeeeeak.
Creeeeeeeeak, creeeeeeeak.
It took me a while to realize that some of these old trees seemed as if they were about to give way.

I felt disoriented, not sure how I had got here. I expected to see a giant bear rearing up at me, something out of an ancient fairy tale. (Since then, bears have become much more aggressive, and confronting one in the woods is common.) I realized how Hansel and Gretel must have felt, or Little Red Riding Hood, ancient stories based on one of humanity`s worst fears: getting lost in the wild.

Then I heard it, or it came to my senses: Awwwwwk. Awwwwwwk. Awwwwwwk. Awwwwwk.


I saw something flash overhead, something dark, a shiny black, almost iridescent, but couldn't tell what it was. A bat? I hate bats, fear and loathe them almost more than anything. I'd rather encounter a scorpion.


Then a conversation. Aukkkk! Aukaukaukaukauk. AUWWKKH! Aw. Aw. Aw. Aw. Awwwwwwk.

These were not crows, or if they were, they were Supercrows. Finally I got a good look at one when it perched on a high branch for a second. I thought to myself: it's Poe's nightmare, his embodiment of evil and dread. Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary. . .

This creature was nearly as big as a chicken, with a spiky-looking ruff around its neck. Its bill was very long and pointed. It had an air of owning the place, of owning the whole forest. It was almost supernaturally shiny, so black it was blue, making me think of "raven-haired beauties" with dead-white skin, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty brought back to life.

My feet were sinking,and suddenly I was surrounded by evil-looking skunk cabbage that might have hosted trolls. I backed away slowly, step by frightened step, then turned and ran, every hair on my entire body standing on end.

Since then I have come to worship the auk-aukh as a kind of holy visitation. I even bought a stuffed animal of a raven made by the Audubon Society, which when gently squeezed emits the call of a live raven. I don't squeeze it when the grandkids are around.

But soft: what's this on the news? A white raven: how can it be? I`ve heard of Spirit Bears, of weird albino speciments popping up randomly, strangely, genetic mutations that never reproduce themselves. But the white ravens spotted on Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, seem to be forming a sort of coven.

Like the Hapsburgs I wrote about a few posts ago, it doesn`t seem possible they could mate, could actually produce issue. Their genes would be all scrambled, and they would somehow end up genetically backwards, married to themselves. But a raven, once it gets an idea into its sly avian head, can do just about anything it wants.

I own a bird, Jasper the lovebird, sweet and dependent, but once in a while he turns feisty and furious, throws a birdie tantrum, tears his cage apart. There is a theory that the dinosaurs didn`t disappear, but instead gradually evolved into birds. In case that seems far-fetched, just look at their scaly little feet, stare into that round black reptilian eye, and the theory begins to make sense.

A black harbinger of death, an aukkh aukkh in the woods, can suddenly turn even more eerie, can scare the living shit out of us by turning pure white. Some believe this is an omen for the end of the world. Others think it will magically bring humanity together.

When I go into the woods today, I'd better not go alone. I don't want to see one of these things, their feather shafts pink, their wings transparent, their eyes an eerie shade of blue. It`s just not natural.

It makes me wonder what Poe would think of the whole thing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What do you want, anyway?

I have a friend - OK, he's a psychiatrist and probably doesn't know anything - who keeps asking me questions about the writing biz.
"Margaret," he intones (he looks a bit like Pee Wee Herman, in a neat grey suit and with equally strange diction), "if you've been published before, twice, and had almost universally good reviews, why don't you just take your most recent novel and hand it to your publisher and say, here, publish it?"
Why? Because after a couple of years, publishers in general don't know me from Adam.
I don't know exactly how, but I realized today that it happens to the best of us. I know a writer who wrote a novel years ago that was not only good, but great. It bordered on classic, and everyone predicted a brilliant career for her. She was shortlisted for international awards, much feted and touted as a sure thing.
It didn't happen.
Why didn't it happen? Because the writing biz is the most frustrating game in town. There are no rules except "know the right people", and "don't ever say you need to know the right people because it's a LIE, dammit!" (and you shouldn't say such an uncomplimentary thing, even if it is true).
Success is flukey. Some novels do well, but I've been a reviewer for 25 years and have reviewed some 350 books, and I can tell you right now that many of them are weak, too similar to be really noteworthy. They fit the mold, for sure, but they don't turn me on.
Every once in a while, a flukey book makes it (though not necessarily the author). Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts blew me away, because it was impossible to describe, involving three-dimensional sharks made of text suspended
in mid-air in dusty old
Then there's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Chalk this up to impossible: it's a semi-documentary bio about the life of dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, complete with tiny fly-speck footnotes (footnotes?? Who can get away with footnotes except the hopelessly backward Victorian physician Oliver Sacks, who still uses a manual
Aligned with this, entwined with this, is a passionate love story about hot-blooded Latina women and the saga of Oscar Wao, a nerdy overweight teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunch box.
The rest of them, well. . . that's why I stopped reviewing. They seemed to be what the industry was after - or not? Will we ever hear from Junot Diaz again, or will his next book be rushed into print and fall as flat as
Forrest Gump II?
I realize I risk ostracism just by daring to say anything negative about publishing. It jabs me whenever someone says, "Well, Margaret - when's your next book coming out?"

