Wednesday, April 11, 2018

If My Boyfriend Was a State, He’d Be Texas

I realize I have missed writing my column for the last two weeks. Quite frankly, I have been dealing with the vagaries of not having a home, which involved traveling out of town and trying to figure out why things never seem to go the way I want them to and, in fact, go in the exact opposite direction every time. I’ve been the recipient of kindnesses as well as the receiver of some astoundingly unhelpful bad advice falling under the category of “With friends like these . . .” I got so disgusted with Lexington that I nearly lit out for California, traveled through Native American lands, visited friends in Texas, and decided I just couldn’t risk going through what I went through in California last summer again. I’m here in Lexington for now, may have landed a part-time job, and am hoping to get another one. Now, if you think it’s easy to keep producing a top quality blog week after week under conditions of homelessness and bankruptcy, I’ll be glad to let you try it. Otherwise, you’re getting no more from me. I will give you a freebie, though, before leaving you to your own devices. Your assignment is to read the Bhagavad Gita, if you haven’t done so already, without whining. Then, the next time you see me, I want you to tell me why you think I wanted you to read it. Then I’ll tell you the right answer.

By the way, the above title is not an indicator of any plan to move to Texas but merely an assertion based on my general impressions of that great state, the spirit of which even politicians and greedy bastards have not been able to kill. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this part of the conversation is not for you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Get Your Butt Out of the Bardo and Come on Down

While driving around Lexington and environs lately, I’ve been fascinated by glimpses of streets and neighborhoods I don’t know well. I’ve been charmed by the number of small businesses and cafes popping up on North Limestone (NoLi, in the new local parlance, and aren’t we fancy these days?) and by views of numerous old houses with good bones that dot the city in offbeat locales. I admit to viewing any purportedly positive developments here with suspicion since I’m not a fan of the local government and have found life here challenging, to say the least, in recent years. Places, things, and people that used to seem simple no longer do, but still, I somehow manage to enjoy my old pastime of driving around neighborhoods and imagining if I could live in them. Since I moved from my old Nicholasville Road address, I’m constantly seeing Lexington from new angles.

I often ask myself: Do I see myself here? Or here? Or there? What about that street? I have a lingering fondness for the Arboretum (how can you not love such a beautiful place), but I balk at the idea of resettling in the neighborhood. I sometimes feel that I shouldn’t even be in Kentucky at all, having been cheated of my plan to live in California. When I see something about Los Angeles in the news or on TV, I feel something tugging at me. I like Kentucky, but it’s not what it used to be (was it ever?). I had hoped that a new job and a chance to experience another city, an idea long cherished before being acted on, would either cure me of the desire for change or show me that I was right all along. How anticlimactic to end up back in Lexington last August! (Though it was no doubt the wisest thing to do under the circumstances.)

I don’t believe all the people who keep talking to me about the changing workforce and economic conditions that have forced many people away from their intended careers. I always was an employer’s dream and still am. I deplore many of the current economic trends but do not think that accounts for what has happened to me. I was asked recently about my plans, and I was taken aback, since few of the plans that I have made recently, no matter how well thought out and prepared for, went the way they should have. But since I’m on the topic, I’ll just say this: If I could do whatever I want to do, I would be back in California with a plan to stay for at least a few years. I could always come back to Kentucky (or go somewhere else) if it didn’t take, and maybe by that time the bad influences here would have cleared out sufficiently to make life enjoyable again. Or perhaps I’d never want to come back here to live. I never got a chance to find out, but the question is still active.

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t even be working as a librarian if I could do whatever I wanted. I’ll always be a writer first and foremost, and it’s a shame I haven’t been able to make a living out of it since I left the newspaper years ago—though perhaps that will change. Here’s how I see myself in my ideal scenario: I’m continuing to write, but I’m making actual money from it. I’m teaching literature and writing, and I’m talking to people about my academic interests: mythology, culture, the written word, books, and information literacy. I’d love to travel like I used to. I’d like to study film and perhaps Irish and Welsh mythology (maybe now is the time to specialize). If I had the money, I’d like to live in California for most of the year, maybe coming back to Kentucky to teach a class in the summer, since summers are my favorite season here. I’d spend May traveling in Europe, doing research and eating pastries and chocolate. In September, I’d go back to California to work, write, and study. If I did come back to Kentucky in the summer, I might teach at U of L instead of UK. (Sorry, Lexington, but sometimes a change of pace is good; I’ve met my share of obnoxious undergraduates and law students here [and actually, people of all ages] so why on earth would I want to rinse and repeat if I didn’t have to?)

