These heavy boots are not made for walking – meeting Oskar Schell …

IMG_20170908_001906_934.jpg

I mentioned it before, Wonderguy gave me Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer as another part of our ongoing series “Goin’ to New York”. At first I was skeptical because I fear the child protagonist: many authors I read (Brothers Grimm, anyone?) use child characters to teach their readers a lesson, and the last thing I need right now is some elaborate lesson brought to me by 300+ pages full of moralizing undertone. But Oskar is a very special child and we got along well. Much better than I had ever expected. Apart from certain quirks that make him all the more tangible (though also at least ten years older at times) and the fact that I too (like most of us) lost someone dear to me, Oskar and I share another distinctive and at times very important feature: heavy boots. 

I read the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was still alive and I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.

I feel ya, Oskar. I do. I will not talk much about the book itself, because this time the connection with one character feels to strong and personal, an aspect that gets more important because of my current mental constitution. I gravitate around how reading about heavy boots makes someone with very heavy boots feel at the moment…
Oskar won over my heart and mind in one passage that describes a situation I know perfectly well, even though not necessarily in this context, due to geographical differences:

It had taken us four hours to get to her home. Two of those were because Mr. Black had to convince me to get on the Staten Island Ferry. In addition to the fact that it was an obvious potential target, there had also been a ferry accident pretty recently, and in Stuff That Happened to Me I had pictures of people who had lost their arms and legs. Also, I don’t like bodies of water. Or boats, particularly. Mr. Black asked me how I would feel in bed that night if I didn’t get on the ferry. I told him, “Heavy boots, probably.” “And how will you feel if you did it?” “Like one hundred dollars.” “So?” “So what about while I’m on the ferry?? What if it sinks? What if someone pushes me off? What if it’s hit with a shoulder-fired missile? There won’t be a tonight tonight.” He said, “In which case you won’t feel anything anyway.” I though about that. 

It’s well in the second half of the book, p. 240, that Oskar describes this inner turmoil, but this was the moment I knew I will forever love this book, and this character. Because I know heavy boots, I know exactly how heavy boots feel, and I know how hard it can be to make something feel even ten dollars, let alone a hundred dollars. Sometimes it feels impossible, way out of my league. And every now and then, this ‘sometimes” becomes ‘often,’ and ‘impossible’ becomes ‘unbearable.’ Because these boots are so heavy I can hardly move. And because I’m a grown-up, I know that I’m on my own, that in the end of the day, I’m all alone in my head, alone with my thoughts, fears, and feelings. Alone with my heavy boots, custom-made for me.
And these days my boots are very heavy. Though I’m looking forward to seeing NYC again, even look forward to presenting a paper and meeting fellow academics and people interested in my field of study, I dread the emotional and physical tour de force it will take until I get there. And I dread all these thoughts, freely floating through my head and messing with my synapses, much more than the fact that I will be awake and on the way for 20 hours. Fear, so much unfounded fear and panic: terror attacks, plane crashes, murder, death, mayhem. All that is possible – hardly anything is likely to happen exactly where I am at the time I am there. After all, this is the rather safe hemisphere of this tormented planet. I’m a rational person, I know that. But I also know panic attacks, anxiety, depression. Or, as Oskar describes it so poetic and also appropriate: heavy boots.

Oskar is actively working to counter his heavy boots, mostly by keeping busy, inventing stuff, designing jewellery and the like. This seems a good strategy though Oskar’s heavy boots and mine are two totally different things and what works for a fictional nine-year-old boy might not work as well for me. I’m not good at inventing and I’m not interested in jewellery; best case scenario is reading, worst case scenario is cleaning, decluttering, or rearranging stuff like there’s no tomorrow. Because a clean and tidy environment helps me to survive my mental chaos, so if nothing else works for me, this always does.
It doesn’t work anymore. Not now. And even though I feel like a whiny kid, I feel so stupid for not being able to get through this like all those times before, I know I reached a limit. I already had a lot going on in the last few months; this additional project, though it is a great opportunity and something I really look forward to, seems to be too much. Too much for my already hyperactive mind, my perfectionism, my aim of juggling different jobs and ventures simultaneously.

