Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Be careful what you "Like" ... (social media, data mining, and blatant self-promotion)

I just finished a book called Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection by Jacob Silverman.  I read books like this as often as I can find them because this is an area where my personal and professional interests intersect.   My library school degree is actually a MA in Information Studies, and my personal interest is tied to the fact that I am an avid consumer of digital information, and a somewhat skeptical user of social media .

My initial reaction, after only the first chapter, was to abandon social media altogether. So I put down the book and deactivated my Facebook account – knowing even as I did so that it would be temporary. Within an hour, my mother (who is not on Facebook) called to ask me why I hadn’t updated her about a family member’s health condition, which had been mentioned on Facebook. I gently reminded her about all the reasons (excuses) I have for not remembering that sort of thing  (work, stress, being the daughter of my father) and sort of implied that if she felt she was entitled to that information, maybe she should create her own account. And then, feeling guilty, I reactivated mine.

However, there are many reasons I do intend to maintain my social media accounts. I have friends and family all over the world and I like seeing their photos and updates and getting mini-glimpses into their lives. I like the filtering options on Instagram that allow me to take pictures of my dog and edit the image so that her adorableness resolves on the screen instead of appearing like a blacked-out, dog-shaped hole.

And I do this for professional reasons. Because “everyone else does it” and I work in a job that requires knowing and understanding everything I can about meeting the informational needs of our customers.  And maintaining a searchable web presence is, in itself, evidence of technical capabilities that future employers might require.

So, I’m not going to give up social media – and that isn’t what this book is trying to achieve. Instead, it’s just raising awareness of the personal and commercial effects of a society intent on documenting, preserving, promoting, and sharing its private life.

If you want to know about all the ways social media can negatively affect a person individually, there’s a wealth of information out there (including this book). There are also a lot of resources about protecting your online reputation, or increasing your social status, attracting more followers or friends etc. 

The reason I’m writing this is because of a key point of which I wasn’t fully aware and I think it’s worth pointing out.

Most social media sites have embedded widgets across the internet to enable what Facebook calls “frictionless sharing,” which means I can hit a like or a heart or +1  button and share whatever I’m looking at with my friends and followers (in fact, after I post this blog, I’m going to hit that button to share it with you). 
Sharing this information serves two purposes. The most obvious is that I can easily share something I’ve created, or discovered and found interesting or funny or meaningful. It says to my group of friends “Hey! This is cool” or “This is what I believe” or “This is weird/outrageous/unacceptable.”  “This!” gives you, my friend, a little more insight into me – as a person. And if you agree, you’ll like it too and validate me. And if you don’t like it, you’ll disagree and we’ll have a conversation, or you’ll roll your eyes, or at worst, you’ll block me, or something.  Whatever …

But the second role this “frictionless sharing” plays is that each click of a button adds another data point into a file that is kept about me, my interests, preferences, personal beliefs & biases – and that information is then used (and often sold to interested third parties) to target me for specific advertising campaigns, or to filter what displays in my various feeds. If I like a post a friend has shared about an underdog presidential candidate, I’ll start seeing more posts like that. And if I get tired of seeing videos about dogs, I can click a button in Facebook and say “Show me less about this” and then Facebook will know I hate dogs. Everything I like or ignore or even hover the mouse over but decide not to click is registered by these sites and then fed into algorithms that determine the content I see every day.

And what I click on could then be used, along with my profile picture, to promote an advertisement that shows up in your feed. When you see a post that refers to something I liked, (it could be a mutual friend’s status update or a band or a business), the information is presented in a frame as an insight into my personality, when it’s actually being used as an endorsed advertisement.

I’m not saying this is inherently bad – but people need to be aware that by engaging in these posts by clicking, liking, sharing etc. you are doing more than showing approval or insight to your friends, you are also participating in widespread market research. These social media sites and third party business and corporations are capitalizing on what used to be one of the most reliable and valued forms of local advertising – “word of mouth.” Think about it – when we’re looking for a mechanic, or a hairstylist, or a lawyer, we ask our friends first… and often, their endorsement means even more than a 5 star review by an anonymous or unknown person.

