no gods. no masters. no proofreading.
I was a hungry reader when I was a kid. I spent hours in the local library browsing the shelves, hoping to spot my next read by its spine - something engrossing, that I could get lost in (but not, dear god, DUNE). This was long before Goodreads was a thing, thought perhaps more important it was well before I had any strongly held preferences for the media I consumed.
I wandered between young adult fiction and adult fiction. I like Harry Potter quite a bit. I also read the Weetzie Bat books and daydreamed about the magical pastel world that Francesca Lia Block invented. My more adult choices were driven by recommendations from my AOL friends who I knew from a message board for teens to discuss books (I guess they were a form of Goodreads). They liked Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I ate up the vampire novels (and read some from the YA side as well), but Outlander didn’t much appeal to me. I read other books that struck me with their depictions of despair or love or sex or passion, but that I don’t really remember now.
I mostly chose books based on 3 criteria:
Yes, the plot thickens. My experience with the message board kids got me into this state where I began to look at books as a sort of social capital. I thought of it as romantic capital: 13 year old me hauling around trade paperbacks with knights and wizards on them so that the boy I had a crush on could take notice and talk to me in our English class where we both frequently had a surplus of time to read for fun after finishing assignments. I thought of books as actual capital too and started stockpiling the ones I bought with my gifted money from birthdays and Christmas. I did not have shelves, so I lined the books up along the wall by my bed.
My book obsession is maybe a factor in why I changed my major from Social Relations - a pre-law school, pre-civil service sort of major - to American Studies where I could study the discursive objects which I was using by then to signify my value as a person. And it is most certainly a factor in how I ended up in graduate school, even though by that time in my life, the act of actually reading books was near impossible with my sense of self clanging about in my skull as I suffered from chronic pain and depression. Reading stopped being something that soothed me or excited me. It drained me.
Louise Erdrich asked, “Books, why” in Books and Islands. That’s the question that’s rolling around in my head today. Books took me to the darkest places I’ve ever felt with their stories, sure, but even more-so as determinants of my identity as a student, a writer, and an academic. It does not need to be rehashed by me, but I felt like I wasn’t worthy of the books, like an impostor desperately trying to hide the truth of my nature behind stacks and stacks of books. Books, because they allowed me to tell a different story about myself.
I rarely buy books these days. I am more content to borrow and relieved to return them. At one time, I had a couple hundred books that I lugged with me to each new rental unit. Moving the books was a production. It took time, muscle, stamina, logic. Books, why? Because we need bricks to build with.
Now, my books barely cover on a 3 tier Sauder shelf. I sold and donated as many as I could in North Carolina before I left. I kept the books that I loved and cast away the ones that I bought from a list on somebody’s syllabus. Really, I threw those books into a big bag and hauled it into some used book shop in a suburban strip mall. Bye bye Derrida. Fuck off Deleuze. Peace out to all of you. Maybe I felt like I was getting rid of that suffocating grad student identity that those books all signified to me and to the rest of my world?
Here I am, making weekly trips to the library to pick up more books while I struggle to get through just one novel.
Books, why? Why do I care so much about repairing this relationship? Why do I want - so badly - for books to be a source of joy and solace and intrigue and excitement for me?
Maybe I don’t have the answers to those questions (concerns?) right now. Or maybe I do, but it’s a bunch of meandering, pretentious bullshit. Or maybe I do, but I’m tired and I need to go to sleep. Or sometimes answers can be simple. Sometimes, issues don’t need to be belabored.
It’s been a month since I brought home Lucy’s new brother, Otto. Acclimating Otto from his former life as a neglected stray turned shelter dog has posed some challenges that I did not encounter with Lucy. Though more reserved and easy-going than Lucy, Otto is more dependant on my presence for his peace of mind. He has a barking problem and is more nervous than relaxed in his crate. In other words, Otto is a dog that will need to be rehabilitated from his past traumas so that he can live a contented, anxiety-free lifestyle.
In a lot of ways, Otto reminds me of Buddy, one of our old dogs who lived a long life. Though my family had Buddy for nearly his whole life, he had a bumpy start in the world. He was abandoned in the winter on a road the dead-ended into our backyard. My mom saw him hopping through our bootprints and brought him in from the cold. She was quick to tell all of us that we could not keep him, because we already had two dogs, Rosie and Daisy. So, we were only allowed to call him “Puppy.” Puppy stayed with us until my mom and stepdad found someone who would take care of him. We were sad, but happy that he was going home. Puppy did not last long at the new home though. He came back to us on auspices that he whined and barked too much in his crate. We found another home for him, but sure enough, he came back to us with the complaint that he was too loud. Now a teenage dog with long, clumsy legs and fur that grew in awkward tufts from his ears and tail, my mom decided that we could keep Puppy. So as not to confuse him, I proposed that we name him Buddy. Buddy became our family teddy bear. He was small enough to fit on my lap, but big enough to feel substantial and comforting. Today when we remember Buddy, we remember him as an intuitive and devoted dog, the Best Dog, definitively.