So I called my therapist today. I haven’t seen him in 6 years. It’s time for a reunion. 

 

Advertisements

I sense a certain sentiment …

2017-09-09-12-32-52.jpgIn the last few days I booked a flight and my Dad found me a nice hotel in an ideal location between the university and the rest of the city I want to see and discover. Regarding the practical aspects of this little adventure everything’s already taken care of, everything’s fine. Which is wonderful and I’m so grateful that my dad, mom, and my sister, my whole family, is so supportive and helpful, even though I brought that on myself, thinking I could accomplish a conference/city trip to NYC ON MY OWN. Wonderguy too is just great, and he’s also already in the “goin’ to New York” mood (even though he is not coming with me), putting together a Spotify-playlist with songs about NY (from Sinatra’s classic to my favorite, Alicia Keys, he found some really great songs which I will listen to while out and about in NY). Furthermore, he gave me some of the novels he got that are set in New York, one being Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I will take a closer look at this book in another blog post, soon. For now let me just say that certain fears not only Oskar but other protagonists as well talk about resonate deep with(in) my own dark places… 

And it can be dark down there … Sleepless nights filled with horrifying visions triggered by too many true crime podcasts and too much war crime material keep me awake. Have you ever seen “Mayday”? I have. Oh my, yes I have …
At the opposite end of this extreme emotional spectrum lies my longing for peace, being someplace where no one knows me and no one notices me and I will be invisible. And once again being invisible would make me invincible, at least deep down in my heart. “These streets will make you feel random” – I long for that feeling. The same feeling I loved so much when walking through the streets of New York the first time I was there, four years ago. No one cares about you, but not in a bad way. Rather like we are all parts of the surrounding, belonging to this street, this street corner, this certain place, nothin’ to fuzz about, just everyone going their ways. 

I felt safe there, always. True, I wasn’t out and about at 3am in the morning all alone as a woman, and I won’t do so in December. But still, I felt safer in New York than I felt/feel in London, though I love London just as much and I’m more familiar with the city, having been there several times. And I guess that’s the crux of the matter: because I’m less familiar with NYC I feel safer there than in London – knowing a place, being familiar with it means knowing its ‘good’ and its ‘bad’ sides; just reading about the dark sides does not change a thing. I read tons of stuff about war and war crimes and the like but I would never in a million years assume I “know” war – that’s not how it works.  Never. Of course I read about places where one should not go, what one should and should not do, especially as a woman, and that might be one reason why I can’t sleep at times, but this does not change my good memories about the place. Besides, “feeling safe” in my understanding also means being able to stay in my own little thought bubble all the time because I don’t know a single person so no one will disturb my thinking, musing, and wandering. I’m not sure if this corresponds with a general understanding of “feeling safe” but I don’t strive for unifying different views. Live and let live, wander and let wander …

For now, the “goin’ to New York”-theme is huge, listening to the playlist, reading books from/about/set in New York, most of this thanks to and inspired by Wonderguy. That’s because it’s my first trip alone to one of my most favorite cities. It’s a long flight and at average an expensive stay, so it’s not like I can see NYC whenever I want to – this is something special. And even though I feel total overwhelmed and panicky at times (thanks, weird wired brain) I really look forward to “goin’ to New York”.

Besides, let us not forget: I’m there for work as well … one more reason for sleepless nights! 🙂

Reading: “The Book of Other People”

IMG_20170827_234755_343.jpg

Something different for a change: it was a charity project, in a way (the proceeds were given to a non-profit organization helping young writers); it’s a collection of characters, most of them presented in short stories, some in other forms of narration; it’s edited by Zadie Smith, who – back then – was a rising star and therefore a popular author to choose as an editor (also, I really like Zadie Smith’s work as far as I know it, so this description should in no way seem like a personal of professional attack on Smith as an artist); and it varies heavily in tone and structure (for obvious reasons, being the collection it is), which may be one reason why it received generally positive but also mixed reviews [attentive readers may find most of this trivia on Wikipedia – just like I did, because I cannot remember everything…so thanks aunt Wiki]. Also, as far as I can remember, it was hugely popular back then (nearly 10 years ago?) so I am once again pretty late to the party.