I’ve always known that what I “like” on Facebook  (or external sites) displays to my friends, and I try to be selective about what I click – because my relatively small group of friends is actually very diverse. It includes family members, friends from kindergarten and college, and former, current and potential coworkers … not to mention people I actually want to impress. This is why my social media activity is limited almost entirely to self-deprecating jokes and pictures of my dog (who I hate*).

I recognize that many people use their social media accounts to actively promote political ideologies, spread awareness of important civil rights issues, affirm religious and spiritual beliefs, or to seek support and validation in times of emotional crises. This is one of the more positive features of social media – the fact that it allows people to form communities and support networks across a broader spectrum than they might find locally or in real life. 

The point I'm trying to make (and the point of this excellent book) is that we need to keep in mind that while we’re sharing our lives and likes with each other, we are freely contributing to a data collection system that uses the information we share in ways we may never have intended. And we need to be aware that the information and advertisements displayed in our feeds and sidebars, especially that which appears to have been endorsed by our friends, is an unreliable and incomplete representation of our interests and personalities. Just like everything else we see or say on the Internet.

(*I don't actually hate dogs. Except for this one:)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Five Years...

I’ve never doubted that leaving my job in the prison was the right choice, even though it meant leaving England too.  I had dinner with a friend last night and he asked me what it was about that country I loved so much and as many times as I’ve been asked that question, I’ve never been able to answer.  I have no words for it, but it was there in every breath I took, every rainy day, every blade of grass and overgrown ivy and thatched roof and winding one lane road. It was the only place I never felt like a stranger even when I didn’t know a single person.

Even when I was scared and so darkly, deeply unhappy, I felt at home there. Even after five years, it still strikes me as incredibly unfair that everything I loved about that place and everything that was wrong were so entwined that I had to give up one in order to escape the other.

It’s impossible for me to think of the last time I left the prison without remembering the first time I went in.  That first day was in April 2006, and I was there to interview for the position of Library Manager.  I set my bag in a tub on a conveyer belt that fed into an x-ray machine, and I stepped through metal detectors. I stood with my arms out while a woman in a uniform ran her hands down my sides, around my back, across my stomach and down my legs. I stiffened and she told me if I got the job this routine would eventually feel normal. She was right, but getting used something isn’t the same as being comfortable.

After passing through a set of double sliding doors, I was met by an officer who worked in the library. He gave me a tour of the prison, and because it was lunchtime and the inmates were locked up, he took me everywhere --  through the workshops, the healthcare center, onto one of the wings. He even locked me in an empty cell in the segregation unit because I had arrived so early for the interview, he didn’t know what else to do with me. He was patient and answered all my questions, and when I told him I was used to criminals because my dad was a lawyer, he didn’t shake his head or call me naive. After I got the job, he would often do both of those things.

I don’t remember going in the last time, but I remember every step I took on the way out.  I remember looking at the clock. And then Jane, the officer I hired to work in the library after the first one transferred, said “Let’s go let’s go let’s go.” She wanted me out fast --  too fast to think and get emotional and cause a scene because there was no crying in the library. That’s a rule I broke only twice in the four years I was there, both times early on, before I found other unhealthier ways to cope.  

“This is it, then,” I said to Jane. I gathered my stuff and we locked the door to the library. I looked back through the unbreakable wired glass one last time, at the shelves I had picked out from a catalog, and the books and music CDs and DVDs I filled them with, and the light matte blue I’d painted the walls.

When we reached what is known as the sterile area (where the prisoners were not allowed), I paused and said, “Wait. Am I supposed to turn in my ID?” I wish I hadn’t asked that question. I could have taken it with me. What would they have done? I was leaving the country; they wouldn’t have been able to find me. But I said it, so we detoured into the Security Office and I handed in the badge with my picture on it, taken the first week I worked there, when my hair was so short it barely reached my chin.

