Monday, October 26, 2009

Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?

Đi học về—home from school—and the pros and cons of multi-tasking

This past weekend, my family attended a concert at a local Catholic church with a Vietnamese congregation. It was a fund-raiser featuring the legendary Khánh Ly, who, up until the Fall of Saigon, was akin to the Joan Baez of Vietnam. Her collaboration with the protest-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn is still beloved by that generation of Vietnamese.

So there I was in a church basement with my family and 200-plus Vietnamese Americans. There was Khánh Ly, looking amazingly good for a woman in her mid-sixties, belting out those beautiful songs. She joked with the audience, accepting roses from her fans. She stood before multicolored tinsel streamers, a mirror ball flashing rainbow light.

I'd been nervous about attending this concert. After months of studying the language, I had performance anxiety about speaking Vietnamese. This turned out to be silly; we were in a suburb outside Boston. Yet I'd hoped to follow what was spoken on stage, if not sung.

Instead the words swirled over my head, out of reach. I felt like a frustrated cat, batting at flecks of light—or a little girl, trying hard to be an adult.

The revolving mirror ball, the language I don't quite understand, are emblematic of so much of my multi-tasking life. My attention divides and divides again. I'm not ADD in any clinical sense, but one book that's become a touchstone for me in the last few years has been Edward Hallowell's CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

Hallowell, a psychiatrist who lives in the Boston area, popularized ADD and ADHD as diagnoses, and has written a number of well-known books about coping with these disorders. But in CrazyBusy, he goes a step farther, arguing that our multi-tasking, post-millennial, "CrackBerry" era fosters a form of cultural ADD. In that sense, we're all suffering.

I agree. And yet a funny thing has happened this fall, as I juggle more balls than ever, and I live with the consequences of an absurd decision to study Vietnamese for a second year in a row. I've started wondering if divided attention is a bad thing.

Most of us middle-aged geezers complain about memory problems. It's as if you hit forty and BAM! You can't remember your friends' names or how to spell words like gizzard geezer.

Most parents of young children, regardless of age, also complain about memory lapses. You're sleep-deprived, you're required to track dervishes in diapers, your vocabulary gets reduced to Elmo levels of comprehension. If you're working, you're subject to all manner of interruptions at home and the office.

As I sat down to write this, for example, my son Nick barged in and said, "Can I show you my armor?" He proceeded to put on a purple-felt apron from his dress-up box, securing it in back with a set of numchucks (string-connected sticks usually whirled around in a deadly fashion).

He placed a napkin over his head, crowning that with a robin-hood-style hat—the complete medieval samurai warrior. It was impressive.

Where was I?

I've been hit with a double-whammy, it seems: I'm way over forty with a seven-year-old child. (My own parents are also quite ill, but that's another story.) I'm back to writing full-time.

Then there's my Continuing Vietnamese class. I started studying Vietnamese because my son was born in Vietnam. (I've told some of this saga before in print: Click here for the long version. Also see my post "For Shame.") But my original reasoning, with its whiff of selflessness—I'll help Nick get in touch with his birth culture—no longer makes sense. I'm proceeding because of my own arcane interests and a stubborn need to prove myself.

Still, I almost dropped out at the beginning of this semester. It's a very small class of four students, two of whom are fluent speakers, and a dedicated teacher. There's absolutely no place for me to hide.

I have good days, especially when I've done the homework. But more often, they're bad. Very bad. Last week, I missed half of one class because my son was home sick; I arrived at another class with the tail-end of a migraine. I couldn't remember simple grammatical constructions. My stumblings were mixed with long, awkward silences in which I'm sure you could hear the gears grinding. I kept mumbling, "Em chưa hiểu." ("I don't understand yet.")

The week before, I found myself confusing the use of "open" and "closed" in English when distracted by my son. Now all my confusion of verbs of motion and prepositions in Vietnamese seems to be transferring to my native language.

Most of each class is conducted in Vietnamese; I understand about 50 percent. My worst moments are when I'm asked direct questions in which my comprehension is zero. The words seem to bounce off me like a handful of pennies thrown at a mailbox.

At the last class, the name for the Red River—sông Hồng—near Hanoi, a name I know well, kept tripping me up.

There's no doubt that some of my struggles are physiologically caused. Many researchers now believe that what we geezers really experience is failing attention. In "The Midlife Memory Meltdown," an article for O magazine adapted from her book on the topic, journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says of our aging brains:
"When the frontal lobes are in top form, they're adept at figuring out what's important for the job at hand and what's irrelevant blather; a sort of neural “bouncer” automatically keeps out unnecessary information. In middle age, that bouncer takes a lot of coffee breaks. Instead of focusing on the report that's due, you find yourself wondering what's for dinner. Even background noise—the phone chatter of the coworker in the next cubicle—can impair your ability to concentrate on the task before you."
The thing is, I've always been like this. I'm great at synthesizing ideas, but I've never been good at memorizing facts. Historical dates elude me; foreign vocabulary evaporates as soon as I'm not immersed in it.

I'm also a life-long insomniac—an Olympic champion of sleeplessness—so much so that my husband thinks Barenaked Ladies wrote "Who Needs Sleep?" for me. Lack of sleep is a major cause of memory problems.

But the ideas! My many proliferating story ideas! Here's where I shine, and sleeplessness doesn't seem to slow me down. It's no accident that I'm running four blogs now—one in an editorial capacity for the Women's Review of Books with multiple authors on various deadlines—and writing print articles and prepping for teaching my magazine class in the spring.

A few years back—say, 2006, when CrazyBusy first came out—this would have seemed even crazier to me than it does now. Yet despite the fact that my brain isn't getting any younger, I feel more alive. I've gotten better at mental juggling. I won't claim I'm more organized, but my constantly dividing and skipping attention seems to be sparking me as a writer. I find myself excited by ideas all the time.

In part, that's because I have more control over my own writing and its distribution—a definite silver lining in these cathartic days in the publishing industry. Blogging encourages creativity on the fly.

But the study of Vietnamese also seems to be feeding my passion for words. Just the poetry of Trịnh Công Sơn's songs, the longing for peace and a lost Saigon, testify to so much rich complexity. "Xin cho tôi" ("Please give me" or "May I") ends with "May I ask for just one day."

There's another benefit, too: Experiencing bouts of incomprehension in class takes me back viscerally to what it's like to be a child. It's rare at my age to be humbled in quite this way. In Vietnamese class, I'm always being corrected and looking for approval; I feel by turns resentful, defiant, ashamed, and excited. I'm distracted by big booming life outside the window.

More than Vietnamese culture, then, I'm re-learning the culture of childhood. I'm that little girl listening to Khánh Ly, grasping for flecks of light. For a writer-parent, that may be the best training of all.

In CrazyBusy, Hallowell himself distinguishes between the "stress" that gets your juices flowing and the anxiety-producing mess of having too many commitments:
"If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life."
I'm often grumpy about familial distractions; I long for the kinds of writer's retreats I used to take at colonies or in cabins by myself. The real world can get me down, no question, but I know my own work has taken off since I became a mother, despite the additional juggling.

Even the wisest of us doesn't know everything. And perhaps there's a real benefit to failing and stumbling and smacking up against our limitations. For writers, being in control is not necessarily a good thing.

This makes the whole concept of attention "deficit" wrong in metaphysical terms. Maybe we're all dumb mailboxes, pennies bouncing off us in this dervish of a universe. Instead of simply coping, maybe we need to accept the pennies, the flecks of rainbow light, our disorganized version of manna from heaven.

What about you? Do you struggle with divided attention? Do you ever find it a blessing?

Where was I?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Don't Mind Being Named Martha Anymore

On Embracing the Talking Dog—or Silly Girl—in Me

I'm almost fond of Martha Stewart. She's got chutzpah, rising from the ashes of securities fraud. But anyone who's seen the messy piles in my house would know that I loathe housekeeping and hand-woven flower wreaths. I lack that Martha's spit and polish and need for physical order.

I'm not embracing my inner housekeeper here. Yet a recent mention of a children's book called Martha Doesn't Say Sorry! in a New Yorker article got me thinking about my given name, my long-time ambivalence towards it—and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I'm growing into it.

According to Daniel Zalewski's article, the latest picture-book Martha by Samantha Berger involves a "stubborn" otter. It has a transparent moral message, Zalewski notes, meant to encourage discipline.

But my first reaction was to think, oh, no! Not another wacky animal character named Martha!

There's already Martha the hippo of all those George and Martha books by James Marshall; there's Martha the talking dog of Martha Speaks and other titles by Susan Meddaugh, now a PBS cartoon series.

To be fair, Zalewski's article is about a lot more than potential Martha-bashing; he argues that many "obstreperous" children's books today depict parents as wimps. He also cites a slew of other characters named everything from Olivia to Finn to Lilly. There's no nefarious trend in naming creatures Martha—I think.

But do other people second-guess their name, as I have since childhood? Some do, I know. For those crossing cultural boundaries, often in the most painful way, it's a serious issue. See The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which an Indian immigrant's son resists being named Gogol Ganguli. Or talk to any international adoptee, even one as young as my seven-year-old son.

Back in the day, I longed to be Miranda or Antoinette or Angelique. Instead I got stuck with a long-dead grandmother's name, somebody with whom I'd never shared a personal connection.

I hated being a girl named Martha in the 1960s and 1970s. It was right up there with "A Boy Named Sue." In my Bay Area schools, I was the only one among a swath of Kathys and Debbies and Sherrys. There were a few Martas and Maritas, but the Spanish variations seemed to have infinitely more soul than my Anglicized "tha."

Flashback to third grade: It's February. President's Day is approaching, along with my annual dread of what will be shouted at me on the playground: "Martha Washington! Martha Washington? How's George?"

A year later, I'm at Bridget B's pool party, a few months after the Beatles's White Album has been released. I walk into the B family's swanky new house in a new suburban tract of what will eventually become the outer reaches of Silicon Valley—she's got a pool!—and the other girls giggle, as Bridget plays, "Martha My Dear."

I've never heard it before. I'm blushing, and I hate blushing. I suspect Bridget is trying to humiliate me. "It's so cute!" she insists.

I was still a child, but my response then was more complicated than hating "Martha Washington." I was embarrassed by the idea that I could ever be anyone's inspiration. It was even more depressing when I found out later that Paul McCartney wrote the song for his sheepdog.

Flash forward: I'm an adult hanging out with my friends' kids—and later the friends of my son—and these children love to say to me, "George and Martha!" (downcast eyes, sly grins) or "Are you a dog?" (snort, snort). I laugh along, because the kids seem so delighted to meet an actual human being named Martha.

Not so long ago, a friend of mine shakes her head and tells me, "You really don't seem like a Martha, you know?"

I'm guessing that's a compliment. Various baby-name books and websites translate it as "lady" (from the Aramaic "Marta") or mistress of the house. It's a good fit for Martha Stewart but didn't stick to Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary Burke, frontier hellion of the late 1800s.

By 2008, the name Martha was ranked 617 in popularity, according to the Social Security Administration. At least it made the top 1,000, but Martha has been on a steady decline for a century, with a few spikes around 2000. Emma and Isabella were the most popular girl names in 2008; Madison was fourth, and Olivia came in a hot sixth.

(I feel compelled to point out that, in addition to Martha, many animal characters have old-fashioned women's names like Olivia and Frances—a pig and badger, respectively—as well as Opal and Daphne of the Toot and Puddle universe—also pigs.)

Meanwhile, Namipedia users on the Baby Name Wizard site rated Martha as sounding smart and strong but not young or sexy.

Yet when I think about Martha the hippo or Martha the talking dog—and really take in those wonderful books—I realize that maybe the name fits me better than I used to believe.

Martha the dog can't shut up after she eats a bowl of alphabet soup and gets the gift of human gab. In Martha Speaks, she annoys her family by rambling on as they're watching TV or reading:
"There's a poodle over on Circuit Street I'd really like to play with. He's small, but what a dog! And speaking of small, I'm sure you're all curious about the early days of my life..."
Martha the hippo wears huge print skirts and is George's best friend. She's pictured smoking a cigar and playing a saxophone. In George and Martha Back in Town, she stands on her head on a surfboard. George, the lifeguard, has a tough time reigning her in:
"Very soon George saw that someone was disobeying the rules.
'No horsing around!' he called through his megaphone.
'It's all right!' shouted Martha. 'It's only me!'
By college, I identified with "Martha My Dear." It became an affectionate nickname from some of my closest friends, who would address letters to me as "M.M. Dear." Others still call me Marth or M ("Em").

The most famous of us—Martha Graham, Martha Stewart, the fictional Martha Jones of Doctor Whomake things happen. Martha may even have become cool because of that sexy Doctor Who character, at least in the U.K.

So is it possible that I actually like my old-fashioned, unpopular name?

This is a fate I never could have imagined at fifteen. But it's true. I can save the world with words, especially in the guise of the latest Martha Jones. I'm zany and stubborn and I refuse to apologize. I can't stop talking or writing, and what's wrong with that?

Even Paul McCartney has said Martha was his muse, not just a sheepdog.
When you find yourself in the thick of it
Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you

Silly girl...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"I've Got the Most Scathingly Brilliant Idea": When Do Writers Need to Let Go—or Not?

This past week, I've been thinking a lot about the old movie The Trouble with Angels. In a short story of mine, the main character—Miriam—dreams of Hayley Mills. In Miriam's dream, Hayley is sorting laundry, folding railroad handkerchiefs:
"They were the kind Miriam’s father blew his nose into, then looked up from, embarrassed. It had been Hayley from The Trouble with Angels—blonde, boyish, mischievous, a girl caught smoking in a convent school, saved by Mother Superior—oh, how Miriam had longed for this as a child."
I've been editing this story, wondering whether I should cut the dream. I keep polishing that paragraph, trying to convey enough information without bogging it down. Feedback from several writer friends has been mixed—what does this mean? will today's readers even know who Hayley Mills is?—but I'm irrationally attached to Miriam's dream.

When a writer loves something too much, endlessly fiddling with it, that often means it needs to go. At least that's my editor self talking; I've certainly given such advice to students. Yet, for the moment, Miriam's dream remains.

Why? As Kate Gabrielle of Silents & Talkies writes in an April 2009 birthday ode to 63-year-old Mills:
"If you are a girl, and you were born anytime from about 1950 to the present, you probably loved Hayley Mills films when you were little...and if you're like me, you never grew out of it."
The Trouble with Angels is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures. It's like candy canes and macaroni and cheese. It's dumb and dated and still mildly subversive.

Most of all it's got Mills playing against her "frilly-knickers" Disney roles—her curls are still golden, but she's a rebel. It's got Rosalind Russell, a toughie actress I'll always love for not playing pretty wimps, as the sternly righteous Mother Superior. And it's got Ida Lupino directing it, a rare feat for a woman in the early 1960s. Set in that tumble-down convent school, it's really about the intense friendship of girls and girl culture when boys aren't around.

Ah-ha! Like the Nancy Drew series, The Trouble with Angels might be considered a spark for young feminists. Mary Clancy, the character Mills plays, is always saying, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!" The movie is about loss and change and growing up.

I have other reasons, too, for loving Mills and the movie, some no doubt tangled beyond my conscious understanding. (Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph, if it still matters after all these years.) I know that Mary's decision to become a nun at the end of the movie felt deeply satisfying to me in the 1970s, when the convent-school setting already seemed absurdly anachronistic.

I've never been Catholic, but the romance of the church got to me, not to mention a girl's commitment to faith and anything but a conventional life. A budding young writer, I felt a need for my own solitude.

That may be why the movie's pleasures are so enduring for a certain kind of dreamy girl—just like my character Miriam the poet—who not coincidentally resembles Rachel, Mary's goofy best friend, played by June Harding in the movie.

So here I am, back to special pleading for Miriam's dream, wondering about how easy we fiction writers need to make our references for readers. Real life is so mysterious. How can good fiction ever be completely transparent?

The same might be asked about the destiny of a woman who was once a huge star. Her career took off with her Disney films Pollyanna and The Parent Trap—she was at her peak in 1966 with The Trouble with Angels, a non-Disney effort—and then zoomed downward with episodes of the Love Boat and three made-for-TV Parent Trap sequels in the '80s.

For some, this plummet from worldwide fame is a cautionary tale. But perhaps it's a more complicated script for what really happens to girls when they enter adulthood. The fact that Mills was considered for the part of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's film—an idea that essentially got nixed by Disney when she was under contract—seems especially symbolic.

She recently appeared in Wild at Heart, a British drama about an African wild-animal park on ITV that also starred her sister Juliet. ITV's site describes the Hayley Mills character as the "mother of Sarah and something of a battleaxe."

In a 1997 interview, Mills told then-editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine:
"Joan Plowright once said that you don't need to go to a psychiatrist if you're an actor, because you can express so many of your problems and your emotions through your work. And you really can. The theater in particular is a great discipline. You can't stop in the middle of a play and burst into tears because the person you love has walked out on you and your life is collapsing around you, or because you've had bad notices. You have to get on with it. You have to draw from your deep inner resources, those strengths that keep us all alive."
Hayley the pretty tomboy remains indelible, just as my own version of that tomboy survives in me. I first watched The Trouble with Angels on "Dialing for Dollars," a Bay Area TV station's old afternoon movie show. Decades later, I watched it on a big screen at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during an Ida Lupino retrospective.

I now own the DVD. I'll always call the movie's vision of girlhood scathingly brilliant. And by the way: We don't grow up to be battleaxes.