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This place matters

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The time I held a human brain

Some of my friends and I periodically go to events called Oddmall: The emporium of the weird. It's like a traveling craft fair, but for freaks and geeks and weirdos. There you'll find geek-themed craft items, cosplay accessories, vintage toys and comics, and various preserved dead animals. So many preserved dead animals. 
At one of the Oddmalls there was a huge stall selling all manner of taxidermied, preserved, and mummified animals, and then, right in the middle, a booth with a preserved human brain just floating around in a giant fishbowl - and a sign inviting people to touch and hold it. This was both incredibly bizarre and incredibly... incredible. 

I wrote this just after:

Joey is balding, but a fluffy brown beard hangs around his face like an aura. It may be
my imagination, but I think he has the second kindest eyes I’ve ever seen on a stranger.
Top five at least. Which is somewhat odd considering Joey and his eyes are surrounded by
various bits of dead animals, behind a hand-lettered sign that says “Hold a human
brain.”
My two friends and I walk up to his booth halfway through his explaining how he came
to be possession of the back half of a human brain, which floats in front of him in a
fish bowl full of rubbing alcohol. “…and once the doctor is in possession of the brain,
he’s legally free to loan it out, if he wants,” is all I hear. And I’m too preoccupied to ask
him to start over, thinking about the logistics of schlepping a human brain along with
a menagerie of dead beasts from Pennsylvania, where their studio is, to Ohio, where we
are. On the back wall of the booth are hanging skulls, deer and ram, mostly"Is that an ostrich?” I ask.
“Emu,” Joey says. “I got a friend with an emu farm. They sell the meat and the leather
and stuff, but nobody wants the heads,” Joey says, seeming confounded by the fact
that others would pass on this valuable commodity.
One table holds wet specimens in bottles. There are bottles filled with every size and
color of octopus tentacle, little vials of grasshoppers and honeybees, various hearts
and eyes and limbs, and snakes, including a hypnotically arranged corn snake that I
can’t seem to take my eyes off of. “All sustainably sourced,” says a woman I take to be
Joey’s wife or girlfriend. She’s got nerdy glasses and silver studs through her dimples.
“They either died naturally or were hunted legally. We’ve got suppliers all over the
world.” My head drifts back to logistics again, this time the logistics of shipping all or
part of a dead animal carcass across continents. I wonder how they stay fresh. Or are 
they preserved already? In which case, is there a special procedure for mailing dead
animals packed in fluid? I imagine the poor postal worker who fails to heed the
“Fragile” warning on the outside of a box of dead snakes in brine. I want to ask but I’m
distracted by the bones and mummies table.
A couple of mummified piglets curl up in glass boxes behind a cardboard sign
proclaiming them “bacon seeds.” There are mummified bats shadow boxes and tiny
decorative coffins. A bat skeleton sprawls mounted to a frame. There are a few frogs
mounted on colorful backgrounds behind panes of glass, and a display of death’s head
moths in a circle around a painting of the tree of life. There are bugs and butterflies
too – a big blue one with half a wing missing catches my eye, mounted against a
background inscribed with the words “beautiful not broken.”
I wait my turn in line to hold the brain. Before a human brain is preserved, it's more or less jelly, the consistency of runny eggs. After a soak, it is firmer, a bit like gummy candy, though wetter and more jiggly. “This is the thing that makes humans human,” I say as I wonder if my eyes are as wide
as they feel.
“Kind of,” Joey says, "it's only half a brain. It's missing the frontal lobe."
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain right behind your forehead, and it controls learning and behavior and morality. It seems to be more developed in humans than other mammals, and it governs things like social skills, shame, and embarrassment.