In the gatehouse, I dropped my keys through a chute, and bent down to speak through the opening. “I’m not coming back,” I said so that the officer on the other side of the thick glass window wouldn’t exchange them for a metal disc imprinted with a corresponding key number, which is what would have happened on any other day.  

Five years ago today, I walked out of the prison for the last time. I checked my journals from 2010 but I didn’t write that day. The nearest entry is almost a month earlier, after I’d made the decision to leave, but before I understood what I was giving up.  I was unhappy. I’d been unhappy for a long time. My happiness (or lack thereof) is not usually a factor in my writing, but most of my last year there went unrecorded. I’m sorry about that now, but the gaps between entries have as much meaning as the pages I filled before and after. The lost time reminds me that leaving was the right choice.  

But even though I didn’t write about that, I remember.


The first set of doors slid open and Jane put her hand on my back to push me through. “Let’s go let’s go let’s go” she said again. I walked through the second sliding doors into the lobby, and then finally through the front door. I thought about the first time again.  Looking up, the twenty-foot walls surrounding the prison seemed to extend forever in each direction.

I wanted to take a moment, but I didn’t know what to do with it.
So I just kept going.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Last Friday...

Last Friday, I’m driving to lunch when a bad headache comes on, all of the sudden, and I turn around to go back to the library. I tell my supervisor I have to go home but I drive instead to my parents’ house in Williamson Valley because I need to pick up my dog. She’s been there for days, because of a javelina situation, and because I’ve been busy.  But no one is there when I arrive, just Bella and Milo howling on the porch, and I can’t just take off with Bella because I know my parents will worry when she’s not on the porch, and also my headache is so bad I think I’m going to throw up.

So I take both dogs into my old room and lie down. The dogs curl up on the bed with me, and even though I am allergic to him, I bury my face against Milo’s back and close my eyes. I think about the pain, and the nausea, and about car accidents and whip lash and brain tumors and aneurisms and I fall asleep as Bella, after trying unsuccessfully to engage Milo in a sparring match, sprawls across my feet and settles her head in the crook of my knees.

When my mother comes home about an hour later, the dogs erupt into a hairy ball of thunder and teeth and toenails, scattering pillows and scratching me as they leap from the window to the door to greet her.

She is surprised to see me and but knows right away that it means I am sick.
The phone rings and it is my father. He’s with my grandmother, shopping, and won’t be home for hours. My mother and I sit on the couch and she offers to make me soup and I say yes but first, she sorts through the mail.

“This is for you,” she says. She doesn’t like that after moving out again more than 3 years ago, I still have mail coming to the house. It’s an alumni magazine is from a college I went to in England. I drop the magazine on the  living room table. David Attenborough is on the cover, “I thought he died,” she says.

“Maybe it’s a tribute.”

I tell her about my week, about the Volunteer Banquet and the trivia night I went to with a friend and the latest library gossip and she tells me about the family – most of which I picked up already on Facebook, but she’s not on Facebook, so I let her talk.

She tells me about her brother who just published his third novel. She’s eight chapters in, and it’s good, she says. I already bought it, but haven’t had time to start reading it yet. She tells me that our family reunion for the 4th of July has been cancelled, and that my cousin Anne is going to live in England for 6 months.

This ,I’ve known for a while, but no details, no dates, just a half a year in England. “Where will they be living?”
“Near Manchester?” she says but I don’t think she knows where that is. I think about the Manchester accent. I think about the prisoners I knew from there.

And then she says, “We should go. You and I. We should go and you can see your friends and I can tour around with Anne.”
And I immediately reach for the same excuse I’ve used for the past 5 years.
“I don’t have a passport.”
“So… get your passport.”

Easy answer. Been meaning to do it for years. I got the pictures taken, filled out the form, found another excuse, put the form in a drawer.

