Happy Holidays to All the High-Functioning F**k-Ups

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So James and I crunched down the hill into the Haymarket last night, past the light-and-greenery-wrapped lampposts in the snow like something out of It's a Wonderful Life, to the open house at Indigo Bridge Books, which was lovely.  Owner Kim Coleman was there welcoming everyone, hugging kids and making sure people found what they sought.  The counter was full of cinnamon rolls, coffee, and apple juice.  Folks were playing the piano and singing, and it was great:  a warm, cozy beacon of books and light on a frigid December night.

I toddled over to the thriller aisle, because--hurray!--my marvelous agent Mitchell had just sent me más páginas from my novel manuscript (an attempt at a hybrid chica-lit literary thriller) with his wonderfully cogent notes scrawled in the margins.  May I just say this for the record?  I love my agent.  He's so smart and has such a great ear.  And luckily, he seems to love this book--or, at least, this book's potential. 

Alas, he finds it, as a would-be literary thriller, not quite thrilling enough.  I've got the literary part down, he says, but I'm weak on thrills.  (Which makes utter sense.  As a professor, my big thrills now are things like a particularly good day of class discussion--woohoo!--or a tasty dinner out.  But that's exactly the quiet way I like it.  Anyway, Mitchell suggested that I read a couple of thrillers, just to remember what actual suspense is like, rather than my usual fare of micro-drama, e.g., Will my problem student show up for the final?)

(Btw:  No.)

So there I was in the thriller aisle, picking up these short, fat, mass-market paperbacks, reading the first two paragraphs, and putting them back down.  Thrills they may have contained--I'll take it on blurb-faith--but the writing was driving me nuts.   Sometimes I can tolerate crap writing (I've devoured Patricia Cornwell novels like the next masochist, sure), but last night I just couldn't. 

And I'd already read all of Dennis Lehane's smoothly written Patrick Kenzie novels and all of Joanne Dobson's hilarious, working-class-girl-turned-academic-at-a-
private-liberal-arts-college Karen Pelletier mysteries--which I heartily recommend to all my fellow repressed academic women out there, but which might actually be part of my Mitchell-identified problem.  Booklist's starred review, after all, says, "Few are better than Dobson at recording the minutiae of academic committee-speak, powerplays in . . . jargon, and what ignites a classroom."  Ooooh.  Talk about thrills.  LOL.  So what was I to do?

Thumbnail image for 9780375706851.jpgLuckily, I lit on two books:  Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, and Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which includes the novella-length City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.  And they're both great, and I can't put either one down, so I'm going to have to read them in tandem.  I am apparently the last person on the planet to have not read Paul Auster, but if you're among my woeful kind, a caveat:  Auster's City of Glass gets off to a slow and annoying start (my two-paragraph test nearly had it back on the shelf), but it picks up speed quickly, and then his sentences begin snapping so crisply into place.  And then the surprises start coming. 

Pamuk's novel, set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, hits the ground running with an opening chapter engagingly titled "I Am A Corpse": 

I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.  Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me.  As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.  As I fell, my head, which he'd smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.
Ahh:  no composition classrooms here.   As I fell, my head, which he'd smashed with a stone, broke apart.  Much more like it.

And lest you think the novel lacks for experimental high jinks, you should know that the third chapter, "I Am A Dog," is narrated, not by a dog--no, that would be far too easy--but rather by "the figure of a dog drawn on rough paper hastily but with a certain elegance."  Just fyi. 

None of which, however, gets me any closer to the title of this blog-post.   So.

Yesterday, at lunch with my writers' group, talk turned to the feeling of being a fuck-up, which none of us--tenured professors all, and with lovely fat vitas, etc.--has been entirely able to shake.  

