Monday, August 13, 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On the first glimpse of my a book

Just two days ago I got a sample of what the designer of my book has come up with for the interior pages. I don't think I have ever been quicker to open a PDF, and I think I emitted a little gasp when I saw what she'd come up with: it's gorgeous. Elegant, dignified, crisp. I've never met or even spoken to the book designer, but it's as if she crawled inside my head and was able to see what I -- lacking as I am in any artistic skill or visual vocabulary -- wanted all along. It's just so very pretty, and I think that is so reflective of what I'm trying to get at in The Little Book of Heartbreak: that there is beauty in loneliness and even disappointment.

Like any first-time writer (or so I expect), seeing my words -- mine! -- laid out in book format for the first time was, well, pretty damned magical. It made me feel real. Sure, for years I've made my living writing, but only in the past months have I really felt like a writer I always wanted to be: disciplined, hardworking, creative, and very, very determined. Seeing that person, that work, "made real" by design fills my lungs up, makes me stand straighter, more sure when speaking. It feels that transformative.

And then, there's the writing. All along in this process, I've fussed that I simply didn't have the time to craft the book in the way that I wanted to. I started writing in September, and I finished in March, which means I wrote a 240-page book in seven months. That was terrifying. I was working so fast I had no perspective, all I could think was, "this has got to be utter shit." But now, seeing at least some of my writing laid out in book format, not having read it in a few weeks, I gave a sigh of relief. It's really just fine, and there are turns of phrase that I'm even quite proud of. Most importantly, it reads like me, and the content reflects who I am: random, curious, a bit off-beat. It's eclectic, just the way I wanted it to be. Seeing it now, I can rest assured that no other book out there wanders from ancient Greek love magic to inter-racial love in early 19th century India to Morrissey. The Little Book of Heartbreak is an oddball, just like me.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On the PMB (post-manuscript blues)

I feel it like the rumble of the subway when you're up on the street. Faint but there, familiar yet disorienting. It's been about two weeks since I turned in my book manuscript, and while you'd think I'd be high-fiving the world at this point, I'm not. The fact is I feel a little blue and adrift. Not the deep dark blues, the ones that are nearly black by any means, but enough to find myself sighing more. Sure, there are things to be done other than writing 6, 8, 10 hours a day. Mowing the lawn, finally washing the handwashables, potting the plumeria clippings I got in Hawaii, doing a few minor consulting projects. Or reading 6, 8, 10 hours a day (I've plowed through the Hunger Games Trilogy, most of Emma Donahue's "Room", some of "Death Comes to Pemberley" and surely a few other things I'm not thinking of). But I don't feel quite like myself, or the self I've been since last August, at any rate. I feel a little more like this:
Me. Today. And yesterday.
Whaaaarooo. (That's me making a whale sound into the abyss.) I'm not myself without a project.

It used to be that I'd ask myself, "Am I only going to be happy once I have a family?" Now that I have a family, is the chronic question going to be, "Am I only happy when I'm writing a book?" 

I do have an idea for my next book, but it's fiction -- historical fiction, set in England in the first half of the 19th century. About a woman who feels pretty "whaaarooo" herself.

I guess I had better get going on that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Tale of Two Bears: Charlie Brown and Eon

A few months ago, my son Henry grew attached to a cute mustard brown teddy bear a cousin had given him when he was an infant. It must have been just after Christmas that he discovered this particular bear because he named him -- presumably not getting his own pun because he's only three years old -- "Charlie Brown." (CB's Christmas Special being the only holiday tv show Hen would have anything to do with.) While I wouldn't say that Henry and Charlie Brown were attached at the hip, they were snuggle buddies at nap time at school, often at bed time, sometimes in the car -- not so much as BFF's as, well, FWB's (friends with benefits!).
Charlie Brown (center) is now a surfer on Kauai.

