Perfectly Safe

In the white, liberal, upper middle-class circles I usually inhabit, safety trumps all other values. Helicopter parenting has become the standard for responsible parenting, despite data to the contrary. Schools and parents are increasingly making decisions based on the fear of lawsuits or the fear of disapproval from more safety-conscious parents instead of their own best judgement. So this quote from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book struck me as particularly meaningful.

“I wanted to keep you perfectly safe,” said Silas. “But there is only one perfectly safe place for your kind and you will not reach it until all your adventures are over and none of them matter anymore.”

We should not seek perfect safety for our children, or for anyone we care about.

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In Which a Review of American Gods Turns into a Writing Riff

I haven’t written fiction since middle school. (Except that one NaNo novel in 2008, but that was therapy.) Even so, I am subject to that universal writerly neurosis – I secretly think that deep inside me lies hidden the great American novel. At least I think it’s universal. Maybe other technical writers are perfectly happy with what they do. Maybe novelists secretly dream of writing that perfectly researched narrative nonfiction.

Anyway. When I got back from Airwaves, an idea for a story popped into my head; a few characters, some themes, a couple of scenes. This is nothing new in itself. I’ve walked around narrating stories in my head that I had no intention of ever writing down since – well, since I stopped writing them down in middle school. But these characters wouldn’t go away. Whatever else I was doing, a part of my brain was thinking about these broken characters and the shit they were going through. Since another good chunk of my brain has been following my kids around in this manner for the past five years, it left precious little attention for the tasks at hand, which has, unfortunately, been noted at the day job.

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Anyway. I started reading American Gods, which has been on my list for ages. And damn, if it wasn’t custom made for me – old gods, introverted first-person narrator (whose voice, coincidentally, sounds exactly the same in my head as the editor over at NCS), road trips, magical realism, Iceland – and death. There is always death. The book also includes several of the themes, and even some of the events, that were part of my idea. Being well-read, I am usually able to think of several examples fairly quickly of my idea having already been done, and by my betters.

But this time, the author who already broke the trail was Neil Gaiman – the man who became my patron saint when I watched this video:

His line, “Make good art,” has become my mantra. So for a change, instead of letting my inner editor say, “Honey, you’re no Neil Gaiman, go write yourself an annual report,” I thought, “Okay, take notes reading this book. You’re going to need them.”

Then, I read Nicholas Christopher’s Tiger Rag. It too was full of ideas that came weirdly close to my idea. There were many of my favorite story elements again – especially the integration of music and plot – but also some of the specifics from my Iceland Idea. I couldn’t help but read the story as an instruction – “Here is how you handle this element of your intended story.”

Reading Tiger Rag confirmed my feeling that it was time to take a stab at fiction. The universe had provided me with two enjoyable textbooks that addressed different aspects of the story I wanted to tell. The universe always provides.

Okay, that’s not really true. There are billions of people for whom the universe provides nothing at all. Every day, children die of hunger, villages are burned, people are murdered and there is no one there to help and no silver lining.

But for me (and yes I’ve done my time in rich white guilt; I agonized over the play “The Fever” in 1993, and unlike my morally superior friend who tossed privilege aside and dedicated his life to service through L’Arche, in the end I decided to accept my good fortune with gratitude) the universe always provides. It’s largely, but not entirely, a matter of being born white and middle class in one of the richest countries in the world, and receiving a good education as a matter of course. Maybe being born in the Year of the Tiger makes up the rest – it’s as good an explanation as any for the way that things always work out. But for me, they always do.

I realized this with certainty sitting on a Yamaha motorcycle in Tamil Nadu, India in 2002, wearing flip-flops and a skirt, but no helmet. I was riding bitch (for the Americans, pillion for everyone else) behind a former motocross racer, whose riding style was considered reckless even by the locals. Seconds after narrowly missing a small child, who ran out in the road in front of us, we overtook a bus on a nominally paved road that passes for a two lane highway. I looked to the right, and saw our friends riding two-up on an Enfield. My friend Laura covered her eyes behind her driver as we raced at breakneck speed up the East Coast Road. Ahead I saw a second bus approaching us, and a funeral procession on foot at the side of the road, body wrapped in white, borne on shoulders draped with marigolds.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012 This road has been paved & widened since I was there.