Then this morning, I read an interview with a homeless man in Madrid, whose friend had died in his arms of the cold.  I was startled to read about his background.  Fermín said,

I was seven when my parents got divorced. My mother had psychological problems her whole life. She's such a strict Jehovah’s Witness that she finds it impossible to live with someone who’s not from the same religion. She couldn't have a husband who wasn't a Jehovah’s Witness, she couldn't have friends who weren't Jehovah’s Witnesses, and her children weren't her children if they weren't Jehovah’s Witnesses. She abandoned them all; she threw me out on the street. She told me to get out of the house for not accepting the "truth". To her I don’t exist.

My father is on his third marriage; he likes whores and going out at night. He’s a Gitano [Spanish Gypsy]. He believes the man rules the house and is the one who makes or breaks. When things aren’t going well he ups and leaves, he abandons everything, he gets out. My father wanted nothing to do with my brother and me. My mother with that load of shit of a religion has no idea either. So I had to get by on my own.
Poor Fermín.  I thought of how what we're taught early about our worth and our place in the world can affect our sense of ourselves for our whole lives.  So I had to get by on my own.  I thought about wildly over-confident colleagues I have known who were raised with comfort, ease, encouragement, and a sense of entitlement.  Even when their work is technically kind of a yawn, they feel just fine about themselves.  I had a therapist once who wondered at the fact that, given the gorier aspects of my background, I held down a job at all. 

But I think there are lots of troubled people who manage to function--and function well:  to be good parents, to be socially generous and professionally competent.  I know a lot of people like that, and you probably do, too.   

I thought about how I still fight doubt and anxiety, and how my writer-friends at lunch came from backgrounds of painful difficulty.   We're high-functioning, yes.  We're relatively solvent; we're overachievers; we give back.  But we still feel like fuck-ups.  When the phrase "high-functioning fuck-ups" was uttered, we all laughed in recognition. 

I don't need to add that the holidays, when your family is split or dead or hostile, are just that much harder.   I dreamed last night my Dad was alive, and we were moving to South Carolina to live with my Aunt Lou (who doesn't actually live there), and there were palm trees and bright water like the Key West of my childhood, and she was still married to Uncle Gerry, and all the cousins were there, and we all played softball together, laughing, on a green green lawn. 

Then I woke up. 

At the holidays, secret weeping's entirely acceptable.  

We are built to be loved and cherished.  When that goes wrong, we're damaged. 

Yet we are optimistic.  And we are multitude.  We work hard.  We love our friends and our family.  We go out and celebrate at little indie bookstores.  We wrap presents and send our hearts out across the country to the people we miss.  We forgive the shit that happened to us, and we try to change.  Then we get up and do it again.  We persist.  We search.  And we are knocked out by our gratitude just to be here, just to have this beautiful chance.

So to all of you high-functioning fuck-ups out there who hurt like hell yet still get up to wash your face every morning, I'm wishing you the very happiest of holidays.  You deserve it.  You've come so far.  To annoy you with Hemingway's words:  you're strong at the broken places--even when you feel weak and miserable there.  You persist.  You search.  You're broken and gorgeous and kind.

And you're the folks who make the world go 'round, the folks I love the most.  So take care.  Stay warm.

Indigo Bridge.jpg
photo by Michaela Powell


fayepoet said:

Thanks for the greeting, but I don't know about the high-functioning f**k up tag since I find you one of the most generous, emotionally & intellectually honest people I know.
Sorry, but I hate the word "damaged." In my prior life as a therapist, I railed against labels-- it got in the way of acknowledging the truth of the wounded parts of ourselves.. the younger parts that got hurt, have a voice and are forever present in grounding us.
More, you are an incredible resource for ways of seeing the world and books which I intend to explore. So, I'm on my way to Barnes and Noble today to pick out copies of the Alexie and Soto books for one of my granddaughters you recommended and I'll grab a copy of Pamuk's novel.
Congrats on the heads up from your agent... and on your trek into the wildness of thriller lit. For some reason, I'm thinking about a series of psychological thrillers set in Israel written by Batya Gur- "Murder on the Kibbutz" and others. It's been years since I read her but I found her sensibility about characterization and motives intriguing---
Wishing you good holidays and a fruitful writing new year!

December 23, 2008 4:59 PM

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