Tag Archives: Pontifications

New Year’s Resolutions & Other Unnecessary (or Unattainable)Goals

I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t over eat, don’t eat too much junk, don’t need to lose weight, don’t need to get laid, don’t curse, don’t have any credit cards to pay down, don’t have any overarching goals to accomplish and don’t have any pressing, nagging changes that need to be made. So…my New Year’s resolutions are, at best, a mish mosh of half-hearted, conventional and unconventional, unnecessary but creative ideas I’d kinda like see come to fruition if I didn’t have other pressing issues at hand. In other words, here’s a list of wishes, not resolutions.

  • Complain less
  • Quit coffee
  • Have a nice black and white photo op done of D and I
  • Spend less
  • Save more
  • Spend less time on the computer
  • Visit/attend/become a member of a zen buddhist retreat center
  • Eat more raw foods
  • Get to the bottom of my indigestion issues
  • Sing more
  • Yell less at my kids
  • Take the online business certification course from Rutgers with my brother
  • Figure out what to do about grad school
  • Publish “Fertility” in a decent magazine
  • Maintain my sense of self
  • Relax
  • Work harder
  • Write more
  • Find a cause and support it continuously
  • Be more consistent with exercise
  • Go camping/rock climbing/ hiking
  • Go easy on the unsolicited advice
  • Remain neutral
  • Be more open-minded
  • Be patient (OK, now we’re getting into trying to change my personal nature- good luck with this one)
  • Be positive
  • Judge less
  • Let go
  • Take risks
  • Be more ambitious
  • Worry less…

Crossed off my list for good

My kids and I recently took an 8 hour drive up to Canada, just for kicks. We had nothing else to do for three days and thought it would be fun to just drive and hop a relatively close border. And it was. We got pulled over at border patrol, our car was searched, and I was told I needed “permission” from my ex to leave the country, which I knew, but forgot to get. They let us cross anyway and so, we made it to Ottawa by dinner.

We wandered down Dalhousie Street to Byward Market and amid a grouping of rather cool pubs (which I would have preferred in a pinch if I were with D) I noticed the slumping facade of the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh let’s go here! I immediately remembered my youthful self, circa 1989, and the envy of all my friends when I told them I’d not only been to the Hard Rock Cafe in NYC, but in London as well (remember the eighties when you collected visits to the Hard Rock Cafe and that made you so cool? And then that goofy Planet Hollywood came out and tried to whoop up the same fervor, but never really did, and you suddenly weren’t cool if you liked that place?).

Anyway, I thought my boys would love the HRC. And they did! But the truth is, the food was horrifying. Everything tasted fake and enhanced. J’s burger had that fake char-grilled smoke flavor on it. The sweet potato fries had some weird aftertaste and the salad had rubbery fake chicken, diced perfectly into tiny squares and yellowish white iceberg lettuce (who makes salads with just iceberg lettuce anymore?). On the walls were Britney Spear’s blue sequined shirt, Eminem’s high top sneakers (and maybe even his stinky socks), a turtleneck sweater from Alanis Morissette and a pair of ripped jeans from Shania Twain. Back in my day they had Ringo Starr’s drum pack, Jimmy Page’s guitar and Prince’s purple overcoat. Hard rock memorabilia that hung on the walls where famous people sat down and had a Guinness at the bar. The crowds now? People like me with their babies screaming and their kids running around tables, knocking over trays of rubbery chicken and greasy fries.

So, this got me thinking, firstly, that I will never go back to any Hard Rock Cafe, no matter how big the guitar above their front door. And secondly, that I will probably never go back to a long line of other crappy places. And so, this morning’s blog is my top ten “Crossed off my list for good” list. What’s on yours?

1. Hard Rock Cafe
2. Chuckie Cheese
3. Sahara Sam’s
4. Miniature Golfing (any of them!)
5. Medieval Times
6. Planet Hollywood (does this place even exist anymore?)
7. Gillette, Wyoming
8. Hostal Pedregalejo, Malaga Spain
9. Mars 2112
10. Midtown Manhattan during the Christmas holidays
11. Albuquerque, NM
12. “The Pub” in Pennsauken
13. The Berlin flea market
14. A bowling tournament
15. Being 142 lbs
16. Anywhere (except locally) on New Year’s Eve
17. Getting my hair bleached
18. A football game at any stadium
19. The Mummer’s Parade
20. Any parade…
21. Friday’s
22. The top of the Empire State Building

Day of excess or harmless holiday?

