July 4, 2012 Leave a comment
Protagonists at large
May 13, 2012 1 Comment
I am the Queen of Cheap Rent, but on Friday I’m buying a house. Because I want to. Because I can. Because, I realized recently, I’ve moved every one or two years (sometimes more than once a year) for the last fourteen years.
This isn’t a new impulse–over the years there were times when I wanted a house, or could have purchased one. But those impulses were usually driven by my dissatisfaction with a crappy apartment, and I was always somewhere I knew I would leave, or wanted to leave. Now I’ve found a place where I’m comfortable, not too far from my family, and can see the building blocks of a happy life in reach. So I am packing up my things, and next Monday movers will come to carry my belongings out of my little apartment in the sky. As I pack, I’m thinking about all the places I lived before.
I probably don’t remember the name because I’ve blocked it out. I chose my college because I didn’t want too big of a bill, but I didn’t want to be close enough that I had to live at home. After moving all my things into the room, my parents were about to get in the van and drive home when my Mom grabbed me and howled. “Rachel!” She sobbed into my shoulder until I pushed her into the van, amused at her emotional breakdown. Didn’t she know what this day signified? That I was standing on the brink of the rest of my life, and the rest of my life was awesome?
I shared my room with a sophomore who informed me she’d had two roommates the prior year, then had the room to herself for months. That should have been my red flag, but I was naive. This girl showered once a week, every Saturday night, then worked an eight-hour shift at Taco Bell on Sunday. She watched TV constantly, and even watched videotaped shows on VHS during commercial breaks of shows she watched live. When I moved out on Halloween weekend, it felt like I’d been there for eternity. In the fresh air of my new room, all my stuff smelled. I spent the afternoon in the laundry room washing the stench out of my comforter and all my clothes.
This was right across the street. The rooms were smaller, the food was better, and almost everyone was a freshman. I had chosen my new roommate based on the fact that she smiled and talked and the room was clean and charmingly decorated. Red flag #2: if someone says “I’m a nice person,” they’re not. I spent the rest of the year living an episode of Gossip Girl against my will.
This was a house owned by the Catholic church on campus. After the first year of college, I was more than ready to move home and go to a commuter school, but my parents convinced me to try this out. I had plenty of space and nice roommates. We were the last set of girls to live in the house, because, according to the pastor of the church, “Girls are too much trouble.” Thus I can thank the Catholic Church for simultaneously saving my undergraduate education and reducing me and my friends to a problem to be brushed aside and forgotten.
Junior year I lived with a couple of my Antioch House roomies in an apartment. I volunteered to take the room with the washer and dryer in order to save on rent, and insisted that I didn’t mind it at all. I was awakened by a squeaking bed in the apartment above precisely at 9am every Saturday and 11pm every Wednesday, in addition to unscheduled episodes throughout the week. A friend from class came over to hang out one Friday night and looked up in horror when the squeaking commenced. “What is that?” she asked. “Oh, that’s just my neighbor on her exercise trampoline.” I’d made up a little story to tell myself so I wouldn’t go completely insane from listening to these people boink like bunnies. Finally, one Saturday morning in March, I’d had it. I rolled over and pounded the wall once, so hard I left a bruise on the side of my hand. The squeaking stopped. If I’d known I would have done that much sooner.
My roommate Julie and I found this spacious one-bedroom off campus. We made the living room her bedroom and the dining room the living room. The plan was to live cheaply first semester and have the place all to myself second semester. Instead, a friend from class, Misti, moved in when Julie left. This apartment had a lovely view of a nature preserve. It was quiet and I had good roommates. It was an oasis after three years of shitty living arrangements. Misti and I threw a graduation party in the clubhouse. A month later, I packed up my Corolla and drove away in tears.
I spent a year back with my family while I saved money and applied to grad school. It was not so fun after having a taste of independence, but now I look back fondly. Because of the large age difference between me and my youngest sister, there are only five years in the history of our family that all six of of lived together in the same house. This was one of them. For me, it was a year of anticipation.