This is all pie in the sky right now. I’m staying with a friend in circumstances far from ideal and trying to figure out how to keep from losing my furniture, currently but-not-for-long safely in storage, and my bank account, currently empty. The thought of bringing everything back here, even if I could, roils my stomach. Since someone asked me, I thought I’d outline what I’d REALLY be doing if I weren’t stuck in the bardo. And it could still happen . . . you just never know, do you? Things can change in the blink of an eye, and I’ve seen it myself.

Rest assured that any changes in circumstance will be reported faithfully in this column, but right now, I don’t know when that will be. People are talking to me about moving into Section 8 housing like I’m supposed to be excited about it (sorry, I’m not, no more than I was a year ago). In the meantime, I try to maintain a positive attitude, and even though it’s not always easy, it’s perhaps not as difficult as it ought to be. You have no idea how hard it is to rattle me these days.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reader’s Guide to a Headlong Flight

After years of studying the writings of others, I now have the experience of sending my own out into the ether. I know now that some of the questions I was used to asking about other writers’ influences and inspirations are, in my case, relatively easy to answer, while others are not. The question of what I might have been thinking about when I wrote last week’s blog post, “The Illustrated St. Agnes Eve,” goes back as far as my first reading in the early 1980s of John Keats’s famous poem on that same subject, although the entire answer isn’t that simple. I think it was a dream I had several years ago—recounted in a 2014 post called “Madeline’s Casement”—that first gave me the idea of writing a modern version of the Keats romance, loosely based on the superstitions surrounding St. Agnes Eve. But there is more to it than that.

I know I came up with the idea of setting my version in a modern urban skyscraper instead of a medieval castle sometime after having the dream, and I’ve been thinking about it for at least a couple of years. My original conception included the dinner party and the nightmarish escape of two people down the stairwell and out into the snowstorm; at some point, the little boy in the lobby appeared and wouldn’t let go of me, even though there is no character like him in Keats’s poem. I played around with the idea of both main characters arriving as guests at the same time, but I eventually decided that my first instinct to make the female character, at least, a long-term inhabitant  (or guest) was necessary to the story. She has been trapped in the place for some time, which creates a pent-up energy to escape that wouldn’t be there for someone newly arrived. Ralph is a catalyst to the action but doesn’t “belong” to the scene in the same way Estelle does; he instantly recognizes the danger, though, and joins forces with her.

There’s a certain vagueness in the way the tower is presented that’s not accidental: it seems at the same time to be an office tower and a place in which people live. It encompasses the lives of many people and not just a single family. Estelle knows that she has a long history with the place but that it has fallen under an evil influence that baffles and troubles her; it is as if, she, too, is under a spell whose power is partly broken by the arrival of Ralph, an outsider. The other inhabitants of the tower are either unaware of or untroubled by the peculiar miasma that enshrouds the building but is almost invisible.

In my story, Estelle dreams not of her future husband, as per tradition, but of her fellow dinner guests, a dream that encapsulates her feelings about the surreal atmosphere of the proceedings. I was inspired to put animal heads on the dinner guests by an exhibit of animal portraits I happened to catch from a bus window while visiting San Francisco some years ago. I still don’t fully understand why that exhibit affected me so strongly, although part of it must be the peculiar intelligence with which the artist had imbued his subjects. There was something almost human in their gazes, at least to my mind. I got the horses’ heads from an actual dream of my own in which statues of horses came to life, and I must have been thinking of Egyptian mythology when I put dogs’ heads on the rest of the guests.

My story is not a traditional romance in the way of Madeline and Porphyro, who run away to be together, but more of an instant attraction that becomes the vehicle for an escape from danger. Perhaps it will blossom later, but the immediate need is to get the hell out of Dodge. Estelle has the knowledge and the will (and a flashlight, modeled on one that I actually own); Ralph has the clear view of someone newly arrived on the scene and is more certain of the way out. He is a sort of “Virgil” to Estelle’s “Dante,” and the extended vertical escape is in some ways more reminiscent of The Inferno than of Keats’s romance. I have long been captivated by the Dantean geography that begins in a dark wood and ends in a climb out of hell to a view of the familiar night sky: “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” (“and so we emerged, to see—once more—the stars”) [Mandelbaum translation, Inf. 34.139]. It was from this line that I derived Estelle’s name, after considering several others with celestial connotations. Ralph’s name is a derivative that is probably a bit more obscure but may be a story for another time.