We leave, but for days I can’t stop thinking about that brain and who it had once
belonged to. I wonder how its owner would feel if she knew (I am inexplicably certain
she is a she) that her essence, the epicenter of her mortal coil, would spend the beginning of her afterlife travelling around the Midwest in the custody of a couple of tattooed
weirdos, to be fondled by crafty geeks and costumed freaks. I’ve decided to imagine
that she’s tickled pink by it. That she was a little old lady who clucked her tongue at
kids with strange piercings but secretly always wished she’d had the guts to dye her
hair purple and wear a dog collar in public. 
Divested of her sensible, rational forebrain, absent the moral compass and social
inhibitions it forced upon her, is she freer? Or without her frontal lobe to govern the
emotional responses her amygdala sends forth, is she an explosion of emotions, too
bright and too strong and too big? Is her frontal lobe in another state, floating in its
own fishbowl, cringing and mortified with the indignities visited upon its lesser half? 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Valediction: Promoting Mourning

During one of the luncheon cry-fests at residency, my friends and I were sharing the worst things people had ever said to us in the name of consoling us after a tragedy. Things like telling a mother who is mourning her miscarriage not to be sad because she's young yet, and can just try again. That sort of thing.
You've probably heard some of these yourself. If you've had one of your siblings die, someone has probably told you that "at least you still have your other siblings," as if the volume of siblings were the problem, as if the other siblings were simply going to expand to fill the permanent void where your dead sibling used to be. People who mourn a parent long after they are gone are often told to stop dwelling, that they should get over it and move on. Parents who lose their children say they often hear things like "I know how you feel. I lost my grandmother when I was ten," as if losing a child isn't the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent, as if anyone who hasn't lived through it could possibly imagine the hell, the grief. 
Here is where I must say that I am absolutely certain that I have, on more than one occasion, said something perfectly appalling to a person who was grieving. In emotional situations, when I know I'm supposed to say something and I don't know what to say, my mouth tends to spit out words without running them by my brain for approval first. I think nobody knows what to say to a person who is grieving, so we resort to cliches that do not comfort. We say things like "she's in a better place" or "everything happens for a reason" that we mean as comfort but in reality are kind of dismissive. "He's in a better place"  to a mourner might feel like "it is selfish of you to be sad that your loved one is no longer here." 

So recently, a friend whom I love experienced a loss so awful I can't even fathom how she keeps on putting one foot in front of the other. And some people have responded to her loss in some truly awful ways, ways that grind salt into a gaping wound. 
Which makes me want to share with everyone the rules I use when talking to a grieving person, compiled over a lifetime of learning from my mistakes. I thought I'd share it, so all of you can learn from my failure too. Here goes.

  • No looking on the bright side. Do not say the words "at least." No "He's in a better place"; no "at least now you don't have to walk that dog every day anymore"; no "that disease is very treatable these days." I can't turn someone's grief to hope by shoving rose-colored glasses on to their face. Say instead "I'll never forget how proud she was of you the day you graduated college" or "You took such good care of him and gave him such a happy life" or "I will help in any way I can."
  • Never say "I know how you feel." I've got no business taking another's grief and making it about me and what I've suffered. Everybody's grief is different, and saying I know how someone else feels is like saying "you're nothing special," Instead say "my heart aches for you," say "I love you and I'm here for you and I'm thinking of you always." 
  • Do not minimize. Never say it's "just a dog." Never say "your arthritis is bad, but cancer is worse." Victor Frankl said that suffering is like a vessel - some people's vessels are big and some are small, but a full vessel is a full vessel. Grief is grief. Honor the grief of others, no matter how it compares to what losses others have grieved. Instead say "I know how much you loved him," say "You must be so afraid, but I'm here to help you get through it."  
  • Say "I can't imagine how you feel," but do not leave it at that. As a good friend with MS often says, "no, you can't imagine, but you could try." Instead say "do you want to talk about it?" say "you can tell me all about it, if you want to," say "I'm listening. Help me understand." 
  • Do not assume a person wants to be left alone. Do not assume a person wants me all up in their grill about it either. Do not avoid but do not pester, do not ignore the elephant in the room, but don't pry into the whys and wherefores and logistics of said elephant. Acknowledge the elephant, but let the elephant alone.
So anyway, those are my rules. I try hard not to say the things above, which challenges me to find new and innovative ways to stick my foot into my mouth. By the time I die I'll probably have mastered the art of always finding a new wrong thing to say. And then, other people can say awful things to whomever is left to mourn me.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Two-faced

Recently, The Nation published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee called How-To that caused a stir. See, the poem's written by a white guy, but the narrator of the poem is a black guy speaking something like African American Vernacular English (AAVE). To hear the news headlines, the reason that the "PC police" are offended by the poem is that the author is a white guy who wrote from the point of view of a Black guy. To hear most tell it, the literary world will come to a screeching halt if we keep accusing people who write across cultures of cultural appropriation. The famously liberal Stephen King tweeted: "what next? Apologies for women who write from the male point of view, or vice-versa?"
This last quote from Stephen King really made me cringe, and not just because it called to mind all of Stephen King's many and various crimes against AAVE. It's because he missed the point entirely.

