Monday, December 14, 2015

Every Day is Workshop

This past semester I participated in my last writing workshop of the program, and it's possibly the last formal writing workshop I'll ever take, depending on whether I get a PhD someday. This makes me sad, because I love workshop. Some people hate hearing their work critiqued, but I think it's great--other people are able to see flaws that I can't. And even critiquing and hearing critiques of another person's work helps my own writing in many ways. But the positive effects on my work are not the only reason I enjoy workshop so much. In fact, one major reason I enjoy workshop is that I have permission to speak my mind, to be completely honest--about what I like and dislike, about what I'd do differently.

This is not a permission I feel that I have in most of my life.

I don't know whether it's because I was raised with lots of Catholic guilt, or whether it's because I was raised in America's official emotion-suppressing region (read this article on "Midwestern Nice" if you haven't yet--it skillfully sums up how we're taught to think in the heart of the nation), or whether it's because I let my anxious thoughts run away with me--probably a combination of all three. Regardless, it seems that somewhere along the way, I largely lost the ability to say my actual opinions aloud, unless I'm with my very closest friends.

You know how when you pass acquaintances out on the street or in the office or wherever, and they ask, "How are you?" and you say, "Fine," even if you're not fine, because you know they're simply being polite and they don't actually want to hear an entire assessment of your life? That's how I treat most interactions. Even if I completely disagree with what someone is saying, I usually don't bring it up, or if I do it comes out as nothing more than a mild "I don't know...", because to say or do otherwise would be impolite. My brain has decided that it's impolite to consider my own opinions equally valid as other people's opinions.

This bothers me on many levels. For one thing, over the years I've developed a reputation of being very "nice." People often tell me how nice I am, which is wonderful--except that now I have to wonder, do they think I'm nice because I'm actually nice, or do they think I'm nice because I'm dishonest? I don't say what I think, and therefore I give them whatever they want. By staying quiet, I boost their egos. And that's especially problematic because sometimes, to be truly kind to someone, you have to be brutally honest and tell them exactly what they don't want to hear. I know for a fact that I'm not good at letting people down in this way--even though I realize that it wouldn't really be letting them down at all. My closest friends have not infrequently told me that I'm too nice, and they're probably right. It's good that I want to help other people, but as they say, you can't pour from an empty cup.

The idea of dishonesty bothers me on its own. I don't like the idea that I'm going out into the world and lying to people, even if that lying temporarily helps them out. I don't believe that everyone needs to state everything that's on their mind by any means, but it's different when you hardly ever state what's on your mind. The idea of staying silent is horrible, too. Why do I feel like I need to stay silent? Why are my own words and ideas worth less to me than the words and ideas of others? Why do I feel like I'm not worth being listened to? What's more, being this way is exhausting. I often replay earlier interactions in my head, worrying about what I should have said instead of what I actually said.

The only other place I feel like I can drop this act is in my writing. This blog is, for the most part, as honest as it gets (especially in these more introspective posts). And even on something like Facebook, if someone posts an article I strongly agree or disagree with, I don't mind stating my opinions in the comments. I'm concerned that the semi-autobiographical novel I'm working on gets a little too real at points. But there's something about stating these same opinions directly at other people's faces that I typically can't bring myself to do.

Due to all this, I've been thinking lately that I ought to treat regular life more like writing workshop. Which isn't to say that I'm going to constantly critique the things that other people do--while that may be the point of a workshop, that's not the point of real life. I only mean that I ought to be more honest with other people, that I should try to say what I'm actually thinking more often and trust that people will listen to me the same way I listen to them. Because the fact is, I don't trust that people will value what I say, and that's as unfair to them as it is to me. I should make it a mantra: "every day is workshop." See where that takes me. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Crossing the Finish Line Early

Sorry about the lack of blogging, but can we just talk for a minute about how goddamn efficient I am? I gave my second final exam yesterday morning. I then proceeded to my office, where I graded those exams, calculated semester grades for both my classes, and emailed them to the English department. Final grades aren't even due until Monday. We had our last workshop on Tuesday and I turned in a second draft of my translation right after Thanksgiving. You know what that means? I AM DONE. Finished with the semester. No more work. It is officially Winter Break.


Yeah, it's pretty exciting.

On Tuesday I fly to Chicago (my 24th flight this calendar year), where I shall remain for three weeks. Looking forward to Christmas, which I finally feel like I can celebrate. For whatever reason, I don't like to let in the holiday cheer until I've completed all of my schoolwork. I think I'm afraid I won't be able to re-focus. But now there's no need to re-focus, so I can dedicate my energy to Bing Crosby, fattening foods, colorful decorations, and snow.

Not that I'm giving up all responsibility--I'm still planning on writing, of course. I have a novel draft to complete! I mean, it's technically completed now, but the last three chapters are a mess. I wrote chapter 7 while I was recovering from wisdom tooth surgery. Rewrites are direly needed. The break will also hopefully allow for more frequent blogging, or at least more substantial blogging. I've had all these topics bouncing around in my head, but I haven't had the time to write about them yet. Soon...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tour Guide

This past weekend I got to play Las Vegas tour guide once again, as Miss Ashley decided to pay me a visit all the way from Sunnyvale, California! The last time I saw her was on top of the Eiffel Tower, when she and the baby sister came to visit me in Paris. We packed in everything a first-time Vegas tourist could ever want to see--except gambling. I'm on a grad student stipend, and she lives in one of the most expensive places in the country. What do you want from us?

She arrived on Friday night, so I took her downtown to see the neon lights of Fremont Street. We stopped at The Writer's Block so she could see that Sin City actually does have some traces of culture, and also so I could chat with Drew about the new Claire Vaye Watkins article. (If you haven't read it, you need to read it. ASAP.) From there we passed the beloved flame-throwing praying mantis, we popped into El Cortez so she could experience the suffocating floral scent of old casinos, we stopped at the Golden Nugget so she could see the sharks, and then we walked all the way back to Atomic Liquors, where Austin, Olivia, and Shaun met us for a drink.

Saturday was a busy day. (Understatement of the year!)

It began with a drive to Hoover Dam. I love Hoover Dam. I know it seems like a weird thing to love, but I just can't help myself. Mountains and oceans and forests are awe-inspiring, but the awe that comes from them is sort of obvious; of course nature is bigger than us and produces magnificent things we never could have conceived on our own. That's not terribly surprising. Hoover Dam is great because it's gigantic, and well-crafted, and they made it back when people cared how buildings looked, so it's beautiful, too. And we built it. Regular people built it. With only early 20th-century technology at their disposal. In five years! Now that is awe-inspiring. I've gone on the tour twice, but I ought to read a book about it. Surely there's some good nonfiction tome out there on the subject.

After our morning dose of engineering history, we stopped in Boulder City for a hearty brunch at The Coffee Cup. We also meandered through some of Boulder City's many antique shops, because apparently we are old ladies at heart.

When we finally got home to Vegas, did we relax? Take a nap, perhaps? No! Sleep is for the weak. Instead we went ice skating on top of the Cosmopolitan. Yes, you read correctly. There is currently an ice rink on top of the Cosmopolitan. I am quite possibly the worst ice skater the Midwest has ever produced, but it was one of the most successful skates I've ever had. I didn't fall down a single time. Mission accomplished.

Then it was time to show Ashley the rest of the Strip. Aside from the gambling, of course. We saw the Bellagio fountains and the atrium there--which was still Autumn-themed, surprisingly. I was expecting Christmas. We wandered through the Paris so she could compare it to the real deal. We went to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (damn you, missing apostrophe!) to visit the Apple Store so that Ashley could show me what her fancy new job is all about. Then we headed to the Brooklyn Bowl for dinner and a punk show. Because what better way to end a day spent entirely on one's feet than in a mosh pit?

We didn't mean to end up in the mosh pit. We just sort of got shoved in there unwillingly. At first it was kind of nice--we ended up much closer to Gogol Bordello than we expected. But then this girl stage dived and punched Ashley in the face. That night I gave her ibuprofen and an ice pack, so the bruise did not manifest as badly as it could have. But still, nobody wants to get decked. This leads me to believe that venues should schedule shows not by age, but by violence level. Don't have all-ages shows vs. 21-and-up shows. Have happy-dance shows vs. endless-slaughter shows. You'd probably inadvertently divide the crowd by age, anyway.

Gogol Bordello were fantastic as always, but I was also blown away by the opener, Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. Listen to them posthaste!

I was about to say Sunday was a little calmer, but we did start the morning by indoor rock climbing, so maybe not. I showed Ashley the ropes--literally! Ugh. That was a bad joke. I apologize. Austin came along, too. We haven't climbed together in a while, so that was fun. Ashley then accompanied us to Jesse's place for Dungeons & Dragons, which I fear was more dull for her than I'd anticipated. There was a lot of backstory and role-playing, not a lot of combat--which I generally prefer, but I can see where it would be boring for an outsider who doesn't know the story of the campaign. Anyway, Ashley had to leave in the middle to drive all the way back to the South Bay--and from what I understand, she got stuck in horrendous traffic, which I feel badly about. I should have guessed that the post-Thanksgiving traffic would be a nightmare. Now I know for next time, at least. We tour guides must learn from our mistakes.