There is a reason I haven’t gone back. But maybe now, this time, there is no real excuse anymore. I just need to face it. I should go back and if it happens, if England still feels like home, then maybe I need to think about what that means. And if it doesn’t, then maybe we’ll just have a nice time.

“Oh,” says my mother. She’s on her kindle, checking her email. “I got a message from Marshall.” My brother. “He says he’s sorry about the reunion, and that we should go to Portland instead.”

I tell her I need to think about it, that it depends. I don’t know what it depends on, but I’m tired and my head still hurts and I don’t want to make any decisions or commitments or anything.

“Want to watch a move?” she asks.
“Yes. But, also, can I have some soup?”

She puts down the kindle and tells me to go upstairs and lie down, turn on the TV and she will make me a tray.
“Also, cheese and crackers?”
“Yes. Now go upstairs. Take the dogs.”

I lie down on the couch and start sneezing. I’m starting to think it’s not Milo I’m allergic to but something in the house.  But the couch is sort of new and wide and soft and I pull a fuzzy blanket up to my chin and think about England but also how nice it is to have my parents living nearby when I feel like this.

My mother calls from downstairs. “Have you got the dogs? If Bella jumps on me on the stairs …  no soup for you.”

Milo was already asleep on the floor, but I call Bella over and she climbs halfway onto my chest. She’s not allowed on the couch, but if her back legs are on the floor it doesn’t count. I know this and she knows this. I hold onto her collar just in case.

My mother comes up the stairs carrying a tray with two bowls of homemade chicken soup, a glass of water and cheese and crackers.

“Let’s watch something terrible,” she says.

And we do. Automata, a dystopian sci-fi low-budget version of  I, Robot starring Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

My mother sleeps through half of it, startling awake occasionally and grabbing my foot because she thinks it’s the remote control. “Oops,” she says, taking back her hand. “Sorry.”

More time passes and she doesn’t know what’s going on. A robot voiced by Javier Bardem gets his head blown off. “Why do all the robots have different accents?”
I think that’s a great question.

After the movie, we go back downstairs. My allergies are out of control and it’s time to go home. My headache is gone, but then my father pulls into the driveway, so I wait.

He comes in, asks about my headache, asks if it’s because of the accident, reminds me to drink more water and not settle with the insurance company yet.

“They keep calling me. But I’m always at work,” I say.
“You’ve got time. You don’t know the long term effects.”

He tells me about his week, about shopping with Grandma. The phone rings, my mom says ‘it’s your mother’ as she answers it, but the line goes dead. His cell goes off next. I listen to his one-sided conversation.

“It wasn’t on the list, Ma.” There’s a pause, and then louder, “It wasn’t ON THE LIST. I’ll bring it tomorrow. I’LL BRING IT TOMORROW. TOMORROW MA. TOMORROW!”

And then his voice drops to barely a whisper. “Ok. Bye bye.” I think about how she probably never hears him say goodbye. I wonder if she thinks he hangs up on her.

He turns to me as he puts his phone away. “We forgot the water. It wasn’t on her list. I told her to make a list.”

He asks me about my phone. He wants to know how many apps I have. We have the same phone, but he’s been taking a class. “Did you know that locking your phone doesn’t shut off Siri? Anybody can get in there? A bad guy could steal the phone, say ‘call gramma,’ pretend to be you and steal all her money?”

I give it a try. I pick up my phone, double click the button without unlocking it first and ask Siri to call home. The house phone starts ringing. My mother, Captain Oblivious, says, “Phone!”

I do another test. “Siri. Set my alarm for 6:30 tomorrow.” Siri does it.
That’s cool. At least the bad guy won’t be late to his bad guy appointments.

I get up to leave.

Bella prances to the door, all tail and legs and growling purrs, and I wait for her to calm down before I attach the leash.

I say bye to my parents as she pulls me out the door. At the top of the stairs Bella pauses, head between the railings, searching for rabbits. She is so still, I can’t blame her for what happens next.

