Literary as hell.

Tag: nonfiction

“How Are You” by Maria Tolosa

Oh please. Not that question.

No, I am not fine, I twisted my ankle leaving the bus, I have two dentist appointments this week, the ATM swallowed my card and I have a headache. I am not fine at all but I have to put on a brave smile and say that I totally am.  

Or: Yes, I feel great today, I got brand new teeth, a promotion, and I won 10 euros in the lottery. Again, I have to clench those brand new teeth and rave that I am fine and parrot the question back. It reminds me of the ritual dance of the red-crowned cranes. 

You may say that people are asking because they are polite and they care. Not at all!  I mean, yes, they are polite but they obviously want to hear only “I am fine”, so no, they don’t care. 

Actually, they don’t want to hear any details, good or bad. Well, I don’t expect them to care, everyone has problems of their own. But then why ask and spend time on this dance?

You may also say that to argue with the language itself is silly.  “How are you” is used as a friendly greeting. But still, I cannot understand why usual greetings like “hello” or “good morning” are not good enough.  If we want to add something else, why not make it more personal or more specific, for example: “Today is very hot, are you feeling well?” Just to show that we care about each other.

I don’t know why it bothers me now more than before. Probably, because of the pandemic. People revalued a lot of things, including communication. All those formulas, rituals, and clichés bubbled to the surface and became more visible.  

In my opinion, asking a question without any interest in the answer is hypocrisy, plain and simple. Tell me, why it is such an essential criterion for good manners? I help people in need, collect and separate my recycling, and donate to charities. Am I good enough? Or without the proper “I am fine, thank you, and you?” I am not part of this great civilization and should be sent to a remote village where I belong?

I see it as a game. Or a kind of password that helps polite people to recognize each other in a crowd, like spies.  For me, the world is already weird enough, sorry.

Mondays are even worse, like it being Monday is not enough.  On Mondays, another question is added to “How are you?” – “How was your weekend?”Come on, do you really want to hear about my weekend, or you are trying to distract and soften me before asking me to do something for you? 

After this ritual of exchange of pleasantries, it is not so easy to say no, is it? Without realizing it, you feel obliged, even before the real conversation starts. Very clever. Now it is not only insincere- but also- manipulation. 

This is why I developed my personal answer to “How are you?” 

“I am fine so far, but it will depend on what you say next“.  

You will not believe how fast the boundary is set. 

Well, I need some kind of shield in this brutal world. 

_________

Maria Tolosa lives in Luxembourg and sometimes thinks she can write something better than a grocery list.  English is not her mother tongue, so she is still fascinated with it, poor thing.

Holy Ground by Jennifer Spiegel

Nothing To See Here

In June 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery, Chemo, Radiation, Reconstruction, and More Surgery followed. Between then and now, I wrote Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide to Breast Cancer, A Writer’s Memoir In Almost Real Time. 

 

Unraveling

People ask how cancer has changed my life. Am I more religious? Have I forsaken sugar? Given up red meat? What’s with sex? 

It’s in the book, but:

  1. I’m an introvert now.
  2. I savor road trips. 

The road trip part first: I’ve always loved travel. But now, I crave the jammed-in-the-car/free-hotel-breakfast/seven-hour-stretches–of-highway. I want to craft memories for my children. I want to unravel maps with them, holding hands in White Sands or before Renoir. I know life is a privilege. 

But Introversion is new to me. I’ve always been extroverted, social. 

Cancer has rendered me insular. There are medical reasons, like exhaustion, like incessant hot flashes. However, there are others: I just want to be with Tim, my husband. I’m a little nervous to be out there alone. I do it sometimes, venture into the world. I do writer things. I flew to Portland for a conference, went to Kentucky for a teaching gig even. But it wasn’t easy, and I missed my small world: family, pets. 

(Do you know how many times Tim has attended my readings? Like, a gazillion. Because he’s had to go to every single one of them.)

So, I rarely go out past dark alone. Cancer has left me stumbling at dusk, longing for middle-aged marriage, a cup of tea, Tim, and his nightly bowl of cereal. 

Unintentionally or maybe intentionally, I have made it a hard thing to maintain a friendship with me. With some trepidation, I admit that Tim is my world. Saying that—admitting that—frightens me. I love my steadfast friends, the persevering ones, the other introverts. And I’m wary of the vulnerability of my position, my reliance on some guy. Really? 

Just the same: I’m an introvert now.

Cancer demanded of me that I get my house in order—because I was going to spend a lot of time in it.

Is this an essay on marriage?

