Contrived

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A person swimming in the pool of her own life, constantly crashing against the concrete edges of said pool, is more likely than anyone else to insist that her own life is “really fucking weird” even if it is, by all objective accounts, mundane and boring as fuck. Some people need to live – or wallow – in the belief that their life is “weird” or surreal to feel that it has some meaning or isn’t just a day-in, day-out account of nothingness. Such people can elevate their boring marital infidelities to soap-operatic, shrill drama; such people can imagine that their semi-imagined illnesses/hypochondria make them special, interesting, persecuted, or even unique.

No, in fact, they don’t. They do, in fact, make one just like everyone else, albeit slightly more histrionic and liable to whip every perceived slight into something it isn’t, to take every comment personally, to misinterpret every possible thing – ranging from the “rudeness” or “disrespect” someone supposedly showed (they didn’t) to truly believing someone’s hollow words, said to keep her pacified, not because they were truly felt/meant. And, most of all, never letting go. Everything has to turn into a years-long, lifelong grudge – as if holding on to that much anger and hatred isn’t in itself toxic and stressful. Witnessing this, one sees how the American world is awash in frivolous litigiousness, bolstered by each individual’s sense of inflated importance.

When a person’s life becomes, for example, a s(l)ide-show of authorities phoning them at all hours of the night to come and rescue wildcats from a dilapidated, abandoned trailer in a rundown trailer park – yeah, then I will agree that that person’s life is “weird”.

When a person’s life becomes filled with manic people from decades in the past, who refuse to let go, making that person central to their present-day lives – yeah, that’s pretty “weird”, too. Especially when the brazenness and grip of the obsession spills over again and again. One compulsive person raping another person’s mind, mining their brain and history for evidence to use against them later. All to maintain this inflated self-importance and immediacy, threatening to (and not in the least caring if it does) disrupt and destroy that person’s life, yes, that’s weird, and a bit tragic and unfortunate. (Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness touched on this kind of disturbed obsession/revenge/sexual jealousy to the degree that I barely wanted to finish reading, seeing as how similar themes have played out before my eyes.)

How much of life and identity is contrived this way – all designed to elicit reactions from others and feed the bloated, hungry or jealous ego?

Photo by Klaas on Unsplash

Weekend gardening

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I sit soberly reflecting, asking myself if I will look back in a few months, entangled in a much bigger mess than I had ever imagined, wondering how I got here. Or will I, next year, find myself reflecting on this very sober moment, realizing that it was precisely this moment – the point at which I knew I was in over my head but proceeded anyway? The garden overgrown with weeds.

The process is a bit like pruning neuroses we have driven ourselves to. I’ve just finished reading Doris Lessing‘s The Golden Notebook and am surprised by how much of the way a woman’s nature is described rings true. Not so much that every individual woman is as the main characters are, but there are universal threads we can all sew together or unravel at different times in our lives. Seedlings to plant and weeds to uproot. Still, it’s demeaning to the self in many ways to succumb to the pedestrian motivations of jealousy and possession. But in many ways, at many times, it is the trap we get caught in no matter how we insulate or guard against it. The book so well captures that twisted dichotomy: you could be the most accomplished, polished, intelligent, beautiful and sophisticated woman but still wither away in petty jealousy about something – or someone – so insignificant and so unworthy of your attention.

“Don’t you think it’s extraordinary that we are both people whose personalities, whatever that word may mean, are large enough to include all sorts of things, politics and literature and art, but now that we’re mad everything concentrates down to one small thing, that I don’t want you to go off and sleep with someone else, and that you must lie to me about it?” -from The Golden Notebook

I recognize this, but I don’t completely understand it intrinsically. I have seen this happen time and again in other people’s lives.  It is not that I have never felt a hint of jealousy, but it has never been a pure and blinding jealousy that refused to view all the different angles of a situation and other people’s feelings within situations. I don’t understand the limitations of love – or even sex. That reductive impulse that demands ‘you will love (or fuck) only me’. It’s not that there’s anything at all wrong with wanting, having, expecting or engaging in monogamy. It’s the mania that motivates and demands it. Are we really wired this way? Is it not the sense of being cast aside, ignored, not loved any more that makes people jealous and hurt?

We are after all taught from earliest childhood to share. How and why are we so territorial then with our love, our feelings, our bodies and the pleasure we can give and receive?

It’s more complicated than that, of course.

The Apple Crisp of Guilt and Grief: No Do-Overs

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I was going to make some apple crisp – being in a foreign kitchen (still), I don’t have a lot of tools or ingredients at my disposal. But apple crisp is about the easiest thing a person can make. A non-baker with a few apples, a knife, some butter and oatmeal and a bit of cinnamon and sugar has just about all he or she needs to get a crisp on. (Not unlike “we’re just two adults getting a stew on!”)

But then, someone ate the apples before I could get to the paring and spicing and throwing it all into one pan for the simple delight of apple crisp*. His loss.