I’m on the second step when my left leg stops working, or gives out, or disappears completely.  In slow motion, I fall and land first on my knees, then my wrists and finally onto my right shoulder. I lay there for a moment until Bella turns, whines, and licks my face.

I take a deep breath and am glad, as I always am when this happens, that no one else was there to see. I pull myself up and rub my knees and imagine dark, symmetrical bruises.

The front door opens behind me, and my father steps onto the porch with the magazine in his hand. “Your mother says you forgot this.”
He doesn’t really care if I pick up my mail either.

“I thought you came out because you heard me fall down.”
“Nope. You forgot this thing.” He waves it at me and I take it. “Are you ok?”
“Yep. See you later.”
“Your car. I looked it up. For a side impact collision, it rates ok.” He’s continuing a conversation we’ve been having since my accident. He doesn’t think my Civic is safe anymore. “I couldn’t find the article about the roll over accidents though,” he said.

“Well, there’s a support bar, Dad. By the window?” I point at my car, and then continue, stupidly. “But I don’t know how safe a car can be with a sunroof? The glass would go everywhere.”

“I didn’t know it had a sunroof,” he says, like this changes something. Like he’s going straight back to the Consumer Report to see if a sunroof makes a difference. This is what he does. I was in an accident. I’m mostly ok. But still he worries.

“I don’t know,” he says again. “Just be careful.”

I put Bella in the car and drive back downtown to my house, thinking about accidents and England and my library and my grandmother, about headaches and falling down and how much it’s all going to hurt later.

Bella whines as we pull into the driveway, relieved to be home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Night sounds

I’m sitting on my front porch. It’s cold and windy and the light I’m using to see what I write only extends about 20 feet into the yard. It creates a small bubble of security, and the line where it fades into the dark neighborhood feels like a fence, or a force field, or a giant impenetrable wall.

And then a police car passes slowly in front of my house, the glow from the porch glances off the reflectors on the roof and I wonder how my quiet little street wound up on their regular patrol. This is a recent change. Until a few months ago, I never saw cops here. I wonder what they are looking for. I wonder why the sight of the police in my library is reassuring, but in my neighborhood, it is disconcerting.

What is the danger I am ignoring?
What am I forgetting to be afraid of?
Are they looking for me?

These are my thoughts.

But then the wind hits the chimes that hang from my roof and I lose myself in the familiar song that so often plays in the background whenever I write outside at night. The chimes are well tuned and soft, never clanging, never abrasive or sharp, and if it weren’t for the weak light and the dull music, I wouldn’t be able to sit out here feeling safe and sheltered.  Because I am afraid of what I cannot see and what I sometimes think I hear, like footsteps and breaking glass and loud TVs and crying children and speeding cars.

I know this bubble of protection is an illusion, that the light is no insulation, and I know that the sound of my wind chimes fills the whole neighborhood.

I wonder if it bothers anyone.
And then I don’t care.

Because maybe they like it.

Maybe it reassures them too. 
Maybe it’s part of the night sounds. 
Maybe it’s a mask for the other noise, like the traffic on the main road, like the beagles up the street.Maybe it’s an accompaniment to the cracking branches and the shifting shushes of the pine needles brushing like waves in an arid sea.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Writing about writing about yourself

I’m reading a book that I could have written.

I’ve read many books I wish I’d written – books about the college experience and confusion and finding oneself. About prisons and libraries. Books or stories that so perfectly captured what I’d known and felt that, after reading them, writing about those experiences myself would have felt redundant, unnecessary, and I feared, produce a lesser version.

That’s not how I feel this time.

This book is about keeping a diary. I got my first diary when I was 8, and over the next 10 years I wrote about my feelings and thoughts and frustrations off and on in spiral-bound notebooks.

And then I took a writing workshop 15 years ago, the summer before college, and started writing on purpose, keeping track of the words in numbered notebooks I called journals.  Everyone who knows me knows about the journals. I took them to England and brought them back again.