Different stories bring different voices, perspectives, images, languages, and views. Different stories from different authors create even more multifaceted, colorful, vibrant and creative universes (logically). This is the main reason why I usually don’t read a collection like this all at once, because the different voices and styles can at times be irritating; it ‘feels’ different. And this regular change of tones and spirits is exhausting at times, at least in my little corner of the world. Just when you got accustomed to characters and their specific voices and idiosyncrasies, everything changes. All at once. These constant changes of settings and the likes don’t concern that much me when reading a short stories collection by one author; this sort of literary exhaustion only occurs to me when reading collections containing a variety of authors. Because starting a new story by a new author of course brings new experiences. And one can only take so many new experiences on one evening/morning/day/night/train ride/flight/somuchmoreIcan’tthinkofrightnow. Which in itself is a rather trivial – albeit true – observation, but hey, someone has to be a bit trivial around here, so let’s go for it! 

We meet 23 people in 23 settings, lives, worlds. The authors contributing to this collection were asked to introduce a character, tell the story of one person, no matter how. And like in real life, this can be colorful, complex, vibrant, mundane, flat, interesting and shitty. I had some favorites and some I didn’t like. Some were foreseeable but still good, some graced my quiet evenings with a fine sarcastic tone I loved, some were plain and boring. Of course you meet characters that seem familiar; reading one story I realized that I actually had the phone number of the person I was reading about; even more so, I also encountered characters I simply did not understand. As I’m an introvert mess, I always assume this is my fault, since I obviously know too little about (for example) male adolescence to decipher some codes that may otherwise bring me closer to the story; or don’t know enough about the joy of parenting to understand the even greater joy of taking a weekend off from parenting thanks to a shady houseguest taking the kid on a roadtrip. And don’t get me wrong, I really think this is ‘my fault’ since one cannot always work with every voice and every style; some things I simply don’t get because I don’t see it in there (the story, of course). So apart from my intellectual slips and personal tastes, me being the fairness fanatic that I am, I read every story to give it the fair chance to become my favorite. As stated I will not name any favs or not-so-favs, because if someone reading this little piece is even later to the party than I am, s/he should have a fair chance to form their own opinion; besides, as I always like to emphasize: everyone has a different taste, so go find your own favorite story (/stories).

Reading this book was a sort of personal triumph; I bought it eight years ago, I moved it three times without ever so much as reading a single story and I every time I looked at it I thought: “Hey, this sounds soooo interesting, I have to read it on a day off!”
It actually took me three days, because … life. Nevertheless, finally, I met the Other People.

Once more with … less feeling, please?

 

IMG_20170809_232328_236.jpgA few days ago I received an invitation to a conference in December. I never in a million years expected anyone to accept my paper because a) it’s not even a conference with a focus on literary studies and b) I’m no fancy academic pursuing her studies not looking left or right, but rather a freestyle academic, pursuing her studies when finding the time next to work, life, and stuff. So not exactly distinguished ivy league university material. Not even ‘attending a conference at a distinguished university I always wanted to see’ material… 

Obviously, no one ‘there’ knows that, which is why they are delighted to include my paper in their conference. And I’m delighted, happy, overwhelmed, and panicky all at once. For days now. And nights, which is worse. I sent a submission to give it a shot, “aim high”, as they say (I don’t know who “they” are, but hey, “they” for sure never suffered from anxiety disorders and shit like that) and try for universities (and cities) I always wanted to see or love to visit. I have been to New York before and missed my chance to see Columbia, at least from the outside. I may get a second chance now. 