Unrelated, as tangents are, referring to someone eating the apples reminds me, unfortunately, of poet William Carlos Williams and one of his most famous works, “This Is Just to Say” – on the surface, it’s about his having eaten the plums someone else was saving for him/herself. Seems more like a casual apology for infidelity and irresistible forbidden fruit. It betrays not one hint of guilt – even reveling in its duplicitous possibilities. But who knows? These things are subjective.

I have already cited William Carlos Williams and his chickens and wheelbarrows once – given our high school dislike for the guy and his work, I never would have imagined citing him at all. Yet here I am. Then I have a newfound appreciation for things that my 16-year-old mind did not fully absorb, feel or trust.

One poet feels no guilt about whatever he does, while another person feels guilt for eating an M&M or an extra helping of macaroni and cheese. One man cheats on his wife and feels nothing but feels guilty for quitting his job without telling the same wife he is otherwise deceiving. Guilt is strange, though – bubbling up like the full spectrum of emotions that we sometimes don’t even imagine we are capable of feeling. For example, I think a lot about how useless jealousy is, and while I don’t believe in it and rarely feel it – and criticize the frenzy of its violence in others – I can sometimes feel what a cruel wind-up toy jealousy is. It pokes at me sometimes but not for the same reasons it pokes others, perhaps.

A close friend who has been in my life for many years wrote to me to wish me a happy new year and shared the news that her husband passed away just before Christmas. One of her greatest takeaways from the experience of this loss was that there are no do-overs. Like a lot of people I have known, her marriage was not necessarily happy, so she had longed for freedom. But once her husband was gone – unexpectedly – she experienced a tremendous amount of guilt intertwined in her grief about not being able to do over all the negative thoughts and words she had expressed over the years. We don’t know, as I have said again and again in the last year, when we will have our last conversation with someone.

I tried to advise her not to be too hard on herself. When people die, we often reflect and are seized by guilt that is enveloped by the haze of grief that clouds the daily reality of our dealings. Daily life engenders and embodies all the resentment, negativity, selfishness, pain, hidden hurts, agendas that make it almost impossible not to succumb to some part of the… grind of daily life. All of those feelings remain intact and valid even when the other person passes on. Forgetting the validity of that will not be a true reflection of the lesson learned. There is, as I told her, another side to the “there are no do-overs” coin. A life’s bitter negativity can be reflected upon, but that same life’s guilt cannot guide it. The immediacy of not having do-overs is that it allows for honesty. These sudden losses can eventually lead to an opportunity for emotional recalibration and a place of balance.

In the aftermath, though, it is not surprise that guilt is inextricably wound up with the grief. As my friend sagely wrote, which squeezed my heart and choked me up, “I have waited for this moment for years, not understanding that with freedom comes the knowledge that it is built upon someone’s demise.”

*And for anyone keeping track or feeling a hankering for apple crisp, here’s the basic recipe I would have used:

Here’s what I would have done:

Apple crisp recipe

Apple filling:
1 kilogram of Granny Smith apples (about 6), peeled, cored, and sliced how you prefer
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Streusel/Crust:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup uncooked oats
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; use a small bit to grease the baking dish.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with butter.
Mix the apples, sugar, cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat. Place the apple mixture in the dish and set aside.
Use the same bowl and mix together the brown sugar, oats, flour until evenly combined. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until small clumps form (two minutes). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apples and bake until the streusel is crispy and the apples are tender, about one hour. Let cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before serving.

Ends of Friends & an Open Letter to E(xile)

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[you fit into me]
“you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye”
Margaret Atwood

I am like most other people in that I can be petty. I am also keenly aware that a blog is a highly self-indulgent activity. I want to chronicle my thoughts, my life, my frustrations – I just happen to make it public. My concerns are not monumental or particularly profound. My problems are largely luxury problems. I openly recognize and cop to that. This forum does not need to be something more – I write what I know.

Lately, the ache of losing friendship has come up again and again for me. Friendship has always been a bigger struggle and a larger emotional stumbling block for me than, for example, romantic entanglements. Romantic relationships are more cut and dry somehow. The only time one was really difficult was when it was starkly clear that “romance” should never have been a part of it. The guy in question was one of the best friends I ever had. And having had a lot of friends come and go, it always bore tremendous weight when someone “got” me in the way that a true friend did. He was one of those friends.

When this friend got into a new relationship, I was happy for him. I did not think it necessarily meant our friendship was over. We live in different countries, and our communication was limited in any case both in frequency and in terms of topics. Once the contact was so sporadic and topic-specific (almost always about a film, tv, an inside joke about something we both found funny or, usually, about baby animals – which we both found irresistibly cute), I did not imagine that he, once so stubborn and headstrong, would be with someone who was demanding enough to require him to stop talking to me. I also, without knowing the girlfriend, never imagined that someone who was undoubtedly a lovely person if he (whom I respected and believed would make good choices in this realm) decided to be with her, would be so irrationally jealous.