Last week I started #50.

So I’m reading this book about the diary a woman kept over the course of  25 years. From my brief research about her, it’s clear we are very different. She is married, and has children. She has published several memoirs. She is a professional writer.

But this most recent book of hers, I know I wrote it too.  I’m reading her words and I’m writing down in my journal (as I do) the things she says that feel true, and I realize I have to stop after less than 20 pages because every idea, every sentence, is familiar. I have to stop writing out her words because I’m going to transcribe every one.

The book is called Ongoingness: the End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.

“From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time” (4).

From the beginning, writing has been a compulsion for me. So many times, I couldn’t sleep without first writing out the day, recording the feelings, reliving them, writing first about what happened, then how I’d reacted, and finally, what I wish I’d done instead. I seem to make a lot of mistakes, some of them over and over, and rereading my journals has only ever confirmed that for me.  

“To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget” (6).

At first, it was a shock to me to realize I might record an alternate version of an event and then, in rereading it, the written version became the new memory.
I tested it out. I’d change certain details to make a better story, or to cover up the shame, and the altered version always overwrote the memory. It didn’t quite settle – I reread some of these entries and there are clues that it didn’t happen that way. Maybe because they’re too polished for what should have been a first draft.

So, I’d read those entries and know it didn’t actually happen that way … but I still can’t remember the truth. That scared the shit out of me. It meant that not only couldn’t I trust myself to record a true version, I also couldn’t trust my own memories.

So, I stopped writing for a while. There’s a gap in my journals which starts in late 2008, and continues through 2009 where I wrote almost nothing – 17 entries for that entire year -- and only really picks up again after I left England and moved back to Arizona. But without that record, fabricated or not, I remember almost nothing from that time . Leaving England was the most significant decision I’d made since choosing to move there in the first place, and I have almost no record of it.

I know I was unhappy.
And I stopped writing because I wanted to forget.
But now I can’t remember why I left.

“I’ve met people who consider diary keeping as virtuous as daily exercise or prayer or charity […] They imagine I have willpower or strength of character. It would be harder for me not to write it, I try to explain […] I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It’s a vice” (10).

When I picked it up again, it was deliberate. I started a writing project with my mother – the Daily Theme blog – and suddenly I was back in the habit of writing almost every day.

And once that happened, the words started spilling out again – most of which were not appropriate or relevant to our project. And when I say not appropriate, I don’t mean salacious or sensational. At that point, I was almost 30, unemployed and living with my parents. Still I was filling pages and pages again, and most of those words weren’t related to the topic of the day – but in order to get to that topic, I had to wade through all the other thoughts first.  And I needed a place to put them.

“Twenty-five years later the practice is an essential component of my daily hygiene. I’d sooner go unbathed” (11).

Most of the time, I write about the things I should be doing instead of writing. I write about how I should be taking a bath. Or cleaning the house. Or laundry. Or I write about how I should be writing about other things.  Instead of writing about writing, or forming an actual finished essay, my journal contains mundane and repetitive lists of things to do, ways to change, and goals to meet, and then is often followed by almost hourly updates on how I’ve already failed to achieve them.

When I was in college, I remember being very frustrated with a friend who would say, at any given moment, “I should be studying right now.” And I hated that – I hated the idea that we were having a good time and all she could think about was what she should be doing instead. I hate that I have become that person, describing how I waste my time. I write about that a lot.

“Another friend said, I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them. The goal being the creation of a pure delivery system, without the distraction of a style. The goal being a form no one notices, the creation of what seems like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for a feeling. Language as pure experience, pure memory. I too wanted to achieve that impossible effect” (16).