It was a lovely weekend overall, and now I owe Ashley a visit! Haven't been to San Francisco since I was sixteen. It might be a good Spring Break adventure...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Very Vegas Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving in Vegas! And you know what that means: a marathon of Thanksgivings-away-from-home. Lulu and I spent way too much on groceries last night, so I'll mostly be eating her delicious cooking--but then I'll be hopping to a few other places to celebrate with more friends.

Actually, I lied when I said I'd be mostly eating Lulu's delicious cooking. It is true that her cooking is delicious, and I will certainly be gobbling up the turkey. But unfortunately, I cannot eat most of her delicious cooking; I'm still on that doctor-recommended low-FODMAP diet. Nevertheless, I'm not letting it ruin Thanksgiving. I bought my own instant mashed potatoes to make with fake butter, I found a low-FODMAP stuffing recipe with quinoa and parsnip and walnuts and blue cheese and cranberries and sage and parsley, and I bought lactose-free ice cream and a dairy-free dark chocolate syrup for dessert. Take that, potential-food-allergies-I'm-not-even-sure-I-actually-have! I will stuff my face like a real American regardless!

Leftovers won't be the only joy that Friday brings--Friday is also bringing miss Ashley to visit, all the way from Cupertino! No set plans yet, but there are many possibilities being bandied about for how we'll spend our time together. As she's never been here before, she has to see the strip, obviously. But what's the point of knowing a Vegas local if the strip is all you see?

Anyway, it should be a good weekend. Today and tomorrow I think I'm going to finish getting my materials together for a few of those creative writing fellowships, so wish me luck with that.

Today I'm thankful for you, family and friends who read this blog! And even if you're not family or friends, I'm thankful for you, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fallcation II: The Centennial State

I returned from my trip to Denver on Tuesday, and what a wonderful trip it turned out to be. I've been so stressed out lately, and visiting Leta gave me just the excuse I needed to relax.

The trip didn't start out in a particularly relaxing manner. I arrived Friday morning, and Leta was working, so I took the bus to Tattered Cover to attend to some work of my own. I was continuing with my French translation, and when I took a break to check my phone, I read about the horrible attacks in Paris. It was bizarre, having been there so recently, and I couldn't stop checking Twitter for updates, even though I was feeling physically ill reading about it. I was glad when Leets finally showed up, as her presence was profoundly comforting--not that my emotional well-being was really the important thing that day. 

The rest of the weekend was calmer. I didn't get as much writing done as I thought I would, but I did revamp my resume, and I wrote a statement of purpose for one of the fellowships to which I'm applying. We toured some of Denver's finest cafes--The Denver Bicycle Cafe and St. Mark's Coffeehouse, to be specific. Turns out chai tea is not low-FODMAP friendly. (Remember that unfortunate diet I'm on?) Whoops. Living dangerously, I guess. I'd trade a stomachache for a spicy bhakti chai any day, though. Totally worth it.

On Sunday, Leta, Nick, and I met up with a bunch of their friends at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to tour the new Sherlock Holmes exhibit! In case you weren't aware, I'm something of a Holmes fanatic. Yes, yes, I watch Sherlock (though I still prefer Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch), but my true love is the canon itself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original mysteries. I own the entire collection in two paperbacks, and they have quite literally traveled around the world with me--I even brought them to China when I studied there. I've read them more times than I can count.

So I was pretty psyched about this exhibit. It begins with information about Conan Doyle's life, and London during the time that he wrote. They had lots of first editions of the stories, and letters that Conan Doyle wrote to various friends and colleagues--he had such neat handwriting! After that, things get interactive. Holmes needs you to solve a case, of course! The game's afoot! (You can tell how excited I was by my increasing exclamation points.) There's a full-on crime scene for you to carefully examine, and every visitor receives a special notepad so they can record the clues. You have to go to the slaughterhouse to compare blood spatter patterns, the greenhouse to identify the seedpod found near the bodies, and so on. It was a little silly, perhaps, but lots of fun. I just wanted the tiny children to get out of the way so I could investigate in peace. Adults want to participate fully in interactive museum exhibits too, okay? Nerdy adults with unhealthy literary obsessions, anyway.

What else did we do? Talked and talked and talked. Alienated poor Nick with our consistently girly movie selections--Ever After, Mean Girls, and 9 to 5. It was actually the first time I'd ever seen 9 to 5, and I'm not sure how I made it this far without this film in my life. It is basically a film made to appeal specifically to me, because I too wish to destroy men with slapsticky subterfuge. I mean, what? #notallmen. Whatever. Dolly Parton's adorable. 

We also played Bananagrams until almost 2 a.m. As you do. It snowed my last night there, and the next day the ground was all white and the sky was all grey--except for right above the mountains, where there was a thin strip of powder blue. It was beautiful

Can I just take a moment to remind everyone how Leta is basically the best human on the planet? She is relentlessly caring and supportive, and she's also extraordinarily perceptive, to the point where she understands things about me that I don't understand about myself, and can therefore give me the best advice. I have no idea where I'd be without her. I'd probably be dead. Well, maybe not dead. But I would certainly be significantly less well-adjusted than I am now. 

Cue the jokes about me not being well-adjusted at all.

Anyway, it was a great trip, but now I'm back to the grind. Sort of. I think the end of the semester should actually be fairly mellow. My translation's in a good place, and I don't have any more papers to grade until early December. I have to apply for some of those fellowships, but the applications aren't very rigorous, all things considered. Hopefully I can just write a lot. Which is still the whole point of me being in Vegas, even if some of these blog posts would suggest otherwise. 

I will leave you with two facts:

1) Visiting Leta brings my 2015 flight total to 23. My trip back to Chicago on December 15th will make it 24--an average of two flights per month!

2) David Bowie released a new music video today, and it is glorious.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Trading in the Spring Mountains for the Rockies

I've earned a little vacation, don't you think?

Good thing I'm heading to Denver this weekend to visit miss Leta! Last year's ColoRADo vacation was so delightful that I couldn't help but demand a sequel. It looks like it probably won't snow while I'm there, which is a shame. But Leets and I have lots of exciting plans in the works. I won't go into too much detail here, as I want to have something to blog about when I get back. But I will say that much of our time will likely be spent at the Tattered Cover, drinking bhakti chai and writing.

Writing vacations are the best vacations.

What else? I'm thinking of applying for some creative writing fellowships, but the application fees are so expensive. I'm sure it's to help weed out less serious candidates, as ridiculous amounts of people apply each year. For instance, The Stegner's website says that they received 1,700 applications last year for 10 fellowships. But I'm sure they're weeding out the wrong people this way. It's hard enough for a grad student like me to scrounge up the money for this ($75 for the Stegner, $50 for most others), and I'm a privileged brat who'll probably (hopefully) make up the loss in Christmas cash. But what about all the people who are significantly less privileged and yet would like to pursue their writing more seriously? It's troubling to me that these fellowships don't view their fees as prohibitive, especially considering that all the people working at these places probably believe themselves to be as liberal as can be.

At any rate, if I do apply for these fellowships, I certainly won't be applying for many.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Roller Coaster

I was doing so well, Internet. I was writing every day, I was full of energy, I was in all aspects on top of my game.

Then my body had to freak out. Horrible stomach pains, back pains, no appetite, exhaustion. And a whopping dose of anxiety on top of that--this is me we're talking about. I did manage to read some fiction at Neon Lit dressed as David Bowie in the middle of all this because I am a consummate badass. Nevertheless, it was not fun.

Fortunately(?), the gastroenterology appointment I had scheduled weeks and weeks ago was on Thursday, so he recommended I go on a low-FODMAP diet. This basically means that I have to cut out all potential allergy-inducing foods for a month and then add them back in one at a time to see which one might be bothering me. I have to ditch some of the foods you'd expect--dairy, gluten--but also some odd and, quite frankly, devastating foods, like avocado. (I miss you already, avocado!) For the past few days I've been surviving mostly on fresh fruits, raw veggies, and Cheerios. This is not the easiest thing to tackle when you hate cooking.

I can handle it, though. What's really getting to me is the exhaustion, which has not abated. It feels like I haven't been sleeping, even though I've been getting roughly 7-9 hours a night. I'm a little afraid to drive, honestly. I've been exercising, but probably not enough--I hardly want to get out of my bed. And it's hard to concentrate on anything, which is a big problem when you're supposed to be writing a novel and grading papers. Went to the Student Health Center on Friday and had blood drawn to test for a wide spectrum of things, so hopefully if it's something obvious they'll catch it.