As we give thanks let us recognize that today is a rapaciously gluttonous day of celebrating the fact that we stole this land from Native Americans, raped it and wasted all  its precious resources and ultimately created a society of countrymen whose existence is based mostly on consumption and excess.  So, when you slather your bread with butter and dip it in turkey juice while simultaneously shoving corn and string bean casserole down your throat, be thankful that the best thing to come out of this culture is what’s left of a little Puritan guilt, and stretchy pants with elastic waistbands.

Did I get your attention?

OK, so I am not sure I think in such extremes. I am a grateful, happy girl. Able to be thankful on Thanksgiving and joyful of our bounty.  And yet,  I can’t help but wonder with obesity rates being so high in this country, mass consumption as our lifeblood, impending global warming and a population explosion that will double in twenty more year, that maybe, we might want to rethink the concept of Thanksgiving and Christmas and how we celebrate.  Do we really need all this STUFF to say that we appreciate our country, that we’re thankful for our friends and family, and that we honor our faith? Is minimalism such a bad thing?

For Christmas this year, my family has cut huge corners. The excessive gift giving over the past decade has been a mark of our good fortune, but at the same time, it has made many of us feel , well, slightly excessive and wasteful. We sat around the dinner table one Sunday and passed around ideas: we were buying gifts for others just for the sake a purchasing something. Did anyone really needed a Fry Daddy, or a lava lamp or a battery-operated neck pillow heater  thingy that you could use on a plane? Most gifts ended up in a garage sale anyway, sold for fifty cents. So, we decided to just buy toys for the kids and that the adults would do a book exchange. For a couple years everyone bought and wrapped up a book that either got read or didn’t. But even then, we still felt as though we were wasting. (Ok, so maybe my family has a little more of that Puritan guilt than others!)

This year, however, we decided we are only spending $20 on each kids and instead of buying a book for the book exchange, we will simply dig into our libraries (we’re all readers) and wrap up a book we already own. Despite the fact that others may accuse us of being cheap, I love this idea. It feels good. And  our holiday becomes more about what is essential rather than what can be bought.

Last year on FB one of my friends posted a picture of their Christmas tree. It had what looked like THOUSANDS of presents under it. It was a pretty picture indeed and looked like most of my trees from Christmas past, and yet, the more I thought about it, the more the idea kinda grossed me out.  Sure, all those gifts under a sparkly tree look Hollywood and Disneyesque. But are they necessary? Are they real? What are we teaching our children about Christmas? About tradition? About celebration? That these ideas revolve around our purchasing power? That STUFF is the meaning of life? I may be wrong but I haven’t met a kid yet who didn’t feel entitled to a gift bag or a present of his own at someone else’s birthday party.

Thing is, we are living in a changing world where we need to begin to recognize that all this stuff is simply too much. It’s cluttering up the planet, ending up in a landfill or being shot out into space with more space junk, causing trouble. What’s so wrong in cutting back? What’s so wrong in validating your children and your family members in other ways? Is our worth, value and identity so wrapped up in gift giving and product consumption that we no longer see the benefit in modesty, moderation and self-restraint? Heck, the reality is that a day or two after Christmas, my kids are back outside playing with sticks — the cheapest,  most versatile universal toy known to man, chimp and  higher brain functioning animal.

Look, I can’t lie. Every Thanksgiving it’s hard for me to resist pigging out. And every Christmas I want my kids to have that fantasy, that perfect Christmas morning where they come running down the stairs into the living room to see a tree lit up in the darkness, abundant with pretty packages and wrapped gifts. When I was a kid we had both– there were years when we had plenty and years when we had few. Of course, I preferred the years of plenty. They were a mark of validation– they meant that my mother and father loved me more those years and that Santa thought I was “good.” Those years also marked the fact that mother and father were happy (unlike the leaner years when my mother would cry), and that everything was going to be alright. But the truth is, whether I had lots or little the one constant was the love of my family. And whether or not I had a deeper understanding back then of the fact that we can all be so easily manipulated by STUFF, I certainly recognize it now. I am no better or worse with or without stuff and I can only hope to pass that concept on to my kids. We are not the sum of what we pick up during our shopping sprees. Our worth is based on something deeper. Mine is and yours is. There are new babies in our family; we are healthy; we all get along; no one is hungry. And this year, I am thankful that I am a few steps closer to recognizing that those are the true gifts of life.

