Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why I cried over Robin Williams

I grew up watching loads of television and movies. The Huxtables, the Simpsons, and the Keatons: my extended family. Do you know how much I cried when Alex's friend died on Family Ties? Or how often I hid in the back room of the house to listen to The Simpsons Sing the Blues on cassette and wondered what it might feel like to say all those bad things myself? Or how much I looked up to Clair Huxtable for being beautiful because of her strength and because she told life like it was? From the time we're small, characters--made-up people in made-up situations--become a part of us, good or bad. They affect our perceptions, our opinions, our dreams. They make us feel. They make us think. They become part of the story of our own lives.

As adults, we grow to enjoy being moved by a story. We like remembering, in the pure, concentrated form a live-action performance can deliver, the important things in life, like bravery and family and hope--the stuff we sometimes forget when we're working full-time and stressing about relationships and worrying about getting old. Stories remain an escape. And we credit actors for portraying characters well, for touching our hearts or shaking our sensibilities or making us aware. We give them awards, rounds of applause. We pay them to be good at what they do. We recognize how much skill they have or don't have. And if they manage all of that well, if they seem like people we'd like to have a drink with or a chat with or someone we'd like to have as a friend, we begin to respect them. Expect things of them. Look up to them. And yet--somehow they're still not quite real, because their lives, including the roles they play, become a bigger story to us. Will they marry? Will they divorce? Will their kids become actors too? Will they keep that hideous haircut forever? Will we hear they've gotten into drugs? Will they get old and out of touch or stay relevant? Will they get through the rough patches? Will they have a happy ending?

I didn't know Robin Williams personally. I wasn't his number one fan. I haven't seen all his movies. I didn't like all the ones I saw. But he's played many characters in the tapestry of my life. I can hear his voice in my head if I imagine it and feel his energy and remember getting nervous watching him because he seemed so close to losing control of the act and missing a step--because I couldn't keep up and couldn't see where he was going till he was already gone. Everyone's been saying how quickly his mind worked and how he was so clever and irreverent and had his very own brand of comedy and was genuinely a sweet guy. We're meant to celebrate his life now because he added things to ours just by being who he was, and we're to look back at his work and applaud his talent. And I want to do that because I'm sure he deserves it, and he does deserve it. He made me laugh and I did nothing in return. It's just that...the story didn't end right. There was supposed to be soft lighting in a room with the sun setting outside and a gentle breeze blowing the curtains, and he was to be there, backed by a symphony quietly playing in the background, saying something funny but with such wisdom, then slipping peacefully into a death that seemed a fitting ending to a happy, successful life. Isn't that how everyone's life is supposed to end? Isn't that what the stories tell us? What we're to hope for and expect? But no. That's not it at all. The stories have never been what we're to expect--they're the escape from what we know good and well does happen in real life. Everyone doesn't shake hands at the end. The bad guy is never just a bad guy. True love's kiss doesn't always wake the sleeping princess. In truth, life can be hard and heartbreaking and downright shitty.

Do you know how lonely a person is when he commits suicide? He's as lonely as you can possibly become. I was telling a friend that hell, if there is such a place, can't be torture because torture means you count enough to be punished and torture forces you to feel something. Hell is feeling completely alone and completely blank. Your heart may be beating, but to you, it's no more than the ticking of a box inside a robot. Suicide is the end of a road someone imagines to be real in their minds, a road that, when they look back on it just before the end, though it isn't, looks to them completely empty of hope or promise, making the undiscovered country seem the only desirable option. We look at this man, and those we've personally known and lost this way, and think in desperation, "I would have listened. I would have carried everything for you if I could!" And we would have. All of us would have, if given the opportunity. We could share the weight amongst us easily, couldn't we? It just doesn't work that way in the mind of the one who's alone. Something simply...shuts down, and that shutting down overwhelms them so that sometimes, before we can grab hold of their hand, we lose them.

So, yes, I celebrate Robin Williams. I celebrate his work, his personality, his attitude, his insights. He was brilliant. I celebrate him as a human soul who tried and, for a while, blazed through this existence beautifully. But I'd rather take all that beauty and energy and personality and bottle it up into some sort of magic that would blast a message down those empty roads to all who feel like robots with faintly ticking hearts:

"Your mind is playing tricks on you. Hold on. Hold On. You are not alone." 


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Inspiring home

Previously, I posted about how taking adventures, even small ones, adds to a writer's basket of ideas, characters, and settings. Having just returned from an adventure in Scotland, I've realized travel can do one better: it can help us see what was in the basket we already had.

For example, breakfast. This morning, I made two buttery scrambled eggs. Not poached, not half-boiled, not fried, not ordered from a friendly b&b owner--they were scrambled by me in my jammies in my modern Ikea kitchen on a bright, unusually cool morning near Atlanta, Georgia, not in the Highlands of Scotland where the sun has been up since 4am and didn't set till midnight. Georgia, where pecan trees give shade and the yard, not the garden, slopes down prettily, which I can see through the row of windows across the front of the house that bring in the sun or the moon, whichever happens to be shining.

Breakfast instructions left for us by our friend and perfect host, Carol, in Edinburgh

Along with the eggs, I had a thin slice of rye toast. Not white, not brown--it was dill rye bread from the Kroger deli a mile and a half away, which we didn't walk to, though we could have, because the roads are dangerous where there aren't sidewalks. We drove in one of our two cars that are both Hondas and automatics, not manuals. Jonathan would like them to be manuals, but the traffic here is London minus the roundabouts plus road rage and the occasional concealed weapon, so automatics are safer, in my opinion. Don't ask Jonathan--he doesn't know what he's talking about ;)

With the eggs and toast, I had slices of a just ripe banana and a handful of too-tart blueberries, and that was breakfast. No tea. No coffee. No juice.

The breakfast room at the beautiful Culag Guesthouse in Loch Lomond

The fruit wasn't in its own bowl and I didn't use a spoon to eat it. All the food went together with a fork on a big black dish that's curved just a bit too much, making it more a bad bowl than a good plate. I loved these dishes when we got married. We registered for them at Target. They don't sell them now. I suppose they're not trendy anymore. I prefer classic looks, but didn't know that when we got married. What I'd like now are heavy, plain white dishes that are pretty but made to do the job well, and while we're at it, a set of silverware that's heavy too, and has proper soup spoons. Eating soup takes forever with the ones we've got.

Yes, at my age and disposition, things like the size and weight of a spoon have come to matter. Before, that would have made me sad. What kind of boring old woman cares about spoons? Now I know it's nothing to do with age or interestingness and everything to do with knowing one's own mind and direction, and, more importantly, knowing what a good spoon is like. But we won't buy new dishes or cutlery for a long time because what we've got is good enough. (Now that was a boring old person talking, however true.)

A full Scottish breakfast

Instead of sitting like a lady making conversation with others at the table, especially since there were no others, I hiked up my sleeping pants, crossed my legs under me on the couch, put my plate on top of them, pulled up my laptop table, and started an episode of Friday Night Dinner to keep me company. I like noise. I know we're supposed to be mindful these days--savor each bite, thoughtfully contemplate the day ahead, be whole in oneself without needing distractions and make sure to take a picture and show everyone online how pleasant our quiet breakfast was so we seem like interesting, independent people. But growing up, there were six of us (at least) in the house at one time, the television was always on somewhere in the background, and there was a busy road out front. It's not that I don't like the quiet. It's not that I need distractions. It's that noise is comforting. It's evidence of life. It's a reminder that I'm only a small part of something gigantic, and that gigantic thing includes cheap laughs.

Our pretty, private breakfast room in Skye

So with Harvey at my feet, whining for another bite of banana, I smiled at the telly, ate my food, and took a call from Jonathan. He was just getting to work and noticed some school traffic picking up again. It'll be autumn soon, we keep saying. Just yesterday we saw Halloween costumes in Costco. 

5am departure breakfast by our thoughtful hosts in Orkney

Everyone says we should write what we know, but it's hard to know what we know--what's different, what stands out, what matters and why, what makes us peculiar, what makes us us--without some comparison. This can come from traveling abroad or from simply having breakfast at someone else's house. Is their television on? Do they set the table? Is it only because you're there, or do they always? Do they use the same spatula for the sausage as they do the eggs? Do they use oil or butter? Cheese with breakfast, or no? Rolls or biscuits? Jelly or preserves?

View from the breakfast room in St Andrews

When I read, I connect with two things: the universals and the particulars. I want to first know that the journey is one I have or could have experienced, and the person on that journey is one I'm cheering on, in all her faults. That connection is vital. But then I want to know how she makes a grilled cheese sandwich, whether or not she wears baggy clothes or fitted ones, how often she replays an embarrassing moment in her mind, if it's cold where she is, if there's a place in the woods behind her house that only she knows about, and if her spoons aren't much worth eating soup with. In other words, what makes her her. What makes her individual.

Yes, the story is in the plot, and the plot should at the very least be a hazy curved line for readers to follow, but the meaning, the voice, the personality, the movie we see and feel in our heads and hearts as we read--that's in the details. As writers, delivering a world we intimately know is often easier when we compare it to a world we didn't.


"'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?'

'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?'

'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting to-day?' said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said."

- A. A. Milne