Or maybe it's just a terrible reaction to Daylight Savings Time. Why do we even have that anymore? Nobody wants the sun to set this early.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Ethics of Absolute Pleasure

Ever since I first watched it as a teenager, I've been a huge fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I've seen it countless times, both in the privacy of my own home and in movie theaters complete with audience participation. I was even a cast member in a local theater production during high school--just in the chorus, but it was still a blast.

So when I heard that Fox was going to do a television remake of Rocky Horror for the 40th anniversary, I thought that it was a terrible idea. The cheap set, the tacky costumes, Tim Curry's ridiculous face--you can't beat that. A remake could only be worse.

Until I heard who had won the coveted role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter: Laverne Cox! Suddenly I was enthusiastic about the idea. If they simply hired someone to do a poor impression of Tim Curry, the whole thing would be a mess. But casting a woman is a fantastic move; there's no doubt in my mind that Ms. Cox will take it in a direction all her own.

Ah, but then Facebook pointed me to this Tumblr post. In it, the author makes a point that I hadn't considered, but it's completely valid, and we should all be worried about it: that if Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, takes the role of Frank, it will only confirm in people's minds the awful stereotype that trans women are nothing more than crossdressing men. Society already perpetuates so many harmful misconceptions about transgender people that, depending on the popularity of the remake, this could be a blow to transgender activism.

But that's not the part of her post I want to talk about--that point speaks for itself. It's this paragraph I want to address: "Dr. Frank-N-Furter is not an example of positive queer representation. He is a ton of shitty, old-fashioned queer exploitation stereotypes mashed into a single character. He’s a vampy, cruel, selfish, abusive, violent murderer and rapist. Y’all, he rapes people and keeps sex slaves. Not a role model."

Just to be clear: I 100% agree with this point. Couldn't have said it better. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an extremely poor example of a queer character, and he's undeniably a villain. The thing I take issue with is that the movie never tries to suggest that he's not a villain.

True, Frank is presented more as an anti-hero rather than an obvious villain. Much like his pseudo-namesake, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, some part of us is supposed to be lured in by his quest for absolute pleasure, just as we are lured in by Frankenstein's quest to defy death. However, we also recognize that both quests are impossible, and we understand that the doctors' refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of their quests is what erodes their sanity and leads them to do disgusting, horrific things. As campy as it is, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cautionary tale: absolute pleasure leads to absolute destruction. In the name of pleasure, Dr. Frank-N-Furter abuses, rapes, and kills, and in the end, he pays the ultimate price: Riff Raff, a longtime victim of his crazed master's ill-treatment, shoots him with a laser beam.

We could debate the ethics of anti-heroes, about whether it's ever appropriate to enjoy stories about villains. But personally, I think it is appropriate. If we can't enjoy Dr. Frank-N-Furter, then we also can't enjoy Victor Frankenstein, or Erik from The Phantom of the Opera, or Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or basically anyone from Game of Thrones. I think that audiences are intelligent enough to recognize the errors of these characters' ways. We can appreciate their stories and personalities while at the same time understanding that their villainous acts are in no way justified.

If you're interested, Internet, I would love to open a dialogue about this. I am aware that I could be wrong. I have been wrong about things in the past, and I'm certain that I will continue to be wrong about some things in the future. It's entirely possible that I am too blinded by my love of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to adequately consider its faults, so I would be grateful to hear your thoughts on the subject. And really, what better subject could there be for a Halloween debate?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


I had a shocking realization this afternoon: unless I go on to get a creative writing PhD someday, the class I attended this evening may the the last time my writing is ever formally workshopped.

How can this be? It was only slightly over two years ago that my writing was workshopped for the first time (I never took any creative writing courses as an undergraduate), and now it may never be again. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm sure there are many informal workshops in my future. I do still have friends, after all. It's not like I have to go sequester myself and become a hermit now.

But still.

Fortunately, workshop went very well. I couldn't have asked for a better last workshop, honestly. I received a great deal of astute feedback, and quite a few compliments to boot. And I'll still be in workshop critiquing my classmates' pieces for a few months yet. Nevertheless, I felt that this momentous and bittersweet occasion was deserving of its own blog entry.

Cue the sappy music of your choice.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why hello there...

Sorry for the long silence. I'm happy to report that midterms week is finally over. Not that I had to take any tests, but I did have to grade 50 student papers and submit their grades to the department, along with submitting my own work to workshop again, and on top of all that my car broke down. (It's fixed now.) On the bright side, all that stress seems to have shoved my brain out of the hypochondriac anxiety mode in which it had been stuck for a few weeks. Feeling a lot better in general.

My last few posts have been downers, so let's take a look at some good things that have happened:

I watched Father John Misty play on the roof of The Cosmopolitan! If you're familiar with Father John Misty's work, and you're thinking that Las Vegas is a strange setting for his music, you would be 100% correct. He was all sarcasm, and upon spying Britney Spears' face plastered over the Planet Hollywood casino across the street, he promptly challenged her to a singing duel. This was the third time I'd seen him in concert, though the only time I'd not seen him in Chicago. He continues to be a wonderful live performer.

I attended a board game party! We played no board games--only card games (Bang!, specifically) and a mini-RPG titled Actual Cannibal Shia Laboeuf, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I went to the Vegas Valley Book Festival!  Sat in on Olivia's panel and Maile's panel, saw popular Nevada writer Claire Vaye Watkins and the famous Irish writer Colum McCann. Took lots of notes.

I booked a plane ticket to see Leta in November! Last year's wintry visit to Denver was so magnificent that I couldn't resist a sequel. Plus I found a super cheap ticket.

I delighted in the multiple thunderstorms and not-so-thundery-storms that have watered Las Vegas for the past few days. At this point I wouldn't mind if it rained for a month--I miss weather. But I think we're back to sunshine now, with much cooler temperatures, thank goodness.

Life has been good, but it has been busy. I'm very excited for next weekend, when I have exactly zero plans. I'm going to WRITE THINGS. What a drastic change of pace.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Sweet Sight of Publication

Many of you probably already know this via Facebook, but on Monday my flash fiction story "Radioactive Teeth" was published by Paper Darts, a fantastic art and literary journal out of Minneapolis. They have artists illustrate each of the stories they publish, so now there's a painting to go along with my words. The story was a finalist for Paper Darts' Short Fiction Award, and I'm so honored they chose it. I really believed in this one--I knew it would make it someday.

Monday was an especially good day for publication, too, because I've been having a rough week. I thought the panic attack I had upon my return from Chicago was bad, but then a few days a later I had an even worse attack--so bad I went to the Student Health Center so they could confirm that lunacy was the only thing wrong with me. I have to say, the Student Health services at UNLV are top-notch. They didn't treat me like I was losing my mind at all. They took me seriously, listened to my concerns, did what they could for me, and even called on Monday to follow up. I tip my metaphorical hat to them.

I think I'm finally calming down from last week (maybe, hopefully--I don't want to jinx it). It was so frustrating, not only because panic is essentially the worst feeling in the entire world, but also because I'd been doing so well for so long. I hadn't had a real panic attack since last Christmas. But this new bout with severe anxiety has encouraged me to redouble my efforts to deal with it. I'm finally going through that anxiety workbook I purchased long ago, I finally made an appointment with a gastroenterologist to address my long-term stomach problems (fewer bad feelings in my body means less hypochondria for me), and I think I'm finally going to try to find a therapist that can see me consistently (you can only get so many sessions at the Student Health Center).

The point is, it was so wonderful to see my story published on Monday, because it served as a reminder that sometimes my brain does good things instead of stupid things. I look forward to better taking care of my brain so that it can continue to produce good things in the future.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


I spent last weekend in the wonderful land of Chicago, visiting all my friends and my family. The weather wasn't quite as cool as I would have liked (it's still over 100 degrees here in Vegas), but it was an excellent Fallcation nonetheless.

I flew in Friday, and hopped on the train to Mickey's new apartment, where we pet the cats and talked and talked and talked. May not sound exciting to you, but trust me--it was rad. That night we met up with Gena and Marty and Felipe and Ben and Lindsey (and briefly Alex) for burgers and $10 sangria pitchers on the spacious, shaded patio of Moody's Pub. We stuffed ourselves and relived our post-college days, eventually moving back to Ben's place for board games and relaxing on the back porch. Nothing can compare to Chicago back porches. They are the best.

Lula Cafe is one of the most famous brunch places in the entire city of Chicago, and although I lived in the city for seven years, I never ate there. Until Saturday, that is. Mickey lives in Logan Square now, so we just walked right over. Ran into my friend Shayne, which wasn't surprising, as I tend to run into her all over the country. The food was as tasty as I expected, if a little pricey. We walked around Logan for a while, then went shopping for picnic fixins. (Trips to Chicago are mostly about eating.) Our evening plans involved an outdoor showing of the 1993 Halloween classic Hocus Pocus in a cemetery. Felipe came over and we drank lots of tea, and then we headed out. Unfortunately, the line for the movie wrapped around the block. There was no way we were getting in, so we settled on watching the movie on Mickey's laptop and eating at her place. And talking. And talking. And talking. What can I say? We all had a lot of catching up to do.