At the end of summer we packed up the van once again and I trekked to my new home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hackberry Place was a little cul-de-sac of concrete-block apartment buildings. The rent was dirt cheap and many of my classmates lived there as well. I tried to pay less attention to the roaches and the landlord’s utter refusal to fix anything that was broken, and more attention to the nice things, like the pretty glass doorknobs and the ceiling fan from Target my friend John installed for me. The only heat/AC came from a wall unit in the bedroom, so I often left the front and back door open in order to get the air circulating. There was no screen doors, of course, so occasionally a stray cat would wander in. I stayed for two years.
This cabin is on the grounds of a twenty-seven acre estate donated to the University of Alabama English department by Hudson Strode, a professor who sold a lot of books in the mid-twentieth century. The cabin itself was nothing to get excited about–one room, a bathroom, a kitchen–but the grounds were lovely and the main house was an odd, uncurated museum of decay. Sometimes the house was occupied by visiting professors; other times it was empty for me to use as I wished. I lived in the cabin for two years. I rode out Hurricane Katrina with a book and a bottle of wine, huddled on the bathroom floor, wishing I’d gone to stay at a friend’s. I invited friends over for New Year’s Eve 2006, and I don’t think there will ever be another NYE that fun. After two years, I graduated. I had my twenty-seventh birthday party in the house that May. At the time, I didn’t know if I would stay in Tuscaloosa for another year or not–I was hatching a plan to use the money from my summer job to move to Chicago. Regardless of my uncertainty, the party was the perfect send-off and the culmination of four years of community. Three weeks later, my friend Sarah helped me pack boxes to store in the living room of the house. My Mom was in the hospital, on the verge of death at age forty-seven. I rushed to see her before I left for three weeks of teaching in Rhode Island.
My Mom was tough and she survived. But she would have to have chemo and radiation, so I postponed the Chicago plan and moved with my family into their new house. I was there about four weeks before I started getting antsy. I drove to Tuscaloosa to get my stuff, came home and searched the ads for a part-time job. I ended up with a full-time job, offered a week before school started, teaching at a university ninety minutes away. The boxes went back in the car. I found a place to live over the weekend.
Without a doubt, this was my most spacious apartment of all time. I didn’t have much of anything so it seemed very empty. It was a five-minute drive from my building on campus. There were trees and when the leaves fell off the trees I had a pretty view of a man-made lake. The neighbors above me played games I referred to as “Apartment Bowling” and “Throw an 8-Year-Old on the Floor.” One person would let her enormous dog run down the stairs on an extendable leash. The sound was as crazy-making as the boinking bunnies of junior year.
I stayed in this apartment for almost two years. For the first year, I would go back home every other weekend to take my mom to chemo. I would often go weeks at a time without speaking to anyone who wasn’t a student or a family member. I was so shocked and consumed by my mother’s illness that it was useless to try to make new friends. My home and my life were a vacuum.
The second year was better. I made some friends. I did not renew my lease.
My friend Lisa was teaching in Australia that summer, so I stored all my stuff in her garage and house sat. It was a sweet little three-bedroom ranch. I mowed the lawn and dreamed of homeownership. I sat in on a summer English class and tried to find a new job somewhere else. I learned that I’d been passed over for a high school teaching job in favor of one of my own college professors. I despaired.
North Street is a charming little brick road near campus where professors live. Except for the last couple blocks, where I lived with the undergraduates and rednecks. I rented half a house, thinking that would save me from the perils of living in a complex. My parents came to help me move. My Dad and I did the heavy lifting while my mother, weak but stubborn, pushed lighter things to the edge of the moving van. My new neighbor, who lived with his girlfriend, knocked on my door three times in the first two days, and kept me up at night with the war-rumbles of his video games. There was an enormous pit bull chained to the house next door. My Mom declared that my sister was not allowed to visit me.
The day after I moved in, I drove to campus to hand in my employment contract. My inner voice was screaming at me not to do it. But I thought of my little apartment, my twelve-month lease. How else would I pay for it? There was no other job for me in this town.
I loved my one-mile walk to work. One mile in the other direction was a quaint downtown, with one good coffee shop and a couple good bars. In the winter, I left every three weekends for yoga teacher training in Chicago. School ended in May. I spent June sending job applications, put my stuff in storage, and flew off to summer teaching in California.