Photo: M. Karunakaran in The Hindu Feb 2012   The ECR has been paved & widened since I was there.

Our friends veered right, to the outside of the oncoming bus. The bus we were passing moved closer to us to avoid the funeral procession. We rode the straight line down the center of the road. Just as the two buses passed each other, inches to either side of us, I looked to the left and saw the body of a chicken explode against the front of the first bus. And in that tunnel-visioned moment of silence, I knew it was all good. Like the boy in American Beauty with his plastic bag, I realized at that moment there was nothing to fear. I was one of the lucky people that the universe takes care of.

Not that I’ve never been afraid since. That’s not in my nature. When the universe decides to look out for you, you’d better appreciate it. I think the absence of fear would be akin to taking a gift for granted, just as pretending you haven’t received a gift is ungrateful.

But ever since that day on the East Coast Road, whenever I’ve followed the mountain (as the snowboarders say) the ride has been epic. Whenever I ignore the smoke signals and take the sketchy line, I catch an edge so hard my kids get bruised. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)

This is all, as my mother would say, “going down around Nellie’s barn” to say that in 2013 I plan to write a story, thanks to Iceland, Neil Gaiman, and the universe.

Of course, “Make good art,” is only possible after making lots of bad art – at least for most of us, if we’re lucky, and if the universe approves. But you’ve got to start somewhere. If the result is anything like the embarrassingly bad snippets I’ve spit out so far, no eyes but mine will be the wiser. I think Macklemore & Ryan Lewis said it best.

By my calculations, and at current rates of productivity (which may be unsustainable, see “day job” above) it will take approximately 18 years before my writing about music and art is any good; as for fiction, I’ve got about 9,996 hours to go.

When I started to write this, I looked up the origin of the “10,000 Hour Rule.” Originally, I thought Malcolm Gladwell (whose book I haven’t read, obviously) got the idea from poetry, and googled it with “Rumi.” The first result was a website devoted to Japanese bondage techniques. Coincidentally, I had thought to use bondage as a metaphor in my story.

Anyway. Once upon a time….

Pollyblog: Maybe I Need a Book Group

tadpoleI tried starting a book group in grad school. Because we were all broke grad students, we decided not to require everyone to buy and read the same book each month. Instead, everyone brought one thing they read and liked, pitched it to the group, and loaned it to the person who was most interested. The money we saved on books was spent on wine. The down side to the system was that since we hadn’t all read the same book, there wasn’t much book conversation once the pitches were done. Much wine was consumed. Eventually we started meeting in bars, where they never ran out of wine. The books fell to the wayside.

This is kind of the story of my life. Even though I have family and friends who read as much as I do, I never seem to know people who have read the same books I have.

After spending an intoxicating two weeks in the heady atmosphere of Iceland Airwaves, where every conversation referenced books and music and was about matters of culture and spirit. I interviewed musicians who cited Elizabeth Gilbert and Tom Waits in the same paragraph. I had rational discussions of immigration policy with a Frenchwoman over breakfast. At a museum, when I bought a copy of a memoir by a Westmann Islander who had been captured by pirates in the 1600s, I expressed surprise that a survivor of that pirate raid had written a memoir, the woman working at the gift shop said haughtily, “We are a very literary people.” After that, it was hard coming down to the mundane world of day job particulars and school lunches.

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I finished Halldór Laxness’ The Great Weaver from Kashmir, and desperately needed to dissect that one with others. A few Facebook comments and the Laxness in Translation web site (and thank god for that) were my only reference points. Then I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (much more on that one to follow). Several friends had already read it, and beyond a few “I told you you would like it,” comments, no one really wanted to talk about that one either. Now I’ve read Tiger Rag by Nicholas Christopher. It’s a preview copy for a review to post elsewhere, so of course I have no one else to bounce ideas off of before I write it.

So the other day my heart skipped a beat when a coworker said, “I’m reading the best book right now.” I almost held my breath while I waited to see if it was something I had read or an author I knew so that we could talk about it.

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Then she held up a copy of The Omega 3 Diet, and I spent the next 15 minutes learning about her sister’s weight loss and the connection between Omega 6 and joint pain with a frozen smile painted on my face.