Then last week we were visiting family in Hawaii and the unthinkable happened: I realized on the way to the airport that we hadn't seen Charlie Brown in two days. He appears to have vanished into thin air (or taken up surfing); I have no idea where we lost him, only that he is gone.

Now the good news is that Henry appears to be unfazed. Sure, he's asked for Charlie Brown a few times, and we've replied that Charlie Brown seems to have taken a longer vacation in Hawaii than we did, but it hasn't turned into some huge loss drama of the type that you think will scar your child for life.

But the bad news is that I'm devastated.

Yes, I feel like the worst parent ever (apparently this is common amongst parents who lose or otherwise ruin their children's stuffed animals), and yes, I scoured the Internet trying to find the same bear (no luck. Charlie Brown was in fact a Disney Pooh bear who has since been wiped off the face of the earth. and yes, I know how odd it seems that anything ever licensed and sold by Disney could ever truly disappear).

But part of my devastation lies in the fact that the loss of Charlie Brown has stirred memories of another lost bear. His name was Eon, he was a lovely plush polar bear with an upturned nose, and a friend got him for me at the National Zoo in about 1985. Well into my adulthood, Eon was in my life. No, I didn't sleep with him (I actually have a thing against adults and stuffed animals), but he was generally around and was in fine shape thanks to occasional dry cleaning. In the back of my mind I thought maybe my progeny would enjoy Eon, how great it would be for my cute toddler to hug a bear I'd lugged around for years.

But the years wore on, and on. I turned 30, 35, 40, and breakups, not children, appeared to be the defining feature of my life. I don't remember when it happened, but finally, in a fit of cynicism and likely after being dumped, I did the unthinkable: I threw Eon away. Tossed him a wicker waste basket (a sort of purgatory which in retrospect I wish I'd had second thoughts about and retrieved him), an act that then meant finalizing the dismissal by putting him in a garbage bag and throwing him in a dumpster. I didn't even think of donating him, I was that bitter, and that hopeless. That determined to purge my life of reminders of the hope of having a family. Subsequently, I think I even forgot about poor, loyal ole Eon.

And then at age 41 I met my husband, and then when I was 42 we had Henry. And then, of course, I remembered Eon, who is no doubt deep in a landfill, and if ever there's an object I have deep regrets about disposing of, it's him. I honestly can't believe I was that heartless. 

But I can believe I was that angry. Years of disappointment in my love life and the evil reality that one's ovaries age more quickly than the rest of one does wore me down to a nub of pure anger. It was a primitive state, and oh how I wish I'd had a little more perspective, a little more hope, a little more of that elusive thing called faith. Oddly, casual as I was about Eon, he was important. He was a beacon, and I didn't even know it. 

But if he were here, and Charlie Brown too, I'm pretty sure they'd be great friends, and they'd have a message for women in their late thirties or early forties who are where I was then: Have hope. Much as you may be tempted, don't ever throw away your Eon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Do people outgrow vulnerability to heartbreak?

So, here's a question for you: do people outgrow their vulnerability to romantic heartbreak? Can it strike at any time in one's life, or is it something that experience and shifting priorities defangs?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question, which is why I'm posing it.

Many psychologists who study "social pain" -- social rejection -- think that it exists to teach us lessons. The pain itself shares the same neurological pathways as physical pain, probably because both force us to focus on the situation and defend ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: for our ancestors, exclusion, rejection, or being alone could mean certain death on the savannah where saber-toothed tigers lurked in the brush. Any kind of pain alerts us to the dangers of being alone. Indeed, any pain, whether it is the crushing sensation in one's chest over the loss of someone you love or the sting of a paper cut alerts to the fact that in the end, we die alone. (And yes, I know that's dramatic...)

But if we unpack the line of thinking that pain teaches us important lessons, we arrive at two very different places:

1) that the lessons we need to learn are infinite, and we are forever vulnerable to the lessons we've not yet learned; or

2) that each of us has our own, private, and limited catalog of tailor-made lessons that reflects who we are as individuals;

If the lessons we need to learn are infinite, then in theory we are always vulnerable to heartbreak, and each romantic liaison potentially offers us a new risk of pain, a new lesson to be learned. But if each of us has our own set of lessons, then in theory once we master them, we're forever stronger.