I too want to achieve that effect. But I don’t know if it’s impossible. When the writing really takes hold, and I stop mouthing the words under my breath as I write them, a direct path seems to form between my brain and the pen  (or the keyboard) and I’m often surprised reading later what I’ve said, because I didn’t know that’s what I thought. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

I write better than I speak. I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing, or the fact that I get distracted by the sound of my voice, or that I’m afraid to see the effect my spoken words have on the listener – because when it comes out wrong, it’s awful. I never share a first draft with a reader, why do I have to speak words without thinking? When something comes out wrong on the paper I can scratch it out, but if I say the wrong words out loud they can’t ever be taken back.

Yet when the words do come out right, when I’ve expressed not just how I feel but how someone else might feel, and if someone reads these words and understands … then it doesn’t feel like a waste of time anymore. When I’ve spent more time revising the words than the time it took to write them, it doesn’t ever feel like a waste.

I’ve reread, reworked, and rearranged these particular words over and over. This is not my journal, but it feels like I’ve been writing this piece for 15 (or 25) years.

And that book I’m reading doesn’t quote a single line from her diary. The journals and diaries are just notes on life for us (the writers) alone. When we share our words with anyone else, we choose those words on purpose, for a reason, and with care.

“The only thing I ever wrote that wasn’t for an audience was the diary” (94). 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Multiple Personalites

(I wrote this for a writing class that I decided today to drop)

A few classes ago we were asked to draw our inner critic.  For most of my classmates that inner critic was a mother, or some other family member. For others it was just a faceless demon: insecurity, fear, regret.

My inner critic is me, one of those selves we were supposed to explore in this week’s assignment. My inner critic is not my enemy, and I’ve been aware of her for as long as I’ve been writing. Yet, she is just one of dozens of different versions of myself.

There are selves defined by relationships to other people:  the daughter, the sister, the niece, the cousin, the friend, the colleague.

The professional selves: the librarian, the writer.

The personal versions: the emotional, the potential, the creative, the ideal, the critical.

The selves I haven’t met yet (and may never): the lover, the wife, the mother, the orphan, the widow.

The selves I fear: the criminal, the deviant, the victim, the jaded bitter lonely nightmare.

How can I tell for sure who I am when I change so easily depending on my surroundings, my circumstances, my audience, my mood, my sobriety? I get really confused and sometimes I can only tell what I am not, can only define myself by considering the opposites. I made a joke to a friend that I was making my way through life by process of elimination. But I can’t even rely on what I don’t want, because that changes day to day, minute by minute.

The parts of myself that I disapprove of often feel like my dominant traits. I cannot make them go away, or erase or deny them: the lazy slacker, the avoider, the procrastinator, the insecure, the inert.

Sometimes the only guide I have in making the right choice is a desire to preserve a personal or professional relationship, to maintain a specific image even when I resent its constraints. I seem to have no ability or willpower to stop myself from making self-destructive choices – when no one is looking. But as soon as I can see myself, or my behavior, through someone else’s eyes, I check myself. I think, I don’t want anyone to think this is the kind of person I am. I have a friend who would tell me that I worry too much about what other people think. But what I really worry about is what kind of person I would be if I didn’t care.

I do know that I don’t want to be mean or hurt someone’s feelings. I have a sense of justice, a preference for mercy, forgiveness, and letting go of resentment. I have my own version of morality, but I will lie before I hurt someone’s feelings, even if the discovery of the lie may ultimately be worse. I have an extreme aversion to conflict that in my professional life is often praised as tact, and political awareness, but in my personal life is sometimes criticized as passive and weak.

Some people bring out the best selves, some bring out the worst, and I don’t even know how I measure that.. by what value system am I defining my best or worst?
I don’t know who I really am. I don’t know if I ever will. I do know that my actions and personality are usually directly related to my audience. I have some friends and colleagues that bring out a strong, respectable side of myself. But my favorite people are the ones I can play with, show off the “worst” versions to make them laugh or gasp in shock, and … I think they are only okay with this version because they tell themselves it’s NOT who I am. Except that it is.

We contain all these versions inside ourselves, we encourage some, deny others. The zealot, the fanatic, the liar, the oracle… so many pieces, when I let my mind wander the pieces seem disparate, contradictory, but irrefutable. Still, this awareness has never stopped me from hoping there might be a single, dominant, real self buried in there somewhere.