Now, pass the sweet potatoes…

Why Americans voted for the GOP

I truly don’t understand the mentality of my countrymen, save to say that corporate America and the media have more control over us than we may think. The blight of Capitalism is its egocentricity and “out to win big” mentality, where rampant irresponsibility and no accountability reigns. Soda machines in grade-school cafeterias. Nitrates in hotdogs. Adding more sugar to cereals, all the while marketing them as “Whole grain goodness.” Building cheap parts for cars so they’re guaranteed to fall apart faster. Streamlining every imaginable boutique drug to the point where we truly begin to believe that drugs are a part of the human experience. Releasing songs about a man who loves a woman so much he must burn her as she sleeps in her own bed so that no one else can have her. Cigarettes. McDonald’s. Gatorade. Hummers. Coffee.

When corporations and wealthy “donors” who sway elections do so for their own interests, the human element is lost; humanity is lost. And the only thing that’s put in its place is the lie that purchasing goods will save our souls.

In Dan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom” his protagonist Walter who’s an environmentalist tries to save this rather decent-sized tract of land for the Warbler, a migrant bird that’s not even on the endangered species list. To do so, he has to displace about 200 people from their homes along the mountain top – a place where families have lived for generations and have buried their dead. But the underlying point of saving the land for the bird is for a wealthy “friend of the Bushs and Cheneys” to begin mountain top removal mining for coal. The underlying message Franzen sends his readers is not so much that it’s wrong to displace people for the sake of coal mining. That is the obvious message. But that the displaced people themselves are part of the problem in that they allow corporations to take over, and they sell out for the promise of money and “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens,” and the ability to move into the middle class. Franzen’s message is that family, land, earth, tradition are no longer enough to sustain us; we no longer believe in simplistic values, but rather in money, immediate gratification and consumerism.

And that, right there, is the basic hook of Capitalism: you too can be middle class and have a decent salary and buy, buy, buy, if only you let us do whatever it is we want to do without you asking any questions. Because the American dream, after all, is to keep up with the Joneses and to buy a house and a plasma screen TV and have two cars in the driveway and two kids. Why just yesterday, one of my FB friends said, “I vote with my wallet.”

And so, the Republicans gained control of the House last night. Their agendas can finally be met and big business can once again prosper and we can once again earn our incomes and consume more products. We had such high hopes for Obama and in our impatience for him to fix everything, we ousted him, if only in voting for the Reps during the midterm elections. Have we lost sight of the Bush years? Have we forgotten that Bush, dare I say it, got us into this mess in the first place? Or is there a deeper, more troubling specter that is to blame for America’s free fall from our happy place? Could it be that we have reached the point where the vestiges of a real life are being replaced by a more desultory one?

As Camille Paglia once wrote: “Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”

Again, our relentless pursuit of consumer goods and the fact that they’ve been denied us since 2008 may be playing a bigger role than we’d like to think. Let’s face it, we want our purchasing power back. In today’s NYT Op Ed section, even Timothy Egan writes, “Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.”

So what does all this mean to me? It means that the gap between one side of the country and the other seems to be getting wider. It means that people’s incentives for happiness needs to be a little less superficial. And it means that I, within myself, will be more aware of resisting the dangling carrot of consumerism as best I can, and not be so easily swayed, misled, or seduced by the mindless, sugar-coated world of a whole grain box of cereal or a Starbuck’s coffee. It means making sure I keep what is truly of value in perspective and never put the illusion of money as the American Dream above what really matters: the future of this planet, my lifelong friends, and my family.