I’d always regretted not doing AmeriCorps when I was younger, and in August I found myself in Louisville, looking for a place to rent with my little stipend. I met a soon-to-be coworker and we tried to find a place to share. It didn’t work out. After three days of searching, I had an appointment to look at a little attic apartment. It was Friday at 5:00. If this is not the one, I vowed, I’m not moving here.
It was the one. On the day I moved in, I declared this my last rental. “When I move out of this apartment it will be because I am buying property.” I pictured myself still here in six or seven years. Not ideal. Not the worst.
I had money woes but I felt so free. I loved and was proud of the work I was doing. My little apartment in the sky was at the nexus of the best parts of town. I was finally used to my Mom having cancer. I hoped she could visit to see my new place. She’d given up on chemo a few months prior, but I believed she could make it a couple more years.
I was wrong about that. Six months after I moved in, she died. Her dad died that winter too. Again, I lived in a vacuum. But this vacuum was different. I needed rest. I needed quiet. But while impending loss led me to desperation, loss behind me led to hope. Trees blossomed outside my window. I could only think of the future, of potential. I could only think how lucky I was to be alive.
Months passed and I thought about what I wanted. Sometimes it’s windy and my apartment sways. Sometimes I am awakened by squirrels running across the roof, mere feet from my face. Birds nest right outside my window and chirp so loudly that I think they’ve gotten into the building.
This is the last apartment on my list, because what I want is to be on the ground. In a week, I’m moving to a home that doesn’t have an expiration date. I bought furniture for the porch. I will have space for my mom’s loom, which I vaguely know how to use. I am going to grow tomatoes and zucchini in the yard. It’s painful to know that my mom will never be there with me, but I learned from her last years how precious it is to be alive, that there’s no reason to wait when there’s something you want. I get carried away thinking about renovation plans and what I’ll plant in the yard, and I stop myself. I never do all the things I plan. And the best things that happen are always the ones I never imagined.
March 6, 2012 2 Comments
The thing about migraines, when you have them almost every day, is that they tame you. You stop fighting, sometimes because you’re lazy, sometimes because migraine is its own reality. Like dreams, where whole timelines are born, complete with histories and memories, migraine is a feverish bright blue that believes that you will never be normal:
You will be hurt by the sun.
You will never regard an invitation from a friend as “fun,” but rather, something to be survived. Like drinking anything alcoholic. Like watching a good movie. Like catching up with someone on the phone.
Taking the bus is carsick torture. You sit with the back of your head pressed against the iron bar behind your seat, forcing your neck into the disgusting and sticky metal, hard, so that it gives you pressure, sensation, anything but the tangled muscles and nerves that are strangling your brain. Maybe you can loosen them. You think of an anecdote someone told once about their mother accidentally breaking her own foot with her hands while trying to stop a cramp. You know how it happens. You’ve never forgotten the time you went to the grocery store, with a migraine, and tried to replace your cart. You missed, and accidentally scraped your elbow against the grocery store’s brick exterior. You watched the blood start trickling down your arm and realized, amazed, that your headache was gone. You did a little dance by the carts. You’ve thought many times since about scraping your arm against something to stop a headache, but you doubt you could do it hard enough on the first try, and you don’t want to become a self-harmer. It seems a dangerous road. Anyway, you know you look a little crazy on the bus, with your head at a 90-degree angle to your neck, but migraine clubs your absolute self-consciousness into submission. You don’t care.
You will never be entertained, the migraine says. Ha! It knows you can’t watch or read anything too absorbing, too interesting, when a headache strikes. The excitement makes the headache worse. Instead, you’re condemned to reruns. They’re shows you like–The Golden Girls, Arrested Development, Peep Show, and Frasier is especially soothing–but you know the episodes by heart because you’ve listened to every single one, in the dark, more times than you want to count. You are deeply, deeply bored. Your brain is hungry. If it were a tiny animal it would be starving, with horrible food allergies to all its favorite things. It would eat oatmeal every day and rage quietly at its lot.