Still, I have to finance this wonderful craziness – New York is pricey, especially in December (I guess). Also, I have to keep my shit together to go there. It’s not that I am too nervous to actually attend a conference and present a paper (I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so that’s not the issue here); rather, the real challenge will be organizing the trip, finding a hotel and staying on top of things. I hate organizing because I’m really bad at it. Also, since receiving the invitation, tons of unfounded fears came creeping up from the shitty dark holes I forced them into; they caress my arms, creep up and down my spine, float into my semiconscious mind in the early morning hours, lay their heavy burden on my weary shoulders (yes I know, THAT sounds cheesy…). Depending on the mood I’m in, I can take them one at a time, pushing them back into the holes they came from, or I let them flow, because there’s no use in fighting it, not right now. 

I know, I sound like a whiny kid, and I don’t want to. I simply did not expect this to happen – some provincial freestyle academic presenting a paper at rather well-known university. London has already been great, and this too is a wonderful opportunity and it feels huge. Overwhelming. Unreal. And frightening.  

Greetings to my demons. 

Reading:”American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

 

2017-04-22-23-25-06.jpgYes, I know, there is no need for another sort-of-review of any of Neil Gaiman’s books because there are already thousands of highly qualified writings about his work out there. He is a prolific writer, has a wide, diverse and also devout audience (of which Wonderguy is a proud member) and countless different platform—a lot of them highly professional and influential—have already discussed his numerous works. Still, thoughts are free and unicorns are still a thing, so let me reflect on my personal adventure with Shadow, Wednesday and all the other blokes who are setting the stage for a reading experience that was by far not as smooth as The Graveyard Book (my favourite Neil Gaiman book so far, though I have some more reading to do), but still gave me one of my favorite characters.

First off, I have to confess that I do not “like” and therefore hardly read any fantasy novels. I never read the Harry Potter-series (though I always wanted to read something by J.K. Rowling and A Casual Vacancy made that happen, but that’s another story) or Lord of the Rings  and I was surprised to find out that Philip Pullman was NOT in Independence Day (though: kudos to a fellow atheist, may the bridges we burn light our way…). Apart from an occasional Terry Pratchett I am hardly Neil Gaiman’s target audience, which might be a reason why reading The Graveyard Book, with its comparably small cast and fictional world, was ‘easier’ and much more enjoyable to read than American Gods. Another reason might be that Wonderguy told me to read Norse Mythology  before American Gods to be well-prepared and—truth to be told—this sort of preparation pretty much killed my vibe. I am all for some deeper insight into the backgrounds of stories and novels, but my enthusiasm has its limits and Norse Mythology exhausted these: starting with all the ridiculous names I never had a chance of remembering (for e.g. Gullinbursti the boar, Svadilfari the horse, or inanimate objects like a chain called Dromi)  followed by the mind-boggling number of protagonists, I lost track of the stories most of the time and confused everyone with everything except for the main ‘characters’  Loki, Thor, and Odin. [At the risk of sounding indifferent to fascinating historical knowledge: I’m an atheist which in this context means that religious and mythological symbols and/or characters are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant to me; the Norse mythology may be far more colorful than many of today’s religious symbols, stories and myths, but to me, in the end it is just another ‘metaphysical instrument’ for explaining seemingly inexplicable events and experiences while at the same time using this power of illusory knowledge to control the people seeking help and guidance.]
By the time I actually started reading American Gods I was already exhausted regarding the stories and adventures of Odin a.k.a. Wednesday and his various henchmen thanks to the enlightening ‘research reading.’