This insight has come to me only since bringing Otto home and observing him as an adult who has had to withstand and recover from my own traumas, but it’s now very clear to me that Buddy’s barking and whining as a puppy was an expression of his anxiety about abandonment and upheaval. I don’t know very much about Otto’s past, but I suspect that he has suffered some traumas as a result of neglect and possibly abuse. Like Buddy, he does not like to be alone and barely tolerates his crate. He barks and whines for about 40 minutes after he goes into his crate and most evenings when I return from work, I can hear his “hey, I’m here, did you forget about me” bark from front doors of my apartment building.
I’ve been torn between feeling guilty about leaving Otto in the crate while I go to work and feeling intense anxiety about how his barking must be affecting my neighbors. Without being too self-flagellating, at different times in the past month, I have made Otto’s trauma more about me than about him and his rehabilitation. I have wanted to stop worrying about his barking as soon as possible. I was looking for solutions that would be quick and easy to implement so that I could make myself feel better.
I bought a bark collar this week for Otto. The collar produces a static shock when its sensors pick up on Otto’s barking. The idea behind these devices is that the shock is painless, but annoying enough to get the dog to stop barking. Upon purchasing the collar, I felt satisfied that I had “found a solution” to my problematic barking dog. We tried the collar out that evening and all seemed well. The next morning, I said goodbye and put the collar on Otto and led him to his crate. He called out in his deep, resonant bark. Then he was shocked. And then, from the other side of my closed bedroom door I heared his high-pitched scream. And then another scream followed by quiet whimpering. I was horrified and felt guilty and monstrous. I took the collar off of him and immediately returned it to the store, nearly in tears. With the bark collar it became evident to me that I had allowed my own anxiety to outweigh the importance of my dog’s well-being.
All the while, Lucy is in her own little world doing Lucy things. My fingernails are chewed up and my brain is hot, tired, and fried. And Lucy is snoozing in the sun. Lucy is an independent dog who can occasionally be bossy. She jumps on my chest in the morning when I haven’t gotten out of bed yet. If I’m really stubborn, she growls and barks from the floor by my side. She loves to be petted and would do anything for the affection, but she acts as though she is giving you the privilege of petting her by sitting royally on your lap without your invitation.
Lucy wasn’t this way when I first brought her home. I could trust her to be calm and quiet in her crate, but she was difficult in other ways that Otto has not been difficult. She was extremely submissive, flinching when I raised my hand to scratch her ears. Her flinching and shrinking were alarming to me. She was hyper-alert, barking at any activity in the hallway or outdoors. Her stubbornness and hyperactivity were especially hard to manage. Lucy and I worked on restoring her self-esteem and soothing her anxiety by playing games like chase (wherein I pretend to chase her and she runs like hell - helped w/ her hyperness), sit and down and up (do things for treats!), and find-the-food (I hide her kibble around the house and she has to find it). It wasn’t until I had been taking care of Lucy for four or five months that we were buddied up, so to speak. I could read Lucy’s idiosyncrasies and she could trust me - and strangers at the per store and our tiny kid neighbors! - to pet her and play with her. The day that someone at the dog park told me that Lucy brought a calming presence to the park was possibly the proudest day of my adult life.
The point of all of this is to say that rehabilitating my dogs is hard work, but it’s very rewarding. Starting over this year could have felt very bleak and cumbersome, but putting the care and time into giving these two clown dogs their second chances at a good life has helped me stay focused and grounded. For the first time, I have learned that I am capable of acting selflessly out of compassion rather than my own selfish need for affirmation.
The weird thing about restarting your life is that it really does feel like restarting. I mean, I think when I endeavored on this whole thing, the “restart” felt more like a metaphor. It’s just ~like~ starting over, not really Starting Over. But there is no metaphorical restart and maybe, to even have thought that, is a sign of how broken I was in my old life. I lived an abstract, unattached life then.
Graduate school and academic culture fed on the part of me that thrived on affirmation from others. Since childhood, I had been a people pleaser. Grad school was just an extension of the same “jump-doggy-jump” game I’d played all through middle school and high school and college. Play by the rules, get praise, feel good. As my friends were moving to new places - new lives! with salaries and vacations and engagements and houses - I was getting my fix in school, allowing others to substantiate my existence through points and grades and pithy praises written in the margins of my papers. “Nice work!” I found a new source for my fix.
Even though my drug was “harmless,” like all addicts, I eventually crashed and burned. But that’s a different story that I haven’t figured out how to tell yet. I don’t even know if its worth telling.
I wish I could say that there was one moment where I realized that the path I was on was not the right one for me. Hell, I wish I could say that there was one moment where someone else realized it and told me. It was a process though. And not a process that occurred in a logical, linear order of operations. I knew first that I was not happy in grad school and relished the day that I would be Done. While conjuring up what I wanted out of a better life, I had a lot of learning to do. Mostly, I needed to figure out how to appreciate myself and be accountable for my own well-being and health. Doing that work and learning those skills was boring, but nourishing. Kind of like if Rocky’s workout sequence involved big couches and talking about his feelings a lot. By learning mindfulness techniques and processing my experiences through talk therapy, I was able to build up my self-esteem and be my own “fix,” so to speak. After all that, I realized that the path I was on - the path that kept me in academia for the long-term - was not the one that led to that “better life” I had been dreaming up.
From the other end of it all, after the hard restart, I can see how a metaphorical restart would have been appealing to me. I had worked so hard to become a new me and there was a part of me that feared if I changed paths the new me would be left behind. It would be a lie to say there was no danger in that. I mean, I guess it’s like that thing of when you have to take your computer to the Genius Bar because it’s not behaving and you’re worst fear is that they have to replace your hard drive and it’s the last week of classes and like a dummy, you have not been plugging in your external hard drive so that Time Machine can do its magic and back up literally every important document and file in your life. Losing that hard drive and getting a new one is your worst fucking nightmare.
Once I started leaving that old life, it was easy to begin letting things go. First my material possessions. I donated as much of the contents of my studio apartment as I could to an animal rights charity. I took left over food to a soup kitchen. Let a young woman who distributed goods to families who’d been left homeless due to catastrophic incidents take my linens and kitchen supplies. Donated my warm weather clothing to a women’s center. By the time I left, everything I owned could fit into my tiny hatchback car. I got rid of all my things and I still felt like the me I had worked to become.
I wanted to let more things go. Tired of being belligerent and bruised, I decided to let go of my anger. Something I learned in therapy was that emotions are supposed to serve a purpose. At a very base level, they are just information that tell us how we’re feeling. And that information can be used to change the situation! And then, once the emotions have ceased to be useful, they can just be let go! That was a revelation to me. I used to stew in my emotions, let them simmer until they boiled over into a tidal wave that knocked me down. Before someone told me this - really helped me learn the power of this skill - I thought of my emotions as these huge, intimidating, warden-like things that I could not escape. Enthralled with this new option of “letting it all go,” I made decisions regarding people and situations that had made me resentful or sore and then I let the emotions go once I was satisfied with my decisions.
Those heavy emotions were gone and I felt more like myself than ever before in my entire life. I remember when I first got glasses; I was 12 and in eighth grade. We got my first pair of glasses from a DOC in a strip mall on a spring evening. Riding in the way way back of my mom’s van I wore those glasses and I was in a trance over how clearly I was able to see the rain rivulets rushing down the window. Unclouded by negative emotions, I could feel happiness and passion and rage. I could give a damn, finally.
Animated GIFs have a specious reputation on the web. Everyone remembers the garish “Under construction” GIFs of the 90s - now more of a punchline than a viable method of conveying information, along with the much-maligned tag in HTML. The animated GIFs of the 90s and early 2000s are punchlines these days. In more recent years, the animated GIF has a reputation for being silly and almost frivolous; this form of media is often used on social media sites to depict emotional reactions in soundless, looping images. Reddit, Buzzfeed, and Tumblr are just some of the platforms that are well known for GIF usage.
Single-serving Tumblrs like What Should We Call Me leveraged the animated GIF to demonstrate reflexive responses to commonplace (or not so commonplace) circumstances. Composed of sentence fragments and single moving images - no sound, no verbose explanation - What Should We Call Me went viral. It’s important to note that WSWCM was written by two bi-coastal best friends attending law school. My friends went to law school and that is a different world, man. For all intents and purposes, WSWCM should have been obscure and inaccessible to anybody outside of the best friend law school bubble that the two authors occupied. The exact opposite thing happened though. WSWCM was spotlighted by HuffPo and Forbes (! …) as a must-follow blog. Copycat blogs sprung up as people sought to describe and express their experiences in an equally evocative manner.
WSWCM was not only compelling to read and chatter about and share; it made people want to make their own WSWCM. It made writers out of people who might otherwise remain readers only. Now that it had become a meme, the format began to reproduce itself across Tumblr as people in all different kinds of circumstances started combining animated GIFs with their own quippy sentences. I recall a friend of mine loving one iteration that was specifically devoted to the experience of young Americans who were raised in foreign countries (“third culture kids”).
Awhile back in a PBS Idea Channel video, Mike Rugnetta proposed an idea about the “cultural singularity.” You’d be better watching the video than my summarizing it here, but the gist is that the internet builds culture and culture thereby builds itself. Communities of people are part of the mechanisms by which culture is continually building itself out and on top of itself becoming evermore self-referential. Rugnetta refers mostly to memes themselves - image macros, animated GIFs, and the like which emerged from the 2012 summer olympics broadcast. He notes that while he barely saw the broadcast sports, he saw tons of gymnastics on Tumblr in GIF form. Video clips become GIFs become GIF sets become GIFs about something else totally unrelated become glitch art etc etc etc. Each new iteration begets something new.
We celebrated the 23rd anniversary of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” yesterday.