No.

It’s an essay on writing under the cancer rubric.

It’s an essay on road trips.

It’s an essay on writing about road trips under the cancer rubric.

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“Still Dancing (behind the glass)” a memoir excerpt by Katherine Davis

At the time of my bone marrow transplant for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, without retrospect’s safety net, morning came. I remember the scent of bagels from a biscuit shop across the street from the hospital. Sprinklers doused flower beds of marigolds, daffodils, daisies. I walked with my mother and sister to Swedish Hospital on Pill Hill in Seattle, entered, heard the elevator doors closing, sealing me off from the world of people worried about getting to work, kids scrambling for buses, sunlight amid trees. I did feel lucky that the official Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center inpatient facility didn’t have room for me. Devoted only to transplant patients, it seemed a dark forbidding place. Death, a gentleman in top hat and overcoat, held the door for families who walked in and didn’t leave. Instead, I would be committed to Eleven South West, a wing of the huge Swedish Hospital which the Hutch used for overflowing cancer cases. I much preferred being in a place called “Swedish” which conjured images of vigorous blond women, meatballs, and massages. Also, I liked it because it seemed more normal—white and sterile, instead of sinister and shadowy—and teeming with diversity. I may have been preparing for a torturous exit, but in the same facility, there were babies being born, tonsillectomies, broken arms, concussions, heart attacks. I didn’t want to be surrounded only by people like me. In Swedish, there were different dramas taking place, more like living than death. 

Despite having visions of nineteenth-century asylums, I entered my laminar airflow room on 11 SW in April 1986 with relief and terror. It certainly was not the torture pit of my nightmares. But it was horrifying in its anonymity. Welcome to the institution, baby! There was one hospital bed in front of a wall chock full of mysterious equipment—suction tubes, pumps, monitors, gauges, plugs. There were two chairs covered in blue vinyl, a television, stationary bicycle, clothes cupboard, and tray on wheels. From the hospital corridor, you entered a small room, a vestibule where you anointed yourself before seeing me. Okay, you actually scrubbed your hands with antiseptic soap and put on a surgical mask to protect me from germs. During my pre-transplant chemotherapy, you also had to don shoe covers, gown, and paper cap. It was actually fun after a while to watch the doctors go through all this just to see me, made me feel like royalty instead of a usual denizen of purgatory. Once dressed and cleansed, you could pass through a second very solid door, making sure the door to the general corridor was closed first, letting no germs in. The bathroom and wall with television were to your left, the bed to your right. Opposite the door, a huge window with triple-paned glass looked down on a magnificent view of St. James Cathedral. In the distance, there was Puget Sound. If this had been a hotel, I would have been very impressed. The triple-paned glass on the window was to ensure no breeze permeated my atmosphere; I was to live on rarified air pumped in through special vents. At the time, I also thought the extra panes discouraged despairing patients from jumping—momentary flight, then nothingness. 

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“The Inheritance” by Christine Fair

Sitting across the rotting planks of a water-worn picnic table at a lake dive in Rome City, Indiana, Chris glowered at Bob and strained not to hear him. She studied his ruddy face with his pale, hooded, sky-blue eyes. His face was unmistakably and disappointingly redolent of her own. In anger, her mom would shake her head slowly and deliberately while growling in revulsion, “You look just like him.” She usually managed to render “just” a two-syllable word to make her point. Chris hated this actuality and longed to resemble her mother who always lingered just beyond her reach. But his widow’s peak, unruly hair and godawful teeth were all lamentably hers too. Maintaining her own teeth was a Sisyphean task. They’d crack or break. Dr. Hill would patch them up. They’d break again and Dr. Hill, again, would do the needful. Bob simply let his rot. In fact he seemed proud of these gaping holes as they were yet another signifier of his indifference to the consequences of his decisions.

She wished she could be tender or something like that. But, “This putrid son of a bitch” rolled around in her head like her moist sneakers in the dryer after an early run in the dew-kissed grass of spring. She tried to appear indifferent as he plowed along in his flat, nasal Midwestern voice which also—irritatingly—sounded like a more masculine version of her own hilljack voice.  Episodically her ears grabbed onto his words and she could feel that familiar anger rearing up on its hind legs, begging for permission to lunge at him, sink its teeth into his crepe-skinned neck and suck out whatever life lingered in that wankstain’s body. She forced herself to intermittently grunt or nod, feigning interested disinterest. The task helped to keep his venomous words at bay. 

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Book Review: The Achiever Fever Cure: How I Learned to Stop Striving Myself Crazy, by Claire Booth

achiever fever coverReview by Tess Tabak

Think back to the last time something good happened to you – that you had something accepted to a literary magazine, or your scuba diving team made it to the semi-finals.

How long did that good feeling sit with you before you started thinking “What next?” Or doubting whether you’d ever achieve that high again?

If you struggle with the need for constant accomplishment and feelings of inadequacy, you might have “achiever fever.” No sooner have we achieved one victory than we’re hunting the next. In Claire Booth’s new self-help book, The Achiever Fever, Cure, she describes her own “fever” and offers practical suggestions to counter it.

Despite starting her own successful business, Booth felt like a failure. When she’s invited to join a group for start-up leads, she feels like a fraud, since her company is so much smaller than others in the group. Even though her business was doing well over all, she found herself struggling with the ups and downs of daily business – losing a single client felt like a personal failing.

The realization that all of this “achiever fever” was sabataging her happiness led her on a yearlong “mesearch” project of self improvement, which she catalogues in the book. Continue reading

Diving for Seahorses: Exploring the Science and Secrets of Human Memory

diving for seahorses coverBy Hilde Ostby & Ylva Ostby

Review by E. Kirshe

Diving for Seahorses is a collaboration between sisters: the writer and editor Hilde Ostby and the clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Ylva Ostby; a necessary team, as this book artfully explores the history of human knowledge regarding memory.

 

The book takes its name from the hippocampus. As explained in the first pages, an Italian doctor named it the hippocampus (Latin for horse sea monster) back in 1564. This is the seahorse we’re diving for. This metaphor is stretched throughout the book (sometimes a little too thin, but it works).

 

This was an overall fascinating read. Anyone who has ever had an interest in learning more about the human brain, and of course specifically memory, will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found

Review by Tess Tabak

Sound Bella BathurstIn Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found, Bella Bathurst explores what is lost besides sound when we go deaf late in life. A journalistic curiosity coupled with personal experience make this a nuanced look at hearing across a wide range of subjects. She covers not just deafness and the way society treats the deaf, but a look at the mechanics and meaning of sound itself.

Bathurst was working as a journalist when she began to lose her hearing. She noticed that her interview skills suffered when she couldn’t hear subjects as clearly. Worse, she began to isolate herself from friends, unwilling to go out to noisy clubs or restaurants where she’d spend the night struggling to understand a few words. She writes heartbreakingly about her own depression: “I also made the discovery that there’s more than one way to kill yourself. There’s the active way, where you go out to seek death. […] Or there’s the passive way, where you just stand there on the threshold holding the door open.” (117).

However, miraculously, Bathurst regained her hearing after 12 years. Her experience as someone on both sides of hearing loss give her a unique perspective on the subject. Being able to hear again after over a decade of deafness made her appreciate sound. Continue reading

Book Review: Untrue by Wednesday Martin

Review by Tess Tabak

Wednesday Martin paints a grim picture in Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong, and How the New Science Can Set Us Free. She posits that in much of the world, female sexuality has been hemmed in, due to a seemingly innocent cause: agriculture. As early hunter-gatherers, women roamed freely and the practice of multiple sex partners was common. But with the advent of the plough came the myths about female sexuality and gender roles we are taught today: that women are naturally domestic, frail, and monogamous.

The premise is one you might be familiar with – it’s been well-researched, as the NY Times noted. However, Martin infuses the subject with new energy, her own personal perspective, and a modern update, bringing recent developments like vaginal “rejuvenation” into the mix to show just how much gender roles have stayed the same. She discusses modern day adultery through the lens of two anonymous women she interviewed, Annika and Rebecca. One had an affair, and one didn’t, but both came to regret their choices for different reasons. Continue reading

Book Review: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Johnson

Review by Mary Rose MacDonald

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, released in 2008, laments a societal loss of “attention” in the information age. Interpersonal relationships are increasingly impersonal between people tethered to their Blackberrys, iPods, PDAs, cell phones, etc. Author Maggie Johnson warns of a “Coming Dark Age” wherein “we are plunging into a culture of mistrust, skimming, and a perilous melding of man and machine.”

Ten years later, the second edition is enjoying an updated title, Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention. Her language of reclamation and revolution, a taking back of “what one app developer calls our ‘cognitive liberty,’” is refreshing as she cites recent public outcry over mass data breaches, and of popular endeavors to “detox” from devices and digital living. She cultivates a new sense of agency. Dark Age or not, we can constructively grapple with the challenges of the frenetic technological age.    Continue reading

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