But Shadow kept me going. Through all the exhaustive dream sequences and fantastic elements which would otherwise rather discourage me to continue reading a book, I wanted to know what would happen to Shadow. Of course I acknowledge and appreciate the immense research work Neil Gaiman must have accomplished for this novel—no one needs me of all people to state that Gaiman is a master of his craft. Moreover, I loved the stories he tells in small subchapters throughout the novel about how the various gods and mythical creatures came to the US; they feature different voices and perspectives which introduce interesting and captivating insights in how myths and ‘gods’ can be created, transformed, and sometimes even killed off. 
Though the book dragged on at times—at least for someone who is not that much into fantasy—there were of course quite a few surprising twist and turns that made it an entertaining read, not only for the sake of finding out where Shadow’s path would lead him. Gaiman is a great author and knows his way around language, which always makes him a great read, even when delving into a genre one usually avoids (yeah, the “one” is me…).
With Shadow, American Gods features a protagonist that seems familiar, even though I cannot thoroughly explain how and why; he reminds me of Bukowski’s Hank Chinaski, various protagonists in war literature (Joker in Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Walter James in Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, some of the guys in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried  and Paul Berlin in Going after Cacciato as well as Colby Buzzell’s depiction of himself in the midst of the Iraq War) and probably some others I can’t remember right now. Shadow is the one you want to have with you on a road trip (yeah I know, what a surprising remark considering parts of the book); he is the one you want to ask how to handle the ugly shit—even better, you want him to handle the ugly shit; in short he is the big brother I always wanted. He is THE one invariable in the midst of an ugly and violently changing world—and I’m not referring to the sort of Ragnarok Gaiman describes in  American Gods. Maybe Shadow is in some ways an all-American hero which makes him seem so familiar; maybe it’s something personal in regard to ex-cons in literature, I don’t know. I do know that his character, his story was the reason I finished the book. 

Again, this is in no way a book review; though I work in the field of literary studies, I don’t do reviews here (or elsewhere, for that matter). Literature is art and art has no limits (sort of); different people like different things, that’s all. It’s just another account of my reading experience and reading adventure, this time with Neil Gaiman. It was not the first, it won’t be the last, though it was a difficult one. But it was more than worth my time.

Chick(s) without kids

2017-04-19-23-39-29.jpg

Today, by chance I listened to the episode “Choosing to live child-free” of the What would a feminist do?-podcast (you can listen to it here); I haven’t thought about that issue for a while, but what the three women – host Jessica Valenti and her two guests, authors Meghan Daum and Danielle Henderson – talked about resonated deeply with me: I never wanted kids and therefore, at 30+, I don’t have kids.* [I will continue to talk about the conscious decision to not have children, NOT about involuntary childlessness. For obvious reasons I’m in no position to talk about the latter, nor do I want talk about something I know nothing about. So let’s continue with the less tragic part of this vast subject.]

Whilst all my female and even male friends are breeding like there’s no tomorrow, I would rather drop dead than seriously think about having a baby. Usually, I’m the sole master of my life, my time, and my priorities which is a privilege I treasure very much, even though this means I have less financial security than someone else my age who leads a ‘traditional’ life. But for me, that’s worth it. I can read a book at any given time, I can stay up and work all night, I can withdraw from the world every time I feel the need to be alone and no human being depends on me. This is exactly how I want it.

On an intellectual level, I can understand why people want children: all these myths and stories about having children as a sort of symbolic immortality, having someone to take care of, humans having a biological urge to breed – I get that.

On an emotional level: no way. Why someone would sacrifice all her time, energy, health, well-being, money and sleep for a being that will not be able to take care of itself for at least 10 to 14 years and at times will treat you like shit and still take all your energy, money, and well-being is a mystery to me. There is nothing lovely about that, it rather reminds me of leeches or tapeworms. Also,  there is nothing sweet about babies or toddlers; they smell, cannot communicate properly, and cry a lot. I can take that for a while concerning my friend’s kids – since I don’t want to lose close friends just because they choose a different path, I am indeed in regular contact with human beings who can stand tall beneath my kitchen table –, but not much more because I don’t want to. Most kids are boring and I don’t know what to say to them; like many people (and as stated in an earlier post) I’m really bad at small talk and this gets worse the younger my conversation partner is.

The most important aspect is one I mentioned before: I don’t want anyone to completely depend on me; this is a sort of responsibility I am NOT seeking. Thanks to some of my issues there are days when I’m glad I can take care of my own most basic affairs – I never felt the need to extend this experience to other human beings. As weird as it may sound, at times I really NEED to be alone because otherwise I know I might get a panic attack or fall into one of my dark holes due to the sensory overload of all the people and the world around me. I would never risk my solitude, ever. Especially not for kids.