I have written about this before, and after several eruptions, I told him that, despite how much it hurt to cut off the friendship, knowing that I was losing something, I felt we would all have a more harmonious life if we stopped talking. This mostly happened, but of course insanely cute baby animals or funny things that only we could appreciate would sometimes occur, and he did not resist the temptation to write a few times. I then felt liberated not to resist the temptation to send him a gift. I sent it to his work address just because I did not want to stir up trouble in his home life – at all. (He took the envelope home and started up all the trouble that could have been avoided and triggered the REAL end of the friendship. Whether he secretly liked the drama or was just that thoughtless or wanted a detached way to make me really slam the door forever, I don’t know – maybe I am assigning it all too much meaning anyway.) I did not want to start talking again, I did not want to resume a friendship that was clearly over. I just wanted to make one last gesture that might make him smile and remember me – as his friend – fondly. But it turned into a psychodrama that caused me to lose respect for him, not really want to talk to him anymore at all and conclude that he is not the person I thought he was. Not that I wished him ill will. I just had no more feeling involved at all – the only feeling that had been left was this respect and friendship. But after this episode, he was as good to me as a stranger.

Lately this has disturbed me in some way. He now is a stranger – I have no idea what he is doing but still hope he is very happy. This is completely fine. But a few things came up lately that made me really miss him, despite everything.

For one, I watched the annoying film (although less annoying than I feared, and less annoying than the beginning of the film led me to think it would be), Frances Ha. In it, the main character and her best friend drift apart. Their lives take different paths, and somehow that listless sadness of not being able to turn to the person who had been one’s closest friend made an impression.

Secondly, during the summer, the young wife of one of my friends – and people that he also knew – died. I am sure he saw the news of it because it was all over the Icelandic media. But, as I have said before, there is nothing like sudden, premature and unfair death and its aftermath to make on evaluate who and what is important in life. I did question whether I had too easily let go of a friendship that was so valuable and important without trying hard enough. (I determined otherwise.)

The final, and arguably much more important thing, is that my mom’s friend in Washington state just took custody of two beautiful tiger cubs at her big-cat sanctuary. He and I used to talk incessantly like near-drunk fools about the irresistible cuteness of baby tigers. We lamented that we would never in our whole lives have access to baby tigers to touch and play with them. And here, right in my hands, is the opportunity of a lifetime to go be in the presence of two baby tigers. No one else I know would find this as significant as he would. But I can’t tell him. I am not going to be the one to break the silence because I am the one who asked for it, I enforce it and really don’t want to open communication again. It is just an unusual set of circumstances that would only matter to the two of us.

One of two baby tigers

One of two baby tigers*

So cute I could have a heart attack - baby tigers

So cute I could have a heart attack – baby tigers*

When I think of the girlfriend, it actually makes me sad to think that she hates me as much as she does without knowing me. I won’t go so far as to say I love her given how unreasonable she has been toward me – a total stranger. But if she makes him happy, I love that she is in his life even though it cost me a friend. If I were a lunatic who actually wanted something from him – as some exes do, I grant, I might understand her ire. Maybe it is unreasonable for me to think that friendship was possible.

Sometimes I want to ask her whether she never had a friend who was so important to her – on only a friendly level – that it would be like having her heart ripped out to have that friend removed from her life? I hope for her sake that she has never been through that. But I have – a handful of times. As I wrote, friendship and the loss of it has always been difficult for me – so losing the one friend with whom I could make ridiculous jokes, watch documentaries with about baby animals and joke about everything from a self-important American “journalist”, pretend characters Pedro, Jose and Esteban and “annyong” (and the new episodes of Arrested Development!) and Grizzly Man was really a devastating loss. I did not want him in any other way. I wanted him to be happy and fulfilled. The fact that he found love with someone made me immensely happy for him – and for her. Naturally I wanted him to find that kind of complete happiness somewhere and with someone – and I had no desire for that to be me.

– Annyong and off-the-hook, unlimited juice party (bad quality video)

— Timothy Treadwell in near-orgasmic state over bear poop

In truth, I realized that living with him, living in Iceland, I was stunted and unhappy – it was not a good situation when we lived together. I was depressed, and he was no happier than I was – I think he stuck with it as long as he did just because we were friends and because he felt sorry for me.

I grieve often because I lost that easy friendship – I gave it up willingly because she demanded it. I said goodbye to someone I loved (as a friend) and respected – and lost respect for him as a result – but it is stupid because I don’t have any “skin in the game”. I am not interested, I am not competing, I am not a threat. If I am the “immature teenager hiding behind my teddy bear” as she claimed, what is she so worried about? Why would someone like the image she has of me even register on her radar? She is the beloved, chosen one and he loves her – even at the cost of forsaking some friendships – which is perhaps meaningless because, happily for her, he is happy with her. That should be enough to allow her to let go of the petty and immature insecurity that drives her anger.

I offered many times to talk to her, to meet her, to let her be in on the whole thing if it would make her feel better. Maybe I have just never felt passionately enough about someone that that kind of possessiveness felt necessary. But too tight a leash eventually chokes the subject to death.

*Pictures taken from the Wild Felid Advocacy Center Facebook page, where you can go and make a donation to help take care of the big cats in their care.