On Sunday Mickey and I headed to Mojo Spa for their Harry Potter party, which apparently wasn't quite as magical as last year's. There were fewer activities, which was disappointing, but the food was great (see this photo), and we left with amazing goody bags filled with Harry Potter-themed treats. After that we met up with Felipe for lunch at Handlebar, which, I was pleased to discover, still serves some of the best vegetarian food in the city.

Mickey dropped me at the L, where I took the red line to the purple line all the way to Evanston, where my parents picked me up. My sister was supposed to play a show at Space that night, but the venue canceled last minute. So (stay with me here), my mom's work partner's friend, a well-known investigative journalist who had purchased several tables' worth of seats at the canceled show, moved the party back to his lovely old house in Evanston. So I hung out with a bunch of people I mostly didn't know, eating delicious food, listening to Bittersweet Drive play music and watching the blood moon eclipse. I also enjoyed perusing our host's collection of historic political campaign buttons, because I am a nerd.

Speaking of Bittersweet Drive, you should consider funding their Indiegogo campaign!

Anyway, Monday I just stayed home in the suburbs and cuddled the dogs and hung out in pajamas with my mom. It was pretty great. Everyone needs a pajama day once in a while.

Here's the thing: when I got back to Vegas, I had easily the worst panic attack I've had in a year. This always happens when I travel home to Chicago. I either have a bad panic attack when I'm in Chicago, or immediately upon my return. I wonder whether visiting home triggers them somehow, as it's where I first started getting panic attacks? I don't know, but it's really annoying, and I haven't slept well since. I'll have to get back into my exercise routine. That usually helps.

And now I have to buy groceries as I have nothing to eat in my home. Which means I have to put on clothes. What a shame.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Busy Bee & Chicago Bound

Again I must apologize for the lack of blogging. It would be an understatement to say that the past week has kept me on my toes. On Tuesday my story was up in workshop--and it went well! Or at least I think it went well. There were several concrete criticisms, which are always better than wishy-washy, vague comments. Some of it I anticipated; I suspected that I had accidentally left some important things off the page. Some of it, however, I didn't anticipate. For instance, I need to start kicking myself every time I describe someone's hair. Too much hair.

On Wednesday we had our first Emerging Writers Series event of the year with author Kirsten Valdez Quade. Since I'm on the EWS committee (meaning I helped decide which authors to bring for the series), I had lunch with her and Brett and Scott. She was gracious and generous in her craft talk, and she's a wonderful reader, as we discovered later that evening. You should definitely check out her book of short stories Night at the Fiestas.

On Friday we had our first Neon Lit of the semester. I don't go in for astrology, but the Internet keeps telling me that Mercury's in retrograde, whatever that means. Something was in the air, though; little things kept going awry. There were parking issues thanks to early Life is Beautiful set-up, one of our readers dropped out last minute (but we were able to find a replacement even more last-minute), our MC's printer broke so we had to print her intros at the store. Luckily, the reading itself was delightful. We had a good mix of first, second, and third years, and I think everyone had a good time. I can't wait until the October reading--we'll all be in costume for Halloween.

I wish I could say that I get to take a breather this upcoming week, but that's not the case. There's a reading we're supposed to go to after workshop on Tuesday, but I might skip it, as I'm trying to grade all my students' papers. (Today's hilarious student flub: "The author implies that the police are hippocrates." Instead of hypocrites. Ugh.) Thursday evening there's another BMI panel with Gary Snyder, and later that evening Michael's launching his book at Velveteen Rabbit.

Basically I'm never going to sleep again.

But I must sleep! For on Friday I'm flying to Chicago for one glorious weekend. And do you know what it will be in Chicago? Autumn! Changing leaves and brisk air and---oh my god I just looked up the weather and it's going to be in the high seventies. Dammit. Cooler than Vegas, but not cool enough.

Before I go, there's one thing you must know: my little sister is a fantastic folk musician, and she's trying to raise money to produce a new record with her duo Bittersweet Drive. Have a look at the fundraising campaign page, listen to some of their music, and if it charms you as much as it charms me, please throw a few dollars their way. If you can't contribute, spreading the word would help just as much! Thank you.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Where in the World is Becky Robison?

Now I just want to wear a big, broad-brimmed red hat.

The reason I haven't blogged for so long is that I was in Los Angeles for Labor Day weekend visiting Katie. I had a glorious time. We ate brunch every single day. Every. Single. Day. Eggs are the most versatile food, and perhaps the most delicious.

We also went to Ikea. We also lounged around her apartment or by the pool and read books. (I'm reading Jennifer Pashley's The Scamp at the moment. Once I finish, you know where the review will be.) I also managed to see Kenzie and Alex on my last night there, which was wonderful. Katie and I were probably busiest on Friday, which ended up being a very macabre day. First we went to the Museum of Death, which is something I've wanted to do for a while. I'm a big fan of serial killers, doomsday cults, the like. I guess I should say I'm a fan of reading about serial killers, doomsday cults, the like. Anyway, this place was a little intense, even for me. I'm pretty good at dealing with gore, but after spending two hours winding around low-ceilinged, claustrophobic hallways plastered with grisly crime scene photos of mangled corpses, I was relieved to get back out into the sunshine. I'd still recommend a trip if you like creepy things.

That night we went to a showing at the L.A. Shorts Fest, as Katie's friend's friend had a film in it. For whatever reason, the majority of the short films during that showing had to do with death. There was one about female serial killers, another about the Jewish shemira tradition of watching over a dead body until burial, another sort of funny murder mystery in a corporate office setting. The day definitely had an inadvertent theme.

I flew to and from L.A.--I don't trust my car to make it--and when I was waiting for my flight back, I decided to count how many flights I'd been on this year. NINETEEN. Nineteen separate flights. And I'll be on a plane again in just a few weeks when I head to Chicago for a visit (!!!). I believe I qualify as a jetsetter.

I didn't blog when I got back because I had to play catch-up. Not much work was getting done in L.A., that's for sure. This week I talked about police brutality against black Americans with my students, and as always, I was impressed by how thoughtful and respectful they were during their discussion. That's not sarcasm; they may write terrible papers, but I find that when I ask them to read and think about complex, uncomfortable, and tragic situations, they rise to the occasion. I only had one mildly off-putting comment from a frat boy, and the other students corrected him, not me. I was very proud.

Wednesday I spent literally all day editing ~50 pages of my novella for workshop--except for a brief trip to the climbing gym. Have I mentioned my novella? That's kind of weird. It's my blog, and I haven't mentioned what I'm writing? Here's the deal: I was tight-lipped about it for a while. I was afraid I would jinx it and not be able to finish it if I talked about it with anyone. But I finished a draft! A little over 100 pages. I wrote 2/3 of it while I was in France, initially at a manic pace. The idea was so forceful in my head that I scribbled down the first two chapters in a week. I wrote the final third while I was in Vegas, and I honestly think that's the weakest part of the draft. It didn't help that I was recovering from wisdom tooth surgery while working on chapter 7. Chapter 7 is a mess. But that's what revising is for.

I think I'm still going to be vague about it here. Those of you who need to look at it are already looking at it. Don't want to jinx the editing process. Let's just say that it's super annoying when people say "write what you know," but they may have a point. It's a lot easier.

What else is important for you to know? Oh yes--my dearest darlingest Olivia Clare's first book of poetry, The 26-Hour Day, is out now! You should buy it because poetry is good for you, and Olivia's poetry is so good for you that were it edible, it would be marketed as superfood. The only reason I haven't purchased it yet is that I will be doing so on October 2nd, when she has her book launch at The Writer's Block. She will hopefully sign it for me, and then one day, when she is ultra-famous, I will flip through its pages and sigh and say I knew her when...

I mean, I'm sure we'll also still be friends and that I can call her up after all the sighing and say hello. But still.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Addressing Misogyny in Workshop

Last night in our fiction workshop, a classmate reacted defensively when he was questioned about misogynist elements in one of his stories. I'm concerned that I may have reacted too angrily to his defensiveness--and yet at the same time, I feel that my anger is deserved. When critiquing male writers' stories, I can suggest that they slash characters, alter dialogue, change whole endings, and all that is fine. They aren't upset by those kinds of edits. But the second I bring up misogyny, it's as if they stop listening altogether. No, not me, I couldn't possibly hate women, let me tell you what I really meant--and the worst response of all: this is integral to my story. 

The problem is that male writers are misinterpreting critiques regarding misogyny. When I say, "there are elements of misogyny in this piece," they hear, "you are a misogynist." And that's not at all what I mean! I don't believe that most of these writers actively hate women. I don't believe that they spend their evenings hunched over their keyboards, twirling their cartoon mustaches and plotting ways to take those meddling females down a peg. I only mean that they are steeped in an inherently misogynist, patriarchal culture the same way that everyone else is, including me. 