My mom once said that when she listens to me explaining why I don’t want kids she gets the impression that having a family is like being in solitary confinement in Alcatraz; I told her that I would choose solitary confinement in Alcatraz over children at any given time.

In the end it all comes down to this: individuals deciding what to do with their lives. It’s as easy as that. But because some of those individuals are biologically female it gets out of hand; religion, society, politics, medicine, and other people want to interfere with decisions that are none of their fucking business. At which point the never-ending cycle of explaining and justifying yourself starts again, again, and again.
Still, let’s wish each other just the best, no matter how we decide to live our lives. 

 

*Yeah I know, what a statement! Groundbreaking, never heard before, and totally trivial! But also still relevant, because as a woman who consciously decides to not procreate, therefor NOT blessing the world with another set of urgently needed no-necked monsters, you do know that at certain points in your life – with your family, friends, in-laws, colleagues, acquaintances, and at times even strangers – you will have to discuss your decision again and again. And again. Because breeding is the ONLY thing that gives the existence of a female human being any sense and fulfillment AT ALL. So your refusal to do so is unacceptable and has to be challenged. [And now the rant is over, I promise.]

 

Nevermind me, overcompensating like a pro

 

2017-03-31_10.44.16.jpgWe all have certain mechanisms we like to use in times of need. What exactly  ‘times of need’ are will vary from one to another, but still: you put on your armor, get out your tools, and walk out into this world, doing your best to be brave, strong, and confident.
Or babbling bullshit nonstop. Which is what I usually do.

You see, for people who do not know me I may seem like a) a nice and funny girl who at times talks A LOT; or b) like an arrogant, smug bitch who obviously HATES being around people.
I am neither – and both.
I have huge problems interacting with people, which makes me insecure. Also, I don’t especially like people because I don’t understand most of them. 90% of the time I don’t know how to handle a “casual” social situation; if it seems like I’m all grown-up and mature, knowing what I do, that’s thanks to the fact that I try my best to imitate a certain conduct I think (and hope) is appropriate in certain situations. I like to observe and watch the world around me, and over the course of years I recognized certain behavioral patterns people commonly display in certain situations; now, repeating similar behavioural patterns is something I can work with (contrary to most emotions and erratic behavior in general). What’s more, during the three years I worked as  a bartender, I learned that you definitely do not want to be another nice little insecure chick behind a bar at 2 am, with a seemingly huge male audience waiting for your next joke/laugh/insult/mistake, hoping that you get off lightly, because: nope, fuck it, you won’t. Have the last word, be ballsy, put them in their place, otherwise you may as well get a new job and, depending on where you work and/or live, a new life.
So if you don’t want to deal with other people’s bullshit, drown them in your own. Which makes me the queen of blabla-nonsense-smalltalk in some situations and the absolute goddess of inappropriate, shitty answers and comments in tons of other situations. Because, why not.

So, as a sort of self-defence, when I feel insecure and I don’t know how to act and react appropriately, I talk like there is no tomorrow. Feeling the pressure to keep it nice and casual, I tell my vet that I wasn’t kicked out of an all girls catholic school because I am an atheist, but because I am an asshole, all while she is trying to inject my jittery cat some vitamins; I tell my new boss that while it may seem like I slept my way up to the new position because my boyfriend recommended me for the job, that is – of course – not the case, even though it would be really funny; I tell a heavily pregnant acquaintance of mine that she doesn’t need to worry about feeling fat and ugly like a whale because whales are beautiful creatures too, just like elephants or rhinos. I talk all this nonsense not to offend anyone or because I don’t like the people I talk to, I utter all this bullshit because I have no idea what people I hardly know usually want to talk about so I talk about stuff I know and think about. Only after I say things I realize that whatever I said could be offensive, inappropriate or otherwise pointless.

At times I think I want people to care. Not necessarily about me, but about the fact that one should think before talking. Because if you do, if you truly stick to the stuff you care/think/know about, there would be a lot less talk and a lot more action. The world would be a little less noisy …  And maybe, just maybe, people would pay more attention to WHAT is said and not so much to WHEN it’s their turn to say something again.