Like a lot of writers, I believe I have lots of good material that needs to be published. I have just completed a novel about the life and hot-blooded loves of silent screen legend Harold Lloyd (the "man on the clock" hanging 20 stories above the Model Ts swarming below). This novel has legs, and I know it. It has the potential to go all the way.
But it won't, because dozens of people will brush it off before I go into a depression, a depression I shouldn't have because it looks untidy and
obviously demonstrates that I can't stand the heat.
People say to me, "It must be possible to succeed. Look at Stephen King. Look at J. K. Rowling." No one knows that most writers reside at the bottom of a vast pyramid with only one or two writers (see above) at the top.
"Why don't you just ask other writers for tips on getting published? You know, have them read your stuff and make helpful comments."
It's like a politician saying to the opposition, "Hey, listen, I have all sorts of tips on how to get elected. Here!". The idea of writers reading each other's manuscripts hangs around, ludicrous as it is: even if it made sense, which it doesn't, we don't have TIME to do that, because we are busy writing
our own.
The only thing worse is when, after a reading or other literary event, someone comes slinking up to you with a damp manuscript quivering in their hand. "Would you. . . you know. . . "
"Would I - "
"Would you mind, you know?"

They don't even have to say what they want.
I have to tell them, "Sorry, I have so many commitments right now that I just can't do it, but best of luck."

"But how will I get it published?"
Here comes the hidden agenda. They don't want you to read their manuscript - they want you to GET IT PUBLISHED FOR THEM, to hand it to your publisher and say something like, "This is the best thing I've ever read, a sure-fire best seller. Publish it instead of my book, I don't need the publicity any more."
Why can't this business be run like a business? Why must I still print out and snail-mail a 10-lb. manuscript to publishers, spending $15 or so, instead of e-mailing it and having them print it out (as if they don't have the money or time: hey, it's their business to scout out talent, isn't it?).
If anybody's reading this, which I doubt, be aware that I'm not taking pot-shots randomly or for fun. I have some real grievances, frustrations that nearly finished me. I also have some very good material which is entirely worthy of publishing. It weighs heavily on me, like a foetus that will soon
die and turn to stone.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Ballad of Murphy G.

Inspired by a friend of mine, who enjoys writing doggerel, here's some catterel about an old friend who passed at the grand age of 17.


I sing of Murphy, glad and proud
Whose meow could be so very loud.
Who loafed and purred in majesty
And honed his claws upon a tree.
When squirrels he saw, he meowed so strong
It sounded like a tiger’s song.
And dragonflies would hurry south
When Murphy caught them in his mouth.

White bib and mitties Murphy had,
And white tufts on his tootie-pads.
His weight in pounds we will not tell,
But as time passed, his tum-tum swelled.
His pads weren’t black, nor brown, nor green,
But the nicest pink you’ve ever seen.
His claws gave him the power and might
To thrash his pig both day and night.

He hated that black cat next door,
And in the yard they had a war.
Murphy chased him for three feet,
And black cat went home in defeat.
Up walls he ran when flashlights blinked,
And on his pants the fur was kinked.
He leaped on counters of great height
For doughnuts coated all in white.

But one sad day, the angels came,
And called our kitty by his name.
“Yes! I’ll come,” brave Murphy said,
“As long as I am amply fed.
I must have tuna every day,
And salmon in the month of May.”
”Good grief,” the God of Cats replied,
“I think the food I’d better hide.”
Yes, one sad day, the angels came
And home will never be the same.
The kitty box has disappeared.
The clean floors look and smell so weird.
And though his clumps we will not miss,
Nor puddles of disgusting piss,
Our Murph on furry wings will fly
To that Great Litter-box in the sky.