So, like a child sneaking candy at night, you read Twitter. Small Tic Tacs of information you can digest. That’s not true, of course, and the migraine knows it; it knows you’ll take everything far too seriously, it knows that you can be tempted into participation and dialogue, and it knows that all of that will only make it stronger.
So you stand on a high-wire, with never-ending doldrums on the one side, nauseating and redundant, and a forest of spikes on the other.
And your balance sucks.
Then the migraine leaves, and all your failures of imagination evaporate. Friends are opportunities, books are salvific, and television does things you never thought it could. You work! You produce! A future seems possible. You imagine a posterity of good conversations, of entertainments, of discussions and walks.
It’s easy to say that the second world is the real one, but when you get one day of it every two weeks, it gets harder and harder to believe that, if one is, say, Kansas and the other is Oz, it’s the good days, the migraine-free days, when the Wicked Witch is dead.
December 6, 2011 Leave a comment
Dear MCF readers,
Millicent’s fantastic essay has been nominated for the 3QD Prize in Politics and Social Science. It would be superswell if you took a minute to vote for it (it’s #40). The nominees make for fierce company, including Zunguzungu’s piece “The Grass is Closed” (#56).
And, in case you missed it, Millicent’s full essay is up over at The Awl, and is one hell of a read.
October 16, 2011 2 Comments
This is what happened in July 1670, when Roger L’Estrange, inveterate royalist and Licenser of the Press, was implementing his “crack-down against nonconformists,” trying to stop people from printing unlicensed work. (This was just after Puritan efforts at republicanism had failed, and Charles II had been restored to the monarchy.) The relevant portion is from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1670. As related in John Spurr’s England in the 1670s: “This Masquerading Age“:
“L’Estrange’s men raided John Streater’s printing-house with warrants to search and arrest suspects, but twenty people ‘fell into an uproar, and begin [sic] crying out that they were freeborn subjects, and not to be meddled with by such a warrant’ …. Intimidations and insinuations … were part and parcel of the political process.”
September 28, 2011 Leave a comment
Please please join The Hairpin Costume Drama Club because it is going to be so much fun, and full of taffetas and all astonishments and champagne and crying. I am so excited about this thing! We’re starting with The Duchess of Duke Street.
While you’re there, also read Millicent’s How to React to a Blemish in the 17th Century, for Gentlewomen only.
You could also watch Bramwell, which is a nice convergence of cold sores and corsets.
PS: There will be Bramwell, Hairpinners, just you wait.
September 18, 2011 6 Comments
It is a cruel thing when something you love lets you down. It is also one of the most powerful things that television can do besides inform you about disasters and keep you company when other people are sleeping. TV is not the most respected of mediums, and I hold the same expectations for most things that I watch on TV as the over-thick general fiction novels I used to hoard from the Tucson public library: pleasure first, with an outside chance of mastery.
And TV has a fair chance of being supergood. The 2000s have been full of breathless television. We are such a good generation at mixing quality with pleasure, just look at our trends of food and drink. In the 1990s, our swoons were limited to Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and MSCL. I was a much younger viewer then, a different demographic entirely, but I just don’t remember anybody talking about how great TV was. I watched a thousand pounds more of it a day, but it rarely landed in my gut like art. It landed like salt. It was delicious. It was the stuff that made a future dreamable, collaged, and fully outfitted. It was what people were doing somewhere.
But that’s barely here or where. I want to get back to heartbreak. I want to talk about Bramwell. Netflix had recommended the show to me for months, and I kept pushing it aside because it looked a tad…bunned? The title card was of a Victorian woman by a fireplace looking all inquisitive and honest while sitting next to a microscope. It looked like a grown up American Girl movie. What finally pushed me into this 31 hour affair were the comments over at The Hairpin in response to a post I had written about the maxi-drama Poldark. Somebody said that the main character got into “scrapes.” If you speak Anne Shirley, I listen.
And the first episode swallowed me whole. It was Victorian, but about syphilis! And it was feminist, well-written, and well-costumed. Half procedural (think a kind of feminist Victorian version of House), half melodrama about what it’s like to be a working Lady (by the way, I want to start a new academic branch called Lady Studies), Bramwell is a dream come true. You get mystery, you get silver chafing dishes, you get extreme power structures to dissect, and you get the fun of another time and place. Surgeries happened every episode, often on the kitchen table! Genre at its best, teasing out all the big ideas, but foremost entertaining and soothing its audience while it pokes at the tender bits of what a society makes.