Most instances of misogyny in workshop stories are careless, thoughtless--thoughtless precisely because most misogyny is enacted by people adhering to social norms without questioning those norms. That's why misogyny is dangerous and so difficult to dispel; it's insidious, built into the structures of everyday life. I think it's okay for characters in a story to be misogynist. People are misogynist in real life, so it makes perfect sense for fiction to reflect that--as long as the victims of the character's misogyny are not the butt of the joke.* 

Unfortunately, more frequently than not, the victims are the butt of the joke--and that's only because the author hasn't closely examined his work for misogyny. That's why the response that "this is integral to my story" is particularly maddening. It is absolutely not integral to your story. I can't recall a single workshop story where the misogyny has been integral. It always appears as a trope trotted out on the page by someone who hasn't yet questioned that trope. 

This doesn't happen exclusively to men. Women (and people of all genders) are equally steeped in our patriarchal culture. There are often instances where I write a story, and then I have to question whether or not my portrayal of a female character is misogynist. Happens all the time. The difference is that I bother to question it at all. When I bring up misogyny in workshop, I'm merely trying to hold my classmates to the same standard. 

Sometimes workshop critiques can be brutal, but ultimately we're trying to help each other succeed. One day my classmates will submit their stories to editors, and if those editors spot unwarranted misogyny in the work, they may not select it for publication. Those editors may believe my classmates to be thoughtless jerks, when they aren't really thoughtless jerks at all. 

That's why defensiveness is a poor reaction. I am only bringing the misogyny up because I like my classmates, I think they're good writers, and I believe that they deserve success. Please excuse the cliché, but I wish they wouldn't bite the hand that feeds them. 

*The same applies to racism, homophobia, etc.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Great Automobile Kerfuffle of 2015

When I moved to Las Vegas, Mickey and Leta and I drove out here in what until that point had been my mother's 2003 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. As a Chicago resident, I never needed a car; for as often as people complain about it, the CTA is reliable and efficient--trains and buses took me everywhere I needed to go for $100/month. The Beetle was my mom's 50th birthday present from my dad, and he conveniently gifted her with a newer, better car for her 60th birthday, which fell right before I moved. Therefore, The Beetle was passed to a very-grateful me, who desperately needed some means of transport out here in the desert.

Here's the thing, though: The Beetle is now twelve years old, and though it still has fewer than 100,000 miles on the odometer, it's showing its age. Every six months something goes wrong with it. I'll bring it in for an oil change and leave with a list of a dozen other problems that need to be addressed. Lights pop on the dashboard and disappear again like some sadistic carnival game. It's maddening. All I want to do is move back to a place with decent public transit. I do not think car ownership is for me. The only thing I like about it is that it's a convertible. Vegas nights are good for putting the top down.

Lately, though, the automobile-related chaos has reached absurd levels. I'm fairly certain I've been written into someone's comedy of errors. It started when I noticed that my parents hadn't sent a new license plate sticker. The car is still registered in Illinois because if I switched it to Nevada plates, my car insurance would go up many hundreds of dollars. Fortunately I'm a student, not technically a legal resident of Nevada, so I can get away with it. Anyway, I found this odd, because normally I receive a new sticker around this time of year.

I called my mom. (Call your mom sometimes, guys.) She said that they couldn't get a new sticker because I needed to get an emissions test first. Good. Fine. I can do that.

I look up the official locations to receive an emissions test on the Nevada DMV website. There's one down the street. Excellent. I go there.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but the outlet below the wheel, where we need to plug in the equipment, is broken. You'll have to get it fixed first."

Of course it's broken. I should have known better. He recommends a Firestone Automotive place up the street that can fix the car and do the emissions test. The next morning, I head there.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but this is something only the dealership can fix. You'll have to make an appointment there."

The nearest Volkswagen dealership is out in the suburb of Henderson. I give them a call. After being transferred twice to the wrong department, the receptionist finally connects me with the service department. They do not have any appointments available until Tuesday. My plates expire on Monday. Of course they do. Is it legal to Sharpie in a "6" on the sticker until I resolve this? Probably not.

I make an appointment for Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. It's an appointment. They will fix my car at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. I awake bright and early this morning, and drive to Henderson.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we can't get this in until 11:30 or noon."

Of course they can't. "Fine. How do I get back?"

"We have a shuttle."

"Great! When can they take me?"

"In about two hours."

I am not spending two hours at a fucking car dealership listening to Taylor Swift on repeat and drinking bottled water. I haven't eaten breakfast. I have to teach a class at 11:30.

This is where my wonderful friends swoop in to save me from my fate. Thanks, Joe, for picking me up and making yourself late to work! You are a champ. Also: Thanks, Danielle, for taking me to the dealership after their shuttle has stopped running so that I can pick up my car! You, too, are worthy of the champ title.

Barring any unforeseen complications (in this saga, unforeseen complications happen so frequently that they no longer truly qualify as unforeseen), I will have my car back tonight, though I'm sure I'll lose a couple hundred bucks in the process. Wish me luck, and write your congresspeople. Tell them that high-speed rail and improved public transit are imperative for American society.

p.s. I wrote a review of Vu Tran's Dragonfish on my other blog.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Financial Illiteracy

When I graduated from Loyola Chicago in 2010, I graduated as a highly privileged millennial, financially atypical from the rest of my generation. Thanks to many academic scholarships and overly-generous parents, I managed to escape student loan debt altogether. (There were some small loans in my name, but I paid them back during college by working part-time at Borders, and I paid my parents directly, while they actually dealt with the banks.) Immediately upon graduation, I was hired by a company that paid me very well and gave me very good benefits--again, not something that happened to most people my age. Sure, I'm type-A, I'm a hard worker, whatever. That's not the point. I was (am) extraordinarily lucky, and I'm grateful for it.

I worked at that well-paid job for three years. (Full-time, that is--I still work for them part-time and remotely.) My salary was large enough that I had the luxury of not having to budget in any formal way. I knew what my rent was, what my share of the bills roughly was each month, and I never had to make a high-ticket purchase of any kind. I was living in Chicago, where the public transit is great, so I didn't have to worry about a car. I had health and dental insurance and a 401(k) from my employer. Because of all this, I saved up a decent amount of money--without having to think about saving it. There was never a fixed amount of money I set aside each month or anything like that. It just pooled up in my account, and I worked hard enough that my boss kept giving me raises.

While all this sounds ideal--and it was, in many ways--I decided to leave that job to pursue my fiction writing MFA. Rather, I decided to do that assuming I could get into an MFA program that would give me a full-ride and a stipend, as I wasn't willing to go into debt to do it. And in another ridiculous stroke of luck, I was accepted by the program here in Vegas. So many things that have happened in my life are based almost entirely on a shiny gold fairy-dust foundation of good luck. I'm constantly nervous that my luck will disappear and everything will collapse.

Anyway, even though the MFA program is (mostly) tuition-free and does provide a stipend, I knew that I'd be taking a significant pay cut to come here, and that I'd probably have to eat into my savings to a certain extent. And that's exactly what happened. I've still got a cushion, but whereas that cushion used to be stuffed with down feathers and covered in silk, it's now more like a stylish throw pillow from Target. For whatever bullshit bureaucratic reason, the university doesn't start paying us until October 1st, so I still have another month until the end of the salary dry spell. Therefore, I've been thinking a lot about finances lately--especially since I'm graduating in May and will have to figure out something else to do with my life.

Here's the thing: I don't understand anything about money, and it causes me a great deal of anxiety.

Let's start with my 401(k), which I still have. What is a 401(k), exactly? I know I put money into it, and my employer matches some of it, and then when I'm too old to do anything interesting with that money I supposedly get it back. I know that the money is in stocks. I think? Or "mutual funds"? Which are possibly many stocks bundled together, but I could be wrong. What does the title "401(k)" refer to? What does the "k" stand for? If it's retirement savings, why doesn't it have a nice, comforting name rather than something that sounds like a tax form or a mile marker? There is an online account where I can check on and adjust my 401(k). I have never checked on it. I don't remember the password.

How does the stock market work in general? When I was in 7th grade we had to do a stock project, where we got into groups and pretended to buy stock in various companies. The thing I remember most is that my group invested in Krispy Kreme, and when we went to our local Krispy Kreme and told them that, they gave us free donuts. (Donuts!) People seem to blame stock market problems on the president, but I don't understand what the president has to do with it at all. He's just one person; he can't magically raise and lower the price of stocks. Also--the price of stocks falls when people sell their stocks, right? That's why the price falls? So couldn't we just solve the problem of stock market crashes if everyone just bought stock and never sold it? Or sold it in only very small increments from time to time? Wouldn't it at least stay relatively even that way?

I understand what interest is. I think. If a bank gives you a loan, they charge you for more than you're borrowing because they're jerks, and you have to pay a certain percentage more each month so that they get their cut. Please tell me this is what interest is. I'm pretty sure that's what it is. But how do they decide interest rates? Do banks just get to decide willy-nilly? Are there laws about it? Also, I've heard about people "refinancing" loans and getting a different interest rate. How the hell does that work?

Let's move on to health insurance. What on earth is a deductible? If I'm not mistaken, it works this way: I pay a ton of money for health insurance, and then they make me pay even more money before they actually provide me with the service I paid for. How is that even legal? Isn't that fraud?  It seems as though every time I think my insurance will cover something, it doesn't cover it. Out here in Vegas, it's pretty good as long as my problem is something the student health clinic can take care of. If I have to go see a specialist, it's very expensive, even if I have a referral. Which is why I'll just eat bland foods to deal with the weird stomach issues that have been plaguing me for months and months and months rather than go see a gastroenterologist. I don't think I can afford the many hundreds of dollars it would take to do that, especially if it required multiple trips. Maybe I could technically afford it, but I certainly don't want to pay it. Why do we trust health insurance companies if it's in their financial interest not to help you when you're sick? I'd give anything for socialized medicine. #BernieSanders2016

As I'm sure you're beginning to understand, I am truly oblivious when it comes to financial matters. And I suspect I'm not the only one. The worst thing about it is that even though I know I should understand all this, I have absolutely no desire to learn about it. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, it makes me extremely nervous. Just writing all this down I'm feeling panicky--throat tight, quick pulse, all that. But the other problem is that finances are utterly dull. There's nothing interesting or beautiful or whimsical about numbers, so my brain tries to forget that they exist most of the time.

There really should have been a required course about all this in college--or even in high school. Because there wasn't, I can only hope that I'll write a bestselling novel and become filthy rich so I can hire a financial planner and personal accountant. I suppose I can also hope that there's an app for that. Hey now--Buzzfeed informs me that there are many apps for that! Maybe I won't end up homeless and starving after all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Last First Day of School?

Today is the first day of school for my final year in the MFA program. Third year already! How has this happened? If I don't go off and get any more graduate degrees (and I might--you never know), this could be my last first day of school ever. That makes me sad. I like school. I'm much better at functioning in school than I am in real life. I think it's because school has concrete goals. Complete these steps, do this work, and you will graduate. Real life has no concrete goals. Do this job, indefinitely, until you get bored and decide to do another job. Get married, or don't. Have kids, or don't. It doesn't matter. Perhaps I just need to be better at setting personal goals, rather than letting an administration set them for me. Or perhaps I need to find some other meaning in life besides achievement. Things to ponder later...

It may be the first day of school, but I don't actually have to be on campus today. I'm only taking one real class this semester--fiction workshop with Doug Unger--and it's not until tomorrow evening. I also have thesis hours with Doug, and my translation project with Don Revell, but those both function as independent studies, so we'll probably have irregular meetings at best. I don't teach until tomorrow, either--English 102 again, two back-to-back sessions from 11:30-12:45 and 1:00-2:15. I'm already getting emails from students.

Speaking of teaching, I could use some help from the Internet hivemind. Normally for my students' first paper, I have them read three articles about and write a summary and short synthesis essay regarding sexual assault on college campuses. We have a large class discussion about it first--after I issue multiple trigger warnings, verbally and through emails, and even in the syllabus, as I don't want to traumatize anyone. I chose this subject for several reasons. First, my class is horror themed, and I wanted to touch upon real-life horror, especially a real-life horror that has some relevancy to their lives. I also want them to learn how to discuss difficult subjects respectfully--and the discussion usually goes remarkably well. Finally, I think it's important that someone discuss consent culture with them, as it's not something people normally teach in school. During those class discussions I often learn that my students have some serious misconceptions about sexual assault, mostly because no one has ever talked to them about it before.

I still think sexual assault on college campuses is an important subject, but there are other important subjects in the world, and I'd been teaching that one for three semesters straight. So for this semester, I decided to change it to police violence against black Americans. (You're right--Writing Project I is not the cheeriest assignment.) I'll still issue trigger warnings, of course. My worry is that I'm not as qualified to lead this discussion as I am to lead the discussion on sexual assault, as I'm much better versed in that area. I know I want to start the discussion with the concept of privilege, just so they can understand what it means--I usually have to do that in the discussion about sexual assault as well. But I was wondering if any of you can think of points that I should definitely touch upon, or any resources that might be helpful for the discussion. I'm going to search online to see if there are any guides for teaching about Ferguson, etc.--there usually are sample teaching guides for controversial subjects out there, thanks to the diligent teachers of the world. But any extra help would be greatly appreciated. For reference, the three articles I'm having them read are Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Nonviolence as Compliance," Roxane Gay's "Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion," and Charles M. Blow's "Police Abuse is a Form of Terror."

In other news, I spent last weekend with Lulu at her parents' place in charming Parowan, Utah. It really is beautiful up there, nestled at the base of these rolling, pine-tree-studded mountains. We saw wild turkeys and peacocks. We went garage-sale-ing and I found a first edition of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls for $1. We ate too much food. It was lovely. Though too much inaction gets to me sometimes--I'm mentally better off if I'm constantly doing things. So the break was nice, but I'm glad to dive into the semester and get some work done.

Ah. Getting work done. That's a thing I should probably do. Like, right now. Until next time...

Sunday, August 16, 2015


I've done so many themed posts lately; I think it's time for a general "what's going on with Becky's life" post, n'est-ce pas?

Overall, things are good. It was a bit of a rocky adjustment when I first got back to Vegas. One day I was jetlagged, the next I was in enormous pain after having my wisdom teeth removed. Staying inside for a week and resting was almost certainly good for my teeth, but not so great for my mental health. Some days I felt really sad, other days I felt really anxious. But then I healed up (for the most part), and my mood improved significantly. Had a raucous night out for Shaun's birthday--Champagne's and then The Golden Tiki, a brand new tiki bar in China town, which appeals very much to my 1960's kitsch sensibilities. Had dinner with Olivia. Resumed climbing with LeeAnn--my muscles are so pathetic after two months off! Helped welcome Shaun's friend Conor to Las Vegas life with a game of trivia at Atomic Liquors--we won, obviously--and a (far too late) night out on Fremont Street along with Danielle, Jesse, and others. Yesterday a bunch of us went swimming.

I started a new blog because I don't have enough of those already. Actually, it's a project with two goals. The first goal of The Backlog is contained within the title; I have a shameful backlog of books that I have purchased and have not yet read, so I'm cutting myself off from buying books (with a few reasonable exceptions) until I have finished them all. I suspect this will take years. In order to motivate myself to read the books, I'll be reviewing them on the blog when I finish them. This will also help me practice reviewing books in general--not such a bad skill to have in the literary world. The second, less obvious goal is to familiarize myself with WordPress. Until now I've always used Google Blogger as my blogging platform. It's straightforward and easy to use, and it lends itself to lengthy writing, which is more useful to me than sites like Tumblr, which lend themselves to photo/gif/video blogging. However, WordPress is clearly the standard these days for blogging platforms, to the extent that many business use it to create their websites. Almost every job listing I've seen in the past few years has cited WordPress familiarity as a desired skill. I worked with it a little when I was interning at Les Figues last summer, but other than that, my WordPress skills are fairly weak. My experience so far is that WordPress gives you microcontrol over every aspect of your site, which I imagine is extremely useful for business websites, but not as useful for basic blogs. For instance, when I use Blogger, images will autopopulate in the links I share on Facebook--either the blog logo, or the first picture in the post if I've included pictures. But with WordPress, I have to make sure I select an image that I want to use with the link when I share it online. I find it a bit irritating--but then, I can see where such small adjustments could be useful under certain circumstances.

Writing has been up and down lately. I tried to write when I was healing from my wisdom teeth surgery, but I'm sure I'll have to rewrite all of that--my head was foggy and in pain, and I just couldn't put the words on paper correctly. It's as though the thoughts I wanted were all there, but they came out in entirely the wrong order. Since then I have been writing, but not quite as much as I'd like. For some reason I'm finding it difficult to write in my house. But coffee shops are loud, as is the Student Union. The upstairs couches in Greenspun seem to work well. Today I might try the library. Normally I find libraries too quiet to get anything done, but we'll see how it goes.

I'm nervous about my thesis. I'm possibly even more nervous about thesis/life balance. On the one hand, my creative thesis is what I came here to do, and I've arranged my schedule in such a way that this is definitely the year to get it nice and polished; I have no literature classes, no essays to write. I still have to teach comp and grade essays, but I have literally no way of escaping that timesuck, as my stipend depends on it. This year is my own personal writer's retreat, or as close as I can make it to that. Unless I'm very lucky, it's probably the only time in my life I'll be able to solely dedicate to writing. On the other hand, I don't want to ignore my friends. But I think I have to ignore them, to a certain extent, in order to finish everything. Hopefully they will also be ignoring me, as they have their own theses to write. Hopefully. Note to friends: it's not that I don't love you, it's just that thesis.

Time to exercise. Then time to write. Then time to read. Let's get productive.

Monday, August 10, 2015

My Personal Summer Jams

Now that the summer is almost over--so swift, so cruel--I thought I'd write about some of the best music I've encountered over the past few months. When it's hot outside, I normally prefer the clash-bang of garage and punk rock, but overall this summer has been slightly less raucous. Here are the three artists that I can't get enough of at the moment:

1) Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends

You can't blame my Ezra Furman obsession solely on my strong affinity for androgyny--you can blame it partially on that, but not all of it. The kid's music is killer. Last summer I was addicted to his 2013 record Day of the Dog, a high energy rock album with a glittery glam edge, reminiscent of David Bowie with its liberal use of saxophone. This summer I'm all about his new album, Perpetual Motion People. It features what I'm going to call "sarcastic doo-wop" music, which I believe to be a stroke of genius. The album's lyrics discuss difficult issues including gender and sexual identity, depression, and Chicago's blatant socioeconomic/racial divide, and to juxtapose these themes with doo-wop, which evokes 1950's white-picket-fence "perfect" (and diversity-repulsed) America, makes his lyrics even more poignant. Listen to "Lousy Connection." Or "Wobbly." Hell, I don't know. They're all so good.

2) Lady Lamb

Lady Lamb was a relatively late summer revelation for me; Spotify has this new feature called "Discover Weekly," where it makes a playlist tailored to your tastes based on the other music to which you've listened. It seems Spotify has noticed my affection for badass female musicians, and I must give it credit for sending Lady Lamb my way. I suspect that generally people would categorized her as a folk musician--she is opening for The Tallest Man on Earth right now, after all--but her music is more like folk with a hot, chainsaw buzz running through it. Some of her songs, like "Dear Arkansas Daughter," move straight into rock. I'd also classify Lady Lamb as a composer as opposed to simply a musician; many of her songs, like "You Are the Apple," have clear movements. As far as her lyrics go, they're often delightfully twisted--"I still need your teeth around my organs" being a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with either of her albums--After or Ripley Pine.

3) Asaf Avidan

Yes, I've written about Asaf Avidan on this blog before--he was indeed the artist I traveled to Nice to see, which wasn't that crazy, as I was in Toulouse for the summer anyway. Here's the thing about Asaf Avidan: the man has range. Vocal range, yes. He can sing very very high, and very very low, but that's not really what I mean. His voice is odd in the most wonderful way; if young Marlon Brando were a good singer, he might sound like Asaf Avidan. (His vocals are also very Tallest Man on Earth-esque, now that I think of it.) And his music has range, too. He's another one people probably classify as a folk singer, but that's not entirely true. "Bang Bang" is a blues song. "My Tunnels Are Long and Dark These Days" is essentially a James Bond theme. "The Labyrinth Song" is a haunting folk ballad. "613 Shades of Sad," the first song of his I ever heard, is just kind of poppy-weird. He has lots of albums with past projects, but I'd recommend his two most recent solo albums, Different Pulses and Gold Shadow.

Now you have so much good music to listen to! Why are you still reading this? Get on it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.

This week I'm recovering from wisdom tooth extraction surgery once again. You may recall that I had one pulled in May, but my top two hadn't yet erupted, and therefore the students at the UNLV Dental School required more staff supervision to remove them. They took a bone saw to my face. To. My. Face. Awake the whole time. I am a badass.

Currently, I am also a chipmunk. Figured I may as well blog while I'm hiding.

Yesterday I read something that I can only describe as horrific. In her article "Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name," author Catherine Nichols describes a life that sounds like it could be mine in a year or two; she'd sent out a novel to agents before, received some kind responses, but no offers. Later, she started sending out her second novel--she knew it was a better manuscript overall, but she still received no offers. "I figured that I was paying my dues, keeping on keeping on, having roughly the same experience any other young writer would have," she says. If I were in her position, that's exactly what I would have thought, too.

Then one day, after a period of writer's block, she sent out the same manuscript under a male name. Everything was the same, right down to the cover letter, except the name. She had five responses from agents within 24 hours. "I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25."

This is disheartening news to me as a woman in general, and especially as a woman writer. And it's frustrating, too--makes me want to spit and scream. Bibliophiles are supposed to be liberal people; they're supposed to be at the forefront of social justice. Frequent reading is supposed to boost empathy, or so the scientists say. It's infuriating that the patriarchy is so insidious that it operates in publishing as well.

Not that this is a surprise to me--the bias towards men in literature is abundantly clear. Until high school, I'm hard pressed to think of a single book we read that featured a female main character. But three years in a row we did read books about boys surviving in the wilderness--My Side of the Mountain, The Sign of the Beaver, and Hatchet--as if that single, repetitive plot were utterly necessary to our education. (Though I should note that the first two on that list were written by women.) I read books in my spare time that were written by women and featured female characters--notably the Nancy Drew series--but the only book I can think of from grade school that was written by a woman and featured a female main character was Little House on the Prairie. In high school, we read Pride and Prejudice. Both a female author and primarily female characters? What madness is this?! I had some excellent AP literature teachers in high school who put books in the curriculum that one would normally never encounter until college, but the vast majority of them were still by men, and often about men: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (at least the main character is a woman), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (at least it's by and about a POC), Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler (at least they didn't fire our teacher for having us read a book featuring a threesome). Now that I think of it, we did read Louise Erdrich--a woman AND a Native American. Who'd have imagined one could find all this diversity in a Catholic school? The first two years of high school, though, I received the standard, male-dominated literature curriculum--The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace. This doesn't stop in college, though one might have the opportunity to take separate classes dedicated to women writers. Last year I took a class that featured literature in translation. Only one of the authors was a woman.

This patriarchal canon makes men less able to empathize with women's stories.* For our entire lives, women have been forced to read and empathize with men's stories--that's why there's no "men's lit" section in bookstores. Male literature is suitable for everyone, but when a woman writes a book, no matter how well-crafted, it's relegated to "women's lit"--because why would a man want to read a story about a woman? If a woman writes about a man, maybe it's worth their time. Even among the men I respect most, the men who embrace feminism and actively try to check their privilege, I notice this. I loaned a male friend my copy of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which features a teenage female protagonist. The book was critically well-received--it was even a finalist for the Pulitzer. Karen Russell writes some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read in my life. My friend's response was that it was okay, but that he wanted to know more about alligator wrestling.

Yes. Because the alligator wrestling was the point. (It's not.)

I want to believe he simply didn't care for the book. There are many universally-beloved books that I simply don't care for. People have literally threatened me because I hate Tolkien so much (with the exception of The Hobbit). But men so frequently criticize woman authors, and especially stories about women, that I can't help but wonder whether the dislike has simply been ingrained in them, taught to them by their schoolteachers. When teachers assign primarily male authors and stories about men, they're conveying the idea that male authors and stories about men are the only authors and stories worth reading. The same goes for the lack of POC and LGBTQIA and disabled authors/stories in school curriculums, of course.

I don't want to suggest that teachers and administrators are exclusively to blame, either. Teachers can't assign diverse stories if those stories aren't being published. And even now, in 2015, men are still vastly dominant in all literary spheres, though small improvements are being made. Women don't typically take home prizes, either--but their chances are increased if they write about male characters.

So, no, I was not surprised to read that querying agents with a male name results in a higher success rate. But I was very disappointed. I was hoping that the publishing industry was getting better about this--lately there's been much banter about the need for diverse books, especially in children's literature. And again, I imagine it would be difficult to find male agents and editors who didn't describe themselves as feminists. It's disappointing that they won't do the work to take women seriously.

Possible solutions to this problem? One friend suggested blind submissions, then immediately retracted his own thought--women should be recognized for their own merits. They shouldn't have to degender themselves or pretend to be male in order to be published. I think the best thing we can do--both men and women--is to call out injustice when we see it. Furthermore, we should all start buying and reading more diverse books. Like any other business, the publishing industry loves money, so if there's an increase in sales for books about women by women, one would presume they'd publish more of them. Were you planning on picking up the new Stephen King? DON'T. Buy a book by a woman instead (or a POC, or an LGBTQIA person, or a disabled person). Stephen King will be just fine.

It'll be a slow process, undoubtedly, but it's better than nothing. Hopefully.

*It also makes some women less able to empathize with women's stories--women can be misogynists, too.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The (Barely) Fit Writer

Would you look at that? Back in Vegas, and the blog is back to its normal fonts and coloring. Sad to see the French theme go, but it was time.

While I was in France, I thought of a few ideas for themed blog posts. However, none of them were particularly French, so I decided to save them for my return. The first is exercise.

If you're like me, you hate exercise. Or at least, you hate conscious exercise. I'm not aggressive enough for sports. The gym bores me. Running makes my considerable chest hurt, and not even the fanciest, most high-tech of sports bras can help. In a perfect world, I'd be able to sit on the couch all day and eat whatever food I wanted (all of which would be prepared by my personal chef so I didn't have to waste time cooking) and write and read. Occasionally I would take a nice long walk for variety. Also, I'd be David Bowie.

Sadly, this world is deeply flawed. I am not David Bowie, and calories exist. Therefore, I have had to find enjoyable ways to exercise, and I have had some success. Now I will share my secrets, so you too can stay fit (enough).

In 2008 and 2009, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Rome, Italy and Beijing, China. I was convinced that I'd lose weight in China, as I wasn't a huge fan of Chinese food, and my chopstick skills were miserable. Turns out that authentic Chinese food is delicious, and that in order to deliver the delicious food to one's mouth, one can learn how to use chopsticks very quickly. When I returned to the States, I wasn't happy with how I looked. I started eating better, but I knew I needed to find a way to exercise that was effective, tolerable, and would take as little time as possible. I didn't think I was particularly good at dancing, but I knew I didn't hate dancing, and I also knew I liked music. A few Google searches later, and I ended up ordering a copy of The Bollywood Dance Workout, featuring "fitness star" (whatever that means) Hemalayaa.

There are lots of terrible things about The Bollywood Dance Workout, first and foremost the blatant cultural appropriation. Furthermore, Hemalayaa is obnoxious, and she frequently screws up the moves, unlike the other dancers in the video. Here's the thing though: it works really well. The workout is only 50 minutes long. I did it once a day for a few months, and I lost tons of weight. I looked like an idiot while doing it, but I was in my living room alone, so that didn't matter. Plus, I scrolled through the DVD menu and learned that there's a feature which allows you to turn off Hemalayaa's disgustingly cheerful voice. I wouldn't recommend this when you're first starting out, but once you get the hang of it, by all means, make it stop.

I must not be the only one for whom The Bollywood Dance Workout was effective, for there are many other DVDs in the series, some that focus on abs, some that focus on legs, and so on. Nevertheless, doing the same thing every day gets dull after a while. After I graduated from college and started working full time, I realized I could afford a hobby, and I decided to find one that would get me moving. A friend recommended the Psychedelic Go-Go dance classes at The Old Town School of Folk Music. I love 1960's music and fashion, so I decided to give it a shot.

Changed my goddamn life. Sounds silly, but it's true.

Once a week on Thursday nights I'd go to classes and dance with many other lovely people who also like 1960's music and fashion. The instructor, Tina, is funny and fabulous and talented, and she always took the time to choreograph dynamic numbers for us to perform at the end of the session, and she'd often make us costumes to boot. When I started gogo classes, I thought I was an awful dancer. But that isn't true! I'm a good dancer, assuming it's the kind of music and the style of dance that I like. I daresay that I flourished in gogo classes. Gogo became one of my favorite activities. I got stronger, and my confidence went through the roof. Eventually I even started gogo dancing semi-professionally, as the solo act Blondie Saint-Shimmy (yeah, I had a stage name) in variety productions like Beast Women, and in a troupe with the (ultra-fantastic) Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band The Fortunate Sons.

Pictures or it didn't happen:

I desperately wish I still owned this dress.

Of course, if you're not fortunate enough to live in the greatest city on the planet Chicago, gogo lessons may be difficult to come by. But do not fret! The internet is your friend. Back before she was a burlesque legend, Angie Pontani and her sisters were queens of the gogo scene, and they produced a series called gogo-robics. The first one is nearly impossible to find, and the second DVD is out of print as well--it's available on Amazon, but it's relatively expensive. Fortunately, some kind soul uploaded the second edition to YouTube. The first section goes through some basic gogo moves, and then they teach you a dance to the song "Barracuda" by The's. Once you get the moves down, you can throw on whatever 60's music you want and improvise. (Or not 60's music. In the picture above I was dancing to Cake's "Short Skirt Long Jacket.") It's excellent cardio, and at least in my opinion, it is legitimately fun. Pro-tip: if you want to dance in boots, don't get them at the costume store. Order boots from marching band surplus stores online. Slightly lower heel, literally made for walking.

When I moved to Las Vegas, I had to hang up my fringe dresses and stop performing--though I still gogo dance for exercise on a regular basis, usually for about an hour at a time. Still, moving to a new state is a good excuse to pick up a new hobby, too. In Nevada there are mountains. I can still hardly comprehend the existence of mountains, as Illinois is flat as flat can be. Near Vegas, there's great hiking at Red Rock Canyon--but am I going to drive thirty minutes to go hiking on a regular basis? No. Way too lazy for that. Exercise needs to be easily accessible, or I'm not going to do it. Fortunately, after some prodding from BFFL-and-frequent-visitor Leta, I went to the climbing gym with her and my friend Austin.

In my head it seems like I've been rock climbing for a while now, but in reality it hasn't been that long. This very blog tells me that I first went climbing sometime in April of 2014, so it hasn't even been a year and a half. And that might be the best thing about rock climbing: one can improve quickly. I'm certainly not brilliant at it, but I can already climb at intermediate levels, and it's not as though I spend my time lifting weights or training for it in any way. Climbing feels less like exercise and more like a logic puzzle--how do I climb up this wall while using only the holds that are taped in green? (Or blue or pink--whatever.) It's actually fantastic exercise, though, and after climbing for an hour or two I'm usually quite tuckered out. It has its disadvantages: you have to pay for a climbing gym membership, and if you don't own equipment, you have to pay to rent it. Also, it helps to have someone to go climbing with; most gyms have auto-belays, but not very many auto-belays. You could always go bouldering instead (climbing up shorter heights without a rope), but I am not a fan. I think I got started too late in life--the fear sections of my brain were already fully developed, so jumping to the ground from even four or five feet up freaks me out. I realize that being in a harness hardly makes it less dangerous, but it feels less dangerous, and that's all that matters. I don't want to discourage anyone: as long as you do it properly, the dangers are relatively low. If you're in Vegas, Nevada Climbing Centers is my gym of choice, but there are many others. If you're in Chicago, good news! They just recently opened/are soon opening a few gyms there: First Ascent in Logan Square and Uptown, and Brooklyn Boulders in the West Loop. I haven't been to any of those, but hopefully they're good.

I also haven't been climbing on an actual mountain yet. Soon...

Last Spring I started taking a Mindfulness and Meditation Workshop to help get my ridiculous anxieties under control. One big thing I learned from that experience is that I'm terrible at breathing. As in, I hardly breathe at all. I hold my breath, or I breathe shallowly, and when your brain likes to panic over nothing, being in an oxygen-deprived physical state doesn't help. Since then I've been working hard on mindful breathing, and it's made a world of difference. In order to help with mindful breathing, I started practicing yoga at the school gym.

Some people say that yoga is addictive. They are absolutely, 100% correct. I was skeptical at first, as until that point I had filed yoga in the "new-agey bullshit" category. In my head, "yoga practitioners" shopped exclusively at Lululemon and ate exclusively granola and listened exclusively to Enya--even though I knew plenty of people who did yoga and were not like that at all. I was also worried that I'd be bad at it. The most important thing to remember about yoga is that everyone sucks at first. These are not natural positions into which you're contorting yourself, so why would you be good at it? For the first few weeks, you'll fall over a lot. But it doesn't matter--everyone else is also focused on not falling over, so they won't notice when you do. The other nice thing about yoga is that it's more about breathing than it is about exercise, so once you get the hang of it, it's very calming. By the time Spring Break rolled around and there were no gym classes for a week, I was hooked, and I resorted to YouTube in order to get my fix. I like this 45-minute yoga workout, even if the woman does call herself something as silly as "Lesley Fightmaster." It's vinyasa yoga, and it's fairly repetitive. Once you go through it a few times, it's easy to remember. Bonus for early-2000's music nerds: many of the songs in the background are from the Garden State soundtrack.

But what about those days when you don't want to spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours exercising? I mean, there are so many seasons of Supernatural to binge-watch, am I right? Also, what if you live above other people and you don't want to stomp on their floor in your groovy gogo boots? The internet comes through for us once again.

When I was in France this summer, I lived on the fifth floor of an apartment complex. I was doing a lot of walking, but I knew I should probably figure out some way to squeeze in cardio. Leta is as brilliant as she is gorgeous and talented, and she found me this quiet cardio workout by FitnessBlender on YouTube. The downside: it's no fun. It's blatant exercise without any distractions, and as usual, I strongly dislike it. However, it's only 20 minutes long! 20 minutes, and you'll burn (according to FitnessBlender) 132-198 calories. Not a ton, but enough for those days when you're too busy playing games on your phone to do anything else. Plus, you don't need equipment of any kind--just your body. It's not great, but it works.

I skipped a few stories--my brief dabbling in burlesque, my occasional zumba stints--but for the most part, this is how I, a decidedly exercise-repulsed human, stay (kinda) fit. For all the writers out there, the musicians, the Netflix addicts, I hope this helps.