See, the "PC police" weren't only upset about the author's use of AAVE. Obviously writers have to write across cultures. Obviously, when we write a character, she should speak in a manner consistent with her culture and upbringing. If anyone's arguing that white folks should only write about other white folks, I'm up to throw down about it. The problem is the whole package of the poem. So in the poem, the speaker, using really poorly rendered Black dialect, is a homeless guy giving another homeless person tips on how to lie and manipulate people when panhandling. "If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl/ say you’re pregnant," the poem says. 
The problem isn't that the author used Black dialect, it's that the author used a cartoonishly bad take on Black dialect to create a Black character who is a poor, shiftless, lying grifter. That's not "writing across cultures," that's minstrelry. See, back in the day, up until the the 1970s, there used to be minstrel shows, where white actors would cover their face in black makeup, paint their lips bright red, and perform variety shows in which their Black characters were painted as poor, stupid, lazy, and shiftless. And they did all this while appropriating Black music and dance. Wikipedia quite eloquently explains why these shows were so insidious: "minstrelsy made [harmful stereotypes about Blacks] palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of well-intentioned paternalism."
Sound familiar?
The poem How To brings the tropes from minstrel shows roaring back. Why does the lying hobo character got to be black? Does Lee write other poems in bad AAVE where the narrator isn't just a collection of harmful stereotypes? And the poem, even if it weren't for the blackface buffoonery just isn't that good. I'm sure The Nation is drowning in submissions from talented Black poets who actually write authentically, and yet they chose to elevate this white dude who clearly has no idea of what he speaks.

My view on writing across cultures, and there are those who disagree, is that we should 100% absolutely do it. But we should do our homework. If you want to write a Black character who is homeless, you read about AAVE, you read other poems in AAVE. You - and this is a hard one - listen to Black people when they talk. You read about homelessness, you read work by homeless and formerly homeless people. You - another big challenge - listen to homeless people when they talk to you. And if that all seems like too much work, then sorry, you're too lazy to have a poem published in The Nation.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Burning up my fuse up here alone

It's the weirdest thing, the song Rocket Man suddenly popping into my head as I sit down to write about my last residency in the Ashland MFA program. Ashland's summer residencies are these intense two-week writing boot camps with long days of lectures, readings, and workshops. They're grueling and exhausting and you'd think I'd be relieved to finally be done, but after I'm home a day or two, there's this crash. And I've realized just now that it's because I kind of get to be a different person at residency. Surrounded by other assorted freaks, geeks, and weirdos, I'm free to stop trying to rein in all my strangeness. I'm not the only one who has to stop in the middle of a walk across campus to plop down and pull out a notebook. I'm not the only one who fixates on weird trivia, who has a Google history that would make me look like a raving lunatic. I'm not the only one who bursts into tears at the drop of a word, or who bursts out laughing at the most inappropriate times, or spends an entire lunch hour alternately laughing and sobbing in public (That literally happened. Like, an entire lunch hour).
I'm not the girl they think I am at home. (I'm so freaking much weirder.)

And this residency was especially - magic is a horrible cliche of a word to use, but that's the only word I can think of. Magic. Like, you wouldn't think that spending an hour with your thesis committee going over all the things that need fixing would be a source of rapturous inspiration, but I walked out of that thesis defense (which I passed - yay) thinking "I can't freaking wait to start revising."
I know I'm usually more structured and coherent, but I'm kind of in this post-graduation haze, hung over and thrumming with words I can't type fast enough to keep up with. 
Anyway, you'll be seeing more of this here blog now that I don't have to spend most of my waking moments reading and/or writing. Any requests on future content?
Anyways, in summary, here is a picture of my kitten.

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