Back to the inner critic. I rely on her voice to step outside whatever emotional self-indulgent spiral I slip into. She argues with me, encourages me. She is a voice of reason, a conscience, and provokes me into action and improvement. She calls me on my shit.

She wrote this essay.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Harry before the dentist


I've been taking a memoir class at the community college and today there was an assignment to write a scene around a vintage photograph. Even though memoir is supposed to be real, this was a fiction exercise and I had the greatest time writing it. 

I shared it with a friend and she found it disturbing. That describes pretty much every attempt I've made at real fiction. Guess that just means I have a style. 

So, here goes...
Momma told me this would happen if I didn’t take care of my teeth.  I was supposed to clean them before bed, but I was always so tired after feeding and watering the animals and then I was supposed to do some reading too, I just always fell asleep. But she was always saying things like, “How you gonna eat when yer old if you got no teeth? Yer just gonna waste away on soup and overcooked noodles.”
Thing is, washing my teeth probably wouldn’t have made that big a difference since it was a donkey kick that smashed my mouth up anyway. Stupid ass was limping around in the garden, and momma sent me out to check its feet. I got a real good look at the nail stuck in the shit in his hoof as the whole thing came straight at my face, but for all I care it can stay in there cuz I ain’t never going near it again.
I ran back inside, trying to hold my teeth in my mouth and blood was pouring out everywhere. I choking too much to scream about it, plus being 13, I was too old to bawl over getting kicked in the face. Whatever water might have come pouring out my eyes was just invul… involute…  a natural reaction. You try getting kicked in the face, and see how you feel.
In the kitchen, Momma was at the sink doing the dishes but she turned round when I came in.
“Harry Lawrence! What the hell…  yer bleeding all over my floor. Here. ” She tossed me a kitchen rag. “Stick that in yer mouth, and get back outside.”
                  I could hear her digging round inside the house, and then she came out with her Sunday hat and second best coat and told me to get in the truck. We drove into town and I held that rag in my mouth. I tried chewing it a little, to test the damage, and I felt the front teeth just fold over on themselves. That’s a feeling you can’t even imagine until it happens, and trust me, you don’t ever want to know it.
                  Momma stopped the truck outside the doctor’s office and dragged me by an elbow in the front door. The nurse at the table stood up when she saw the blood, and looked at my momma with her eyebrows pushed up to her hairline.
                  “Fool boy’s got himself kicked by a donkey. We’ll be lucky if there’s any teeth left in there.”
                  The nurse put me in a chair in a little room, wrapped me up in a sheet like I was at a barber shop and told momma to fetch the doc. I hoped she would take her time. I didn’t like the doctor cuz he always made fun of my face.   The nurse pulled the rag out of my mouth and sprayed my mouth with water so cold it burned.  Finally, the doc came in carrying a black box and chatting with my momma.
                  “Yes ma’am, and I do the processing myself. Got a little darkroom out the back. “
                  “Well, doc,” said my momma, “that’s very interesting. Harry’s never got his photograph took before.”
                  “Let’s see the damage then,” he said, finally looking at me. “Hoo boy. We’re gonna have to winch those lips open to really see what’s going on in there.” He reached in a drawer and pulled out two giant spoons with their middles folded back.
                  “Lean back, Harry.” He said as he handed the black box to the nurse. “I’m just gonna open his mouth up, and then you press the button.” The doc stuck one of those spoon things in the side of my mouth, and I had another natural reaction. He reached round the back of my head and jammed the other spoon in the other side of my mouth and I squawked again.  I could hear his watch ticking away by my ear.
“Hang on a second, doc,” My momma reached in and smoothed my hair. “Ok. Now.”
                  The doc pulled on the spoons, tugging the mouth open wide. “Smile for the camera, Freckle-face.”
                  What an asshole.