I want my name back

I can share. Especially when it comes to my last name. In high school I sat next to a girl named Kristie Shields and though we had nothing in common (She was a hood, I was a punk. She had crackly, over-dyed reddish hair and crooked teeth; I had poofy 80’s hair; I’d just gotten my braces off ), I still thought it was kind of fun that we had identical last names. Same with Brooke Shields. She was a big star when I was a kid and it was a regular omission of mine to admit we were not related. In fact, my cousin played a similar trick on me of the variety that I’d play on others. He said he sat next to Brooke Shields while taking the entrance exam to Princeton as they were the same age, going into college the same year. Y’know, we sat alphabetically? I believed him. And to this day, I still don’t know if it really happened.

Really, reality, sharing last names: I had the privilege to meet David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at Thursday’s Writers Conference. L picked him up at the train station and he slept the whole way over, and so our hopes seemed dashed that he’d make a decent presentation of himself during his creative non-fiction workshop. Since this conference started, we students huddle expectantly at the door of the classroom, amazingly high on hopes of being dazzled, blown away, awed, stupefied. We want our money’s worth. We want to be changed, altered, refined, refashioned. We want what the Buddhists want—we want to be in the presence of someone’s supernatural insight that might lead us to a Noble Truth. And when you have one bad experience like we did with Apple, [possibly more about this in a second draft] you start doubting the powers that be. You start doubting the possibility that you have enough money to buy something like that. That maybe, your needs are too wide and too vast to put a price tag on, and that you’re probably not going to get thrown that glimpse of nirvana.

But it does come. It appears in one-liners that we scrawl like maniacs into our notebooks, that read badly after the fact, because in the moment, in the context, it makes perfect sense. “Monotony can be insightful” (Stephen Dunn); “What could be sadder than a clown without a context” (Stephen Dunn); “The essay is….untrammeled access to a person’s conscience” (David Shields); “An essay is not always an exercise in ego…The self has to jump the tracks out of the self…and become bigger than the self. Complacent, self-assured people don’t make good essayist” (David Shields); “The job of an essayist is to have doubt” (David Shields); “You strike me as someone who has a compost heap” (Alexis Apfelbaum).

In the lobby of the library, when L brought him in she introduced him as David Shields, and I said, not so clumsily, but I could have done better, Yes, yes, I’ve been coming across your work all month: Tin House, Creative Non-Fiction, blah, blah, blah. And of course, I mentioned his name and mine. My name is also Shields, I said, almost with a wink like, you and me, we have a connection (I didn’t say that last bit, I thought it). But he turned, sleepily, possibly still trying to wake up from his nap from 30th Street Station, and said, “That’s not my name.”

Not your name? Forgive me for thinking that. But it’s on all your books.

[Insert here story of my name, then go on to discuss fiction and my relationship to it; ramble on about PBQ and “Reality Fiction” and my nearly 20-year belief that the I—the first person is the vehicle for all stories told. Eventually get back to DS and why Shields isn’t his name].

The story is so much more than this awkward moment of me feeling a little irked that someone would take my name and use it– on his books, no less– when clearly he has his own. He’s damn right to suggest that we are hungry for reality when so much of the world and the people in it are phony. Not to say that he… Well, the story isn’t about the vehicle so much as the message. It tells how I go from incensed to exultant in the span of a couple hours.

And it tells that his class presentation, after all, was replete with all the tingly insights and truths I had hoped for. It tells of the moment when I was changed too; when he addressed the audience during his reading, and quoted Kafka’s belief that fiction “should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us” and then INVALIDATED it by reminding us that there is far too much fiction in the world today and what we desperately seek is REALITY. The story goes on to say how my eyes welled up (that’s what happens when you believe in someone’s argument and have a connection to someone, in spite of their name). And a little moment of Cha-ching pleasantly fell upon me. I got my money’s worth. I had my religious experience. And I decided, then and there, I was switching to non-fiction.

But I’ve run out of time and can’t tell that story right now. I’ll have to log back in to tell it. But Shakespeare was right. “What’s in a name?” I’ll get over David Shields’ appropriation of Shields, but I’ve joined his movement. I’m a fan. Reality Hunger is one of the best books of 2010. I might even be inspired to change my name.

I take back everything I said…

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes