Friday, October 15, 2010

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Athena's Head: A New Site for Martha Nichols

****************PLEASE GO TO MY NEW VERSION OF THIS BLOG****************

I have a new website--Athena's Head/Martha Nichols Online--which now replaces this blog.

You can get to my site through the following new addresses:

You can also follow me on Twitter: Athenas_Head

And become a fan on my Facebook page: Athena's Head

I have really appreciated the readers I've found, and I look forward to hearing from you in a new place. All the best!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I'm a Klutz, Mr. Spock, Not a Bricklayer

And the Weirdest Accident Goes to...

I sprained my ankle two nights ago. Now I remove the ace bandage at the end of the day, hoping for miracles, finding a misshapen hoof.

Pain...terrible pain!

I often moan this paraphrase of bad Star Trek dialogue. Why? I'm a klutz. I have been for as long as I can remember—certainly since I walked smack into a "No Parking" sign when I was ten years old.

I've sprained my ankle several times before and more spectacularly. A year ago, I pulled out ligaments in my knee while dancing with my young son toof all things—"Disco Inferno."

The kindest interpretation is that I'm an active, fun-loving, gonzo risk-taker. The truth is more nuanced and mysterious. Because of my latest sprain, and because I also banged up the other leg while slipping on ice last week—I feel driven to pose the following questions:
  1. Are some people more accident-prone than others?
  2. Once you've had a silly accident, does whining about it help?
  3. Does it provide a secret release from the duties of normal life?
  4. What's the weirdest accident you can think of?
Pain...terrible pain is from one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, "Devil in the Dark,"* which involves creatures called the Horta. These lava monsters make tunnels in the rock on a mining planet, working in tandem with the humans running the operation. All is well, until they start attacking people. Kirk and Spock and the red shirts who end up fried come down to the planet to figure out what's going on.

Mr. Spock mind-melds with a horta. He lays his hands on this pulsing hunk of magma and goes into a trance, wincing, grimacing.

"Pain...terrible pain!" he shouts, channeling the horta's feelings.

Oh, Horta, I know.

Two nights ago, I stood up in my office, after falling asleep while watching The Colbert Report—yes, that's already sad—took a step towards the computer, tripped, and came down on the side of my foot.

Pain...terrible pain! 

My husband rushed in. I limped over to him, crying, "I'm OK!"

What an idiot. I should have put ice on the ankle instantly. Instead I walked around, trying to prove it was nothing.

"Pain...terrible pain! That's all I got, Captain...waves and waves of searing pain—it's in agony!"

The thing is, I've had a lot of accidents. Nothing major (knock wood), but I'm known for being clumsy and "only vaguely connected to this planet" (direct quote from husband). Once I tried to convince a friend when we were hiking down a long Cape Cod beach that I kept tripping in the sand because my feet were too small. She almost believed me.

This same friend, who recently was hospitalized for a truly strange turn of events that she's only now recovering from, told me, "You know, Martha, I never have weird accidents like you always do."

"Always" is strong, but one college boyfriend did like to make a point of walking on the outside when we were on a busy street, shepherding me along as if I were in constant danger of stumbling into traffic.

He didn't last. The miracle is that I have. Knock wood.

I've had countless running and biking accidents in which I end up picking gravel out of my palms. Those aren't weird.

The only weird thing about the time I sliced open my finger while cutting up carrots at a dinner party was how unflappable I was. No horta-like raving; I just put down the knife, picked up my purse, and told the assembled, "It's no big deal. I have to go to the Emergency Room, but I'm fine."

Later I heard the guests hadn't stayed. They'd said I had to be in shock; how else could I be so preternaturally calm? (Practice makes perfect, I could have told them.) Our horrified friends insisted my husband and son join me in the ER. I was glad to see my guys there, but we laughed about it, too, because visits like this had become so routine.

Besides, I only needed two stitches. That's a non-accident for me.

The weirdest one in my recent history involved the little toe of my left foot. (Warning: The following story causes people to flinch involuntarily and to make the sign of the cross.) I was sitting on that same couch in my office, heard the phone ring, leapt up, and managed to catch my little toe on the wooden couch leg as I lurched forward and...

Pain...terrible pain!

The webbing between my toes tore. I'm pretty sure my husband could see way too much when he looked at it.

"Yep." He blanched. "You're going to the ER."

That time, he took me. Our son was asleep upstairs when the accident happened, but the boy still claims he heard me yelling an "oops" word at the decibel level of a wounded buffalo.

Maybe he did. But the story has become something of a family tall tale. A good friend came over to stay with him while we were at the hospital, and in her telling, the little guy padded down to find her cleaning up a few drops of blood on the carpet. As he tells it, she was swabbing up pools of blood.

Here's the weirdest connection: Because of the toe mishap, I now wear lavender Crocs around the house to protect my feet. Yet I stumbled on one of those Crocs two nights ago when I sprained my ankle.

What that proves, I don't know, except that people like me must be accident-prone—"scientists say"—and that, yes, there is a luscious thrill to be had in whining, in shucking one's usual grin-and-bear-it attitude.

As for Question #3: I've been released today from a family outing with small children, all of whom were supposed to be getting ski lessons on an icy mountain in temperatures way below zero.

And maybe every action we take in this world is linked to another, for all time, and I am on a wheel that will somehow provide enlightenment, coming with the authority of a lightning strike.

Knock wood.

Night Storm 2
© Yanik Chauvin |

* "Devil in the Dark" also includes the famous line from Dr. McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Neutering His Book: Mental Illness in the Family

I've just finished reading Michael Greenberg's Hurry Down Sunshine, a revelatory account of his teenage daughter's first bout with mania.

So much in this 2008 memoir is wise, beautiful, and scary. But what strikes me most is Greenberg's description of what happened when he finally went back to work, after his daughter Sally came home from the hospital.

He hadn't been in his rented workspace or looked at the manuscript of his latest novel for weeks. He started editing it in almost a fugue himself. After Sally's experiences on a psych ward, he thought his first-person narrator was too "melodramatic, overromantic...too desperate for love":
"With pencil in hand, I find myself eradicating his voice—eradicating the offending 'I'—and replacing it with a third-person narrator, omniscient and bloodless.... Any whisper of chaos that I come across in the narrative is surgically removed.... It's as if my aim is to neuter the book, to relieve it of feeling itself."
Oh my God. Of course! Of course this father felt the need to run from his own feelings, to ease the emotional storm he saw in his daughter. He both identified with the storm and felt guilty about it.

How much havoc can a mentally ill family member wreak on the creativity of others? How much can another's manic energy drain the life from one's writing voice?

It can do a lifetime of quiet damage. I know.

I've struggled with this for years—not to mention the family injunction against talking about it—so much so that, even now, I feel guilty referring to my own experience. It doesn't matter how vague I'm being here about which family member of mine is crazy; the guilt comes down, the editor who so sternly wants to deny what's wrong.

Greenberg's account of one terrible summer in broiling New York City and being confronted suddenly with a wild-eyed stranger—his daughter—who proclaims everyone a genius brings it all back home. The extremity of her emotion sucks up everyone else's air.

In my own work, I can control the editor sometimes, but she's always sitting on my shoulder, doing her own version of neutering.

All my fictional characters start off angry; it's the emotion that animates most of the action, and it's too one note. But in my nonfiction, anger rarely surfaces. My sadness does, yes, and my longing, but the closest I get is sarcasm, a veiled rage that tends to keep readers safely away from the real flames.

I'm not sure whether to thank Michael Greenberg—no, I do thank him. Every once in awhile I dive into memoirs about mental illness, and I emerge into a world in which I feel both relieved—I'm not the only one who's had to deal with this—and the kind of fear that's the biggest self-censor of all.

Towards the end of Hurry Down Sunshine, Greenberg talks about how worried they were about his daughter going back to school. As that first day in September approached, Sally was the most worried of all. He and his wife advised her not to tell any other students what happened, because "[p]eople won't understand."

"But am I right about this?" Greenberg asks himself. "Is it really better for Sally to conceal what happened? It may not be possible. And what of the burden such a secret will place on her?"

Knee-jerk secrecy becomes a burden for all involved. He's right to ask those questions, and the resulting book is a testament to what it means to release the grip of something so corrosive.

I've long felt that I couldn't write about people I know in hurtful ways. Yet I'm coming to realize that the privacy of others isn't the only ethical consideration.

I've always thought that my desire to be honest with my son about his adoption, for instance, was rooted in the conventional wisdom about what's good for adoptees. But maybe my determination has been sparked by something more fundamental—my need to rebel against an older family story that has sometimes kept me muzzled.

It takes so much effort to hide the damage. I won't say I'm in full-scale rebellion now, but I'm trying to reclaim my voice. I'm telling that she-devil editor, who says I have no right, to back off. It's my story, too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Celebration: Proust Meets Kool and the Gang

When I woke from a quick nap, I was thinking about typewriters. I had the sensation in my fingers of pounding the keys, of manually slamming back the carriage return.

My plane was finally in the air, and I’d dozed off. I awoke to somebody’s boot knocking my seat from behind, a scribble of white and blue clouds out the window, and another sliver from my past.

I’d already fallen through several memory holes that morning. My flight to California had only been delayed a couple of hours—chump change, given the rotten weather in Boston—and I’d come prepared to wait. I'd brought along my laptop, newspapers, an issue of the New Yorker, two partially read novels. I'd been ready to distract myself.

What I hadn't expected was the time-shifting trance that came over me and which continued into the flight. In the departure lounge, rather than click through my activities and ingest more information, I saw the most pedestrian of fixtures shimmer with something else.

I’ve always thought the many monitors arrayed around airports, with their arrival and departure times, scattered destinations, and gate numbers, try to cheat time. Not until long after snow and ice are falling, and people are jamming the lounges and chomping through yet another crummy bag of potato chips, do the screen entries for a delayed flight change from that blissfully unaware ON TIME.

You could say this is an optimistic view of life.

After my group of stalwart passengers had moved from one gate to another—our original plane was diverted for refueling to some tiny town in New York—I stood and watched the closest monitor slowly switch from a column of ON TIME’s to a swath of DELAYED's and CANCELLED’s.

At least my flight hadn’t been cut. On a snowy day, that constitutes joy in an airport. At our gate, I jiggled from one foot to another, dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” which played from a nearby speaker over the hiss of CNN.

It was MLK Day. Kool was saying “come on!”—my feet were tapping—and I thought about every wedding I’d attended where I'd heard this song.

Then I remembered standing in the sunny courtyard of my California elementary school, watching the flag lower to half-mast, knowing something terrible had happened. I felt sleepy in the sunshine. I wondered if my teacher, who looked tearful, would have to run in to the bathroom to blow her nose. Would she then walk us out to the terrace above the playground, pointing out the brown haze over the Bay, explaining why we needed to clean up all the air pollution?

In the lounge, I watched them de-ice an airplane. It's been more than forty years since Martin Luther King was killed. I thought the plane was ours—but no. The jetway had already been accordioned back. Its wings were sprayed, and eventually it pulled out. Then our plane pulled in, nose first.

Time overlapped again, and I grinned, although it was fear I recalled. As a child, maybe younger than my almost-eight-year-old son, I’d been haunted by the thought of nose cones on spaceships. The “nose” had seemed so human, just like this airplane’s nose.

Nose cones in science-fiction movies always seemed to be falling off. The spaceship pilots were supposed to sleep until they woke up on a new planet light years distant. But somehow, their nose cone got separated from the ship. It tumbled into a swamp or a forest, and when the people there jimmied open the hatch, the pilots inside were dead.

They had begun the trip in their twenties, fit and muscular and gorgeous. But there they lay, curled in a fetal position, as wizened as eighty-year-olds with improbably bouffant hair.

I think the image comes from Planet of the Apes, a movie that terrified me as a child. My younger brother and I watched it with my parents at a drive-in. Mom and Dad were in their early thirties then, not far from the age of the dead spaceship pilots.

I remembered, too, those drive-in nights, the walks in our pjs to the snack bar, eating stale popcorn, eyes wide in the backseat. When I was scared, I never wanted to leave our own capsule, the ancient Ford Falcon or our white Dodge.

Back in the departure lounge, decades later, I knew I’d soon fly across the country again, distance collapsed by time. When I emerged at San Francisco Airport, blinking, most of a day would have passed. But I’d still be alive and young, as if I’d returned from my own space voyage. I had traveled light years, maybe to another galaxy.

I’d visit my ailing parents, my friends with their growing children, as if they’d lived half their lives while I was jetting through the stars and only a year had passed for me.

I kept grinning in the lounge—and later after my nap on the plane, typewriter letters still stamping my vision—because this fantasy of time passing and not passing, of my own relative position in the cosmos of changes, had such an exotic fragrance.

It smelled of apricots, from the tree in our yard when I was small. It smelled of iris blossoms, the large purple ones from our garden that I used to turn into bedrooms for my flower princesses; of star jasmine in a dripping wet garden in San Francisco when I was in my late twenties, after a night of dancing.

Here’s Proust, after eating his “petite madeleine”:
“And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”
I'm on the plane. I'm ready to depart, tapping my feet to “Celebration” in front of a candy counter, watching those guys outside the window sitting in bright yellow cabs on bouncing crane arms. They point nozzle-guns at jet wing after wing. They spray everything down with pink and green, so much light against the white void.

Strange as it sounds, I thank Boston Logan Airport for a bit of Proustian grace, complete with three-packs of madeleines at Starbucks. Note that no one at Massport (or Starbucks) has paid me to promote their "precious essence."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The "Perfect Guests": Who Would You Be If You Walked Away from Your Life?

A local news story has reanimated a guilty fantasy of mine: throw away the rules, max out the credit card at a fancy hotel, damn the consequences.

According to the Boston Globe's "'Perfect Inn Guests" Swindled Proprietors, Police Say," Jane and Benjamin Wolff have been caught and arraigned "on charges of defrauding an innkeeper" after staying in a series of tourist hotels. They allegedly ran up big bills—such as $3,600 at the Hawthorne Inn in Concord for 19 days—then split without paying:
"They lingered over breakfast, raving about the homemade granola and chatting amiably with other guests at the richly appointed 19th-century bed-and-breakfast. They kept their room spotless, whiled away afternoons over books and brownies, and entertained their hosts with amusing stories."
"They seemed like your grandparents," another innkeeper is quoted in the Globe. This week the local Fox News station hyped the victimization of these trusting B-and-B owners and ran footage of the Wolffs in court.

The Globe notes that the "reasons such a couple would go to those lengths...have so far eluded authorities." The story points out that Jane Wolff filed for bankruptcy in 2005.

I can think of lots of motivations for this scam, from skilled con artistry to desperation. If you made the movie, you could portray the Wolffs as schemers (Marlon Brando and Joan Collins) or as dreamers on a spree before getting free room and board in jail (Dustin Hoffman and Shirley MacLaine). One person calls them "an elderly Bonnie and Clyde."

"At this point, they are homeless people knowingly breaking the law," a Concord police detective told a TV news reporter. "They do have family. It's just an odd case."

I see 79-year-old Benjamin's hunched back and stiff movements in the courtroom, and I wonder about why they might feel estranged from their family. The Wolffs are my parents' age, and if my mom and dad weren't so ill, I can imagine them saying, what the heck, let's live high off the hog for a few days.

The TV news reports present their departure from the usual roles played by "sweet" seniors as disturbing and titillating. The lack of a clear-cut explanation seems to make everyone nervous. So far, the reports don't contain quotes from the Wolffs—just shots of Jane hurrying away from a thrusting microphone—although a piece from another local paper notes that Jane's son decided not to to pay the money they owe; apparently they've been pulling such stunts for years.

A salon owner in Newburyport who got stuck with two bad checks laughs and says, "They are a team."

So the perfect guests are probably schemers. But it does give me a little thrill that the couple managed to fool innkeepers who often charge more than $200 a night. Benjamin claimed to be a doctor who "worked at home," as well as a Goldman Sachs executive who was just waiting for a $20 million bank transfer.

And the story—which ran on the Globe's front page—got me wondering where I'd go if my life became a financial and emotional train wreck.

The dreamer in me has to admit that I've thought about starting life fresh with a new identity. Well, not really thought about it in a premeditated way, such as figuring out the logistics and calling some friend of a friend to help me with getting fake ID. I'm basing this on mystery novels now and also qualifying wildly, because in no way do I truly want to take a powder and leave everybody I know to become a river-boat gambling queen or a waitress in Key West.

Yet years ago, when I read Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, before I even had a child, it did give me another kind of vicarious thrill.

In that novel, during a low-rent beach vacation, a mother just decides to walk away from the house and become somebody else—somebody free of the demands of squabbling, irritating others. As Cathleen Schine writes in her 1995 review of the book in the New York Times:
"If the reader is never quite sure why Delia deserts her life, neither is Delia herself. All she can say to explain herself when her family finally tracks her down is, 'I'm here because I just like the thought of beginning again from scratch.'"
Shocking as it may seem, I've felt overwhelmed by laundry and arguments over ice cream cones and one too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My husband is a total mensch and gorgeous guy, but we butt heads on occasion. I've also quietly steamed over long-time conflicts with other family members whom I'll just call "difficult."

I'd like to say that the fantasy has me traveling the world, flirting with dangerous people or descending into a racy alternate existence. Call this the Don Draper approach in Mad Men. But I'm more captivated by the thought of solitude. I'm a hermit in a cottage on a rugged seacoast, scribbling in my notebooks, accepting the simple gifts of food and drink brought by villagers because of my renowned wisdom.

Or for a few seconds, I'd like to be the perfect guest—the person who's a cipher, who you can never get too intimate with‚ pampered by luxe sheets and complimentary brownies.

Of course, Don Draper's multiple identities don't make him happier. And Delia of Ladder of Years discovers that she can't escape herself. She establishes a new identity in a new town, but soon enough new people are relying on her.

We parents may fantasize about escape, but most of us are wired to care for others. But, oh, to have a night or two in the Musketaquid Room room of the Hawthorne Inn, with the free videos and breakfasts. Here's a description of the room from the inn's website:
"Sunrise filters through a sieve of ancient maple boughs and breaches the bay window sill; a new morning embraces you. The flood of warmth charges the room with a glow of burnt umber, sienna and rust as walls and carpets and the burnished wood of antiques awaken."
What was that about carpe diem?

This piece has been cross-posted on Open Salon.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Writing Boundaries—When Do I Cross Them?

As a writer, wondering whether I should cross certain boundaries that involve my personal life is not a rhetorical question for me. The reason I'm asking it now is that yesterday I almost published a post that might have hurt somebody else.

Not terribly. Not inexcusably. Maybe not at all. But I realized it could have repercussions, and much as I felt attached to the piece and wanted to share it, I knew I shouldn't publish it.

At least not yet.

Once I realized this, it began to affect the way I told the story.

I had already changed certain names—well, that's acceptable in memoir writing—but in this case, I knew the ruse wouldn't provide much anonymity among networks of mutual friends. I added explanations; then cut them again. As a result, some parts of the back story were untold—that's all right and, perhaps, the ethical thing to do—yet in leaving the motivations of everyone elliptical, it could have seemed like I was protecting myself.

So I've slammed up against some big questions, the first of which has to do with the twitchy fingers of bloggers, the breathless sense that it has to get out there, now. Do we have to publish everything in real time? When is this valuable and when not? You move the mouse, click on "Publish Post," and instantly your work is out there for readers to see.

Even the most sensitive writer is usually making a case for himself or herself. We may admit to our foibles; we may write about crisis situations that change our points of view or reveal personal weaknesses. Yet we get to be the star of the story, rather than our family or friends or co-workers. In fact, if we're doing our job as professional writers, we're always making a case for how fascinating our observations are, how worthy of report or discussion, how much they matter.

Often we're writing about shared human experiences, of course. This can be cathartic for writer and reader. The continuing life stories told by many professional bloggers also turn the writing dynamic in new ways. We see writers change their perspectives and understandings of events in real time. This is exciting; it feels like real life.

Yet it isn't real life, even if somebody is reporting on themselves every hour. No memoir writing can be, because, as writers, we always make choices about what to observe and what to include. The best memoirs are distillations of lived experience. They have the intensity of novels or first-person short stories. They get at bigger truths than the passing flow of quotidian thoughts and events.

It's here that I wrestle as a blogger: anything can be turned into an interesting story, if one has a strong, funny, appealing voice. I like the quotidian; I believe some of the best stories happen in the everyday margins; they don't have to be Oprah tell-alls or about "big" news topics.

But if the passing flow is constantly reported on and then disappears into the cyber-ether, how do we as readers—or writers—know what truly matters? And how do we gain the distance on events to figure out what should be included in a story for public consumption and what not?

With the post I almost published, I'm still not sure. It took a form that was distilled and literary and probably too telegraphic. I think my desire to keep some of the details private dictated the form, without my conscious choosing. But as soon as I started feeling anxious about what I'd created, I didn't think I had permission to commit it to the public space of a blog. Perhaps I could show it to my trusted writing group first; perhaps it shouldn't see the virtual light of day at all.

This is frustrating, because the whole point of blogging is to get the work out there. Within the space of a few hours, I'd shifted into my normal print mode: reflection, tightening, editing, possibly de-vivifying. How much lag time does a writer need? Doesn't that impose a form of self-censorship?

Ugh. I'm wrestling. I'm learning.

I've been blogging actively for about half a year now, and the feedback I've received from readers has been tremendously helpful in shaping ideas for essays. I've posted a few informal riffs, but my posts tend to be essays and think pieces because of my magazine background. This has allowed me to include personal anecdotes in a format that feels very comfortable to me. I understand the ethical boundaries in print, even when telling stories about my seven-year-old son.

But I know I sometimes need to feel uncomfortable, too. It's possible that the post I haven't published is heading in an exciting new direction, revealing me in ways that aren't entirely flattering, adding vulnerability to my writing. Blogging has helped me as a writer, but I have yet to figure out all the parameters or my own personal boundaries.

One of my goals for this year is to post more often on this blog, perhaps daily. I soon hope to have a new website in place and a better format for my blog, which I call Athena's Head. I want to build a readership, certainly. As a professional writer, I'm creating my "platform."

Yet I believe that one of the ironies of blogging is that, regardless of how much it's become a professional add-on to being a writer—and how ephemeral posts are—or how easy it is to fake personal stories or fool people about who you are online—the most successful bloggers communicate an honest, trustworthy person behind the words. You want to hang out with them.

It may be a work in progress, figuring out what to include, but I know that it demands a different voice than that of my literary writing, print features, or a number of the essays I've published here.

As always, I'm curious about what readers think. So what do you want to hear me writing about—and how far should I go?