I was in love. I savored the show, knowing it only had 31 episodes the way I knew Anne of Green Gables series only had 8 books. It was a lovely length–long enough to know you couldn’t gobble it, but finite. It was constructed smartly enough that you fell into full trust with its creators. The characters are complicated. They say the perfect thing, but it isn’t the one you were expecting. Elinor Bramwell is a trained doctor who starts a hospital in the East End. She lives with her father, also a doctor, and is constantly navigating her future and place. Can she be a wife and a doctor? Will she be an old maid? What were the expectations of class, virtue, and philanthropy in Victorian England?
As with our particular stories of headstrong, intelligent women who have just the right spark of pluck and grace, we all immediately identify with our lead. She is Elizabeth, Anne, Rilla, Wonapalei. I watched this show looking for answers (I watch a lot of television looking for revelations, personal or universal). How do we find work that uses our best skills? How do you navigate privilege and service? How do you utilize, dismantle or deflect patriarchy? I’m not kidding. There were breathless moments in this show, usually alone and late at night, where I thought we were getting somewhere, me and Elinor. I thought by episode 31, some new answer was going to get cracked out of me.
I thought this all the way up to episode 29, where I so want to tell you what happens, but cannot, because I also really want you to watch this show. But I want you stop watching at episode 29. Then turn it off like the book is over. No more pages.
I also want to find Lucy Gannon, the show’s creator and main writer, and beg an interview with her. Something huge happened between the end of the second season (episode 29) and the strange 4 hours that make up season 4 (episodes 30-31). My guess is that Gannon would defend her choice, but I want to know why. Did the producers go crazy? Did she want to sober up all of us slobbering romantics, pegging our lives on the constructed adventures of gamine do-gooders? Something happened! Professionally, personally, cosmically, Bramwell got fucked.
All I can say is that the feminism, heavily installed in the series, fully goes out the window. Beloved characters disappear with no explanation, characters become unrecognizable, and the theme music gets really bad. Up until the very end, I was holding my breath, sure this was all a grand architecture to make the ending glow like the best of television endings. But it didn’t. It did the worst thing, and pretended that the crap was just what we wanted. It broke our hearts. There are lots of us, according to the old Masterpiece Theatre forums on the PBS website. We are all astonishment.
So now I have to go back to answering my own questions about my life, without the crutch of what would Elinor do? And she was played by a Redgrave (Jemma), and you know you can always trust a Redgrave!
It was dreamy while it lasted. And then, the evidence changed, all collapsed.
Lesson: good endings must not be assumed, and in television, dreadfully, cannot be earned.
September 18, 2011 Leave a comment
I’ve watched 254 training videos in the last week. 254 exactly. I know because the service I’m using counts them. I’m watching them because I’m trying to learn Adobe CS5–or part of it. Illustrator and InDesign and Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I just want to grab images and make them do my will. But every time I skip steps and try I end up with an unchangeable chunk of image with crawling ants around it. Chastened, I go back and rewatch videos like “Using Rules and Grids in Illustrator” or “How to Manage Your Files in Dreamweaver.” They are mind-numbing, and yet I need them.
A happy side effect of all this is that I have a new appreciation for how insanely easy it is to draw on paper. It’s a technological miracle! No layers! No panels! No selection tools or brush sizes or fills and strokes or anti-alias or pixel previews! No RGB or CMYK! Just your hand, paper, and something to mark the paper.
Here is a tomato I drew and then ate while watching 9-to-5, which is on Netflix Instant, and which everyone should watch if they haven’t because it is COMEDY GOLD. That stupid movie with Justin Bateman that we reviewed—Horrible Bosses, that’s what it was called—was its sad shadowy echo. The dream sequences! The fact that at one point a boss actually gets trussed up with telephone cord. The miraculous reappropriation of a garage door! It’s so ballsy, and God, I wish Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda had become a comedy trio after that. I would have bought every single thing they made.
In conclusion, here is some magical asparagus: