Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Book of Ideas (and Tom Swifties)

Friends of mine know that I worked for six years at a trivia-book publisher. In fact, they’re a little too familiar with this, since all those years of copyediting stories about strange geological disasters, the building blocks of plastic, and people who died in the bathroom have made me an annoying party guest, the kind of person you wish would hurry up and go lose on Jeopardy.

One thing we did a lot at the trivia publisher was brainstorm ideas for articles and books. This being trivia, the ideas could be pretty much anything, from what makes a submarine float to the origins of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. And because inspiration strikes at odd hours, I always kept a notebook at home to jot down topics that I thought of while in the shower or washing dishes. I’ve been gone from that job for five years, but I sometimes still leaf through that notebook and wish we’d done some of these topics. For instance, I’d like to read a short, concise article on the Tylenol poisoning scandal that rained down tamper-proof everything on us. Or all the things that follow right- and left-hand rules, like magnetic fields and pole beans and water going down the drain. Or a couple of pages of Fargo movie trivia*.

An occasional feature in the trivia books was Tom Swifties**, puns that play with dialog tags and are kind of an old-fashioned parlor game. We had a great time writing these, and any time I thought of one I jotted it in the notebook. Here’s the last batch I wrote, which didn’t make it into one of the trivia books because I left soon after.

            “I don’t do cocaine,” she snorted.

            “I am not making that dessert again,” she retorted.

            “That’s a Douglas fir, not a spruce,” she opined.

            “My next car will be a Chevy,” she said cavalierly.

            “What if these eggs don’t hatch?” she brooded.

            “I’m losing my hair!” she bawled.

            “That’s some sexy airplane,” she leered.

I see by a quick Google search that I’m not the only person who thought of the “bawled” one. Oh well.

When I started that job, it seemed like the sky was the limit: This was a place where I could learn/edit/write about anything under the sun!*** It was incredibly freeing and fun and inspiring to brainstorm all the time, and to see some of my ideas actually go into print. But, as with most jobs, it was a shit-ton of work, and not always fun. And for various reasons, after a while the work outweighed the fun and it was time to move on. But damn, I still want to know who came up with the “test sound” for the Emergency Broadcast System, and how hourglasses are calibrated, and what organs we can live without.

* For instance, the Hautmans, the rival duck-painting team mentioned in Fargo, are real-life brothers, friends of the Coen brothers who actually paint ducks.

** Tom Swifties are named for the Tom Swift young-adventurer books (1910–present), in which the authors famously went to great pains to avoid the dull dialog tag of “he said.” Instead they incorporated adverbs, stand-in verbs, and elaborate turns of phrase to spice things up. (“‘…he never uses it,’ was the lad's answer.”)

*** Much like this blog. When people ask me why I do this blog, since I don’t get paid for it, I always say it’s because it’s the one place where I can publicly write about anything I damn well please and no one can stop me.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grieving Large

Railroad-spike art, Ashland, Oregon
Oh, blog world, I have so many half-finished posts almost ready to put up here—posts about poetry chapbooks, and little annoyances that I love, and how differently I view Star Trek now than when I was a teenager.
            But none of them seems appropriate right now. I have the past month stuck in my throat.
            The election just knocked me out. Winded me. Flattened me. And I know I’m not alone. It’s not that I’m surprised that there are racists and white supremacists in this country. And I’m certainly not surprised that the president-elect (ick—hard to say that) is appointing some of them to his cabinet. I guess what surprised me was that so many voters overlooked all that hatemongering and voted for him anyway. People talk about the pendulum of American politics (characterized by one pundit as a wrecking ball) that swings radically one way and then the other, about every eight years. And true, we got Reagan after Carter, and the most objectionable of the Bushes after Clinton, and now we have this mind-boggling situation right after Obama. It’s like an illustration of the saying “We can’t have nice things.”
            And I may sound reasonable right now, but the truth is that I’ve been as depressed this past month as I’ve ever been in my life. On election night, even before things went completely to hell, I was sick to my stomach. Over the next few days I felt like I’d been in a car accident—achy, reeling, and not quite sure what just happened. That, I guess, was the denial phase; I genuinely felt like I was going to wake up any minute and find out it was all a horrible dream. And the dream of waking up from it was a beautiful dream.
            Then I hit a depression phase that was unlike anything I’ve felt since my mother died. I could barely function, and I cried all the time in uncontrollable, heaving sobs that left me wracked and drained. I felt like I had the flu for a few days, and then, while playing in a tennis clinic—running around seemed like such a great thing to do right then—I had an asthma attack, the first I’d had in almost ten years. That depressed me even more—the country was falling apart, and so was my body. Everything was screwed.

A word for this
Somewhere in all that mess, a friend wrote a post on Facebook about the word many of his election-weary friends were using to describe what they were feeling. To his surprise, it wasn’t anger, or even depression. It was grief. And that rang absolutely true for me: I’d been through the denial phase (always the best part of grief—can’t we stay there?), and then depression. Anger was sure to follow. I was sort of looking forward to that.
            This got me thinking about what we lefties are mourning. Of course, there’s the welfare of our planet, and race relations, and the safety of our friends and family who are members of color (and our very selves, for people of color). And I guess I’d still been holding onto a wispy dream that the United States might still sometimes be a champion of human rights. And we’re mourning the reversal of the direction this nation had seemed to be going in—eight years with a black president, gay marriage now a normalized thing, even pot becoming legal in many states. But suddenly, on November 8th, the brakes squealed and all the groceries hit the car floor. Emboldened bigots were out in force, harassing Muslims and people of color in the streets, on BART trains, in department stores. Trump supporters screamed “Who did you vote for?” at random women out the windows of their pickups.* People who didn’t hastily remove their Clinton bumper stickers had their cars keyed in their driveways.
            Civilization. That’s something to mourn.
            And for women, this thing came with a whole other level of grief. We had that dream of a woman president—so close, right there, right in our hands. And as a wonderful bonus, she was set to kick the ass of a guy who reminded us of men we’ve been fending off our whole lives, insensitive creeps we’ve worked for, lived with, been shouted down by, been hit on by in bars, been assaulted by.
            And I was only beginning to get a handle on these losses when I thought of everyone and everything else now at risk: immigrants, people with disabilities, people who could lose their health insurance, the Paris climate agreement, endangered species, wolves, anyone living in the path of an oil pipeline, everyone working on alternatives to destructive energy extraction like fracking and mountaintop removal. And then there are all the federally funded programs, like Social Security and Medicare, the EPA, the NEA, PBS, NPR. Not to mention the Supreme Court.

Grieve, then give
So, OK, grief—you exist. I get it. I get you. And I remember a little of this from the past, from the bad old Reagan-Bush-Bush years. (And part of my grief is whining, “We have to do that again?”) This election was unlike any other, but the muscles I used during those eras are about to get flexed again. And while this one is overwhelming—I mean, where do we start, with so many fronts of battle?—I know that one thing I can start doing right away is voting with my checkbook. There are a lot of great organizations that are in for the fight of their lives, and they all need our help. So here are a few organizations I’ll be supporting in the months ahead. If you have favorites, feel free to add them in the comments.

Earthjustice—The nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization

Oregon Wild—Supporting Oregon’s Wolves

KS Wild—Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center

ASPCA (because animals always need help)

FOTAS—Friends of the Jackson County Animal Shelter (ditto)

And on a last note, I’ve been concerned about some of us on the left painting Trump supporters with an awfully broad brush. That’s a mistake. I know a number of my friends and relatives voted for Trump, and they aren’t all bigoted, misogynistic, or stupid, not by a long shot. I can’t claim to understand how their dissatisfaction led them to vote for such a person, but I think that simply dividing them into the other camp is just the kind of error that got us here in the first place. So I plan to do a lot of reading on this subject. Here’s a good Washington Post article to start with, about Trump supporters in rural Wisconsin and what life looks like to them.

*This happened to two friends of mine on the street in front of my office.