Or is it simpler than that, and we simply reach a point in our lives where, as one song writer put it, we "haven't got time for the pain"? Fine enough to wallow in the pain of heartbreak when you're twenty-something, or thirty-something, and hanging out in your plaid pj's and listening to Aimee Mann and OD'ing on Haagen Daz and chardonnay doesn't really effect anyone else, but it's a different kettle of fish when you have kids to feed, entertain, and quite simply be healthy for? In a strange way, do our children armor us against romantic heartbreak? Are are our priorities so dramatically shifted by having children that our brains are rewired so that we don't collapse from the pain of romantic heartbreak?

This is not to say that someone who, say, goes through a devastating divorce and has children experiences heartbreak -- they do. I'm just wondering if it's a slightly different brand of heartbreak from the kind one experiences earlier in life.  

Or is it that you go through it enough times and it becomes such familiar turf that you don't have to spend so much time and energy on it? Yeah, you might feel like shit for a few days, but it's not the all-encompassing devastation of say, getting dumped by the love of your life when you're 25. Put another way, maybe heartbreak gets maxed out: everyone gets 3 to 5 heartbreaks, and after that, wearing your broken heart on your sleeve is just plain undignified. What kind of 50-year-old who just got dumped licks their wounds for months on end?

Please feel free to comment or email me privately if you have thoughts on this. I could really use some other brains on this...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Andy Whitfield and My Primacy Effect

Today, the bit of entertainment news that I've been dreading for a year: Andy Whitfield, star of the series Spartacus, died yesterday. He was 39, he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and damn, he was one of the few men on screen to really light my fire.

Sure, as Spartacus he was not just chiseled but principled; but I now know that for me, what really got me going was that Andy Whitfield -- specifically the two-and-a-half to three inches of his face including and framing his ever-so-slightly hooded, wideset grey blue eyes, his unmanscaped brows -- triggered in me was what's known among social psychologists as "the primacy effect." Just that slice of Andy Whitfield's face reminded me of the first man I ever loved and was loved by, of the first time in my life where passion and safety co-existed.

When I see an image of Andy Whitfield, I see someone else, I am somewhere else: on Ocean Beach together at dusk marveling over the miracle of falling in love, waiting for him to roll up his sleeve as he did every time he held my hand, the way he carefully wiped his shoes on the doormat. Time travel in the face of a stranger, if for an instant.

Thank the primacy effect for how vividly you remember your first kiss, your first heartbreak, your first sighting of your college roommate's shoes, your first taste of beer. First experiences sear our brains unlike any subsequent ones -- the intensity of the emotion and the novelty form "flashbulb memories" that will light our way until our deathbeds.

Strangely, I had a dream about this man from my past last night, probably just hours after Andy Whitfield -- let's face it, a stranger -- died, but many hours before I read that he had died. And it was a sad dream -- one in which I felt helpless, worried, and nostalgic.

I'm no mystic, but I wonder what to do with that sliver of coincidence, if one can even call it that. It's as if a perfect stranger, on his way to the great beyond, stopped by to say, "This is the last dream." This particular primacy effect of mine, the trigger linking one face to another's, a TV screen to some of the most meaningful moments of my life -- will now forever be overlaid with sadness that such a talented stranger, who by all accounts was a lovely person as well, died too young.

Goodbye, Andy Whitfield.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hot nun poem

I put your letter under my left breast -- 
They say that's nearest the heart
At last, weary, I tried to get to sleep
But love that has been wakened knows no night...
I lay asleep -- no, sleepless -- because the page you wrote 
Though lying on my breast, has set my womb on fire.

-- Constance of Angers (a nun) to Baudri of Borgueil (a monk who some theorize was gay)