Estelle’s “suite” is loosely based on my memory of the rooms in my “Madeline’s Casement” dream, although none of the other particulars of that dream have made their way into this story. It was more the feeling and the tone of the dream, rather than its details, that survive here. When I started typing, my caps lock feature came on accidentally, which gave me the idea of playing a bit with the typeface in a manner reminiscent of John Barth in “Lost in the Funhouse.” I also had Franz Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus” in mind both for its existentialism and its brevity. The main rule I had in mind while writing the story was to keep things simple and not over-complicate matters.

So if this isn’t a romance, what is it? That seems like a good question to leave up to readers. To me, it’s a short story of epic proportions, but that’s probably just because it has so much personal resonance, deriving in part from dreams and in part from other poems that have loomed so large in my imagination—and maybe in no small part from the time in which we live. The illustration is from the Tarot of Marseille, which bears no real relation to superstitions surrounding the Eve of St. Agnes but that came to my mind as representing the urgency of an escape (or a fall) from a high place. It is probably both. These Tarot images are not only in the public domain but have the advantage of carrying an archetypal energy that suits the movement of the story.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Illustrated St. Agnes Eve

(A Short Story)

It’s a dinner party, but she isn’t sure how she came to be there. It seems to have been going on forever, as if she had strayed into the Mad Hatter’s tea party and is unaccountably unable to find her way to daylight EVER AGAIN. Much nonsense is spoken by various guests, and little sense, BUT SHE SUSPECTS A METHOD TO THE MADNESS. What that may be, though, she does not know.

The dining table resembles a conference table, around which the guests are assembled. Does she live here? Was she invited? The answers to these questions are vague, though she has the sense that what was once a familiar place has suffered a sea-change, becoming nearly unrecognizable. It’s difficult to say what’s different, but the atmosphere is no longer welcoming. The house is cold, and a mist seems ever to creep from the corners, hanging in the air like a gray film that impedes clear sight. No one else seems bothered. They all speak loudly, some with high-pitched voices, and they all seem to know just what they are about, though no doubt some of them, at least, are wrong (confidence not always being commensurate with correctness). She once lived here, she thinks, but she walked through an invisible door one day and came out the other side to a place where everything had shifted an infinitesimal degree. That has made, as the poet said, all the difference.

She is on the 52nd floor of the mansion, that she knows. The dining room is in the center of the building and has no windows. Her bedroom is dark, with expensive tapestry hangings and heavy wooden furniture, but she can see the road below. Her car, looking like a Matchbox toy, is parked on the other side of the street, next to a greensward filled with leafless trees. If she could find her way down, she could leave, but she can never remember where the door is, and any time she asks about it, it is as if no one can hear her.

“Kindly point me to the nearest exit,” she might say. “Please pass the salt,” responds her neighbor. “Do you think it will rain tomorrow?”

(Of course it will rain. It rains nearly every day. Not to be unkind, but you know, that’s a really stupid question.)

Tonight, though, she sees a face that she may or may not have seen before. He sits at the other end of the table and may have been there for a while. She isn’t sure. He looks a little out of place among the company. HERE’S WHY: his face is stern and lined, but his eyes look alive. He does not look as if he is dreaming, like the other guests. He looks as if he is aware of himself and everything around him.

Here is a brief description of the company: a woman in an evening gown wearing a tiara tilted at a rakish angle; a suave gentleman with highly brilliantined dark hair, parted in the middle; a pale woman in black with red lips and scarlet nails who speaks in cultured tones and drinks champagne from a tea cup; a dandy with magnetic eyes and a foppish air; a soft-spoken, dark-skinned man who sports brightly colored ties and smells of expensive cologne; a drunken priest who may actually be an archbishop; a plastic surgeon with the whitest smile imaginable and beautifully manicured hands; a fast-talking man with a huge appetite who talks incessantly of real estate; a government man with big ears, a black suit, and a black tie who cracks his knuckles occasionally. And of course, herself, and the man with the lined face, who wears dark pants, a white shirt, and a leather jacket. Without moving a muscle, he is instantly more masculine than the other seven men combined. How does that work?

She would not mind talking to him, but he is several seats away from her. The evening passes in a blur.

That night, in her room, she looks out upon a world consisting entirely of a swirling snowstorm. (When it doesn’t rain, it usually snows. Fog is also a possibility in these parts.) The wind whistles around the corners of the building, occasionally rising in force to a near-shriek and then subsiding. It has been winter for as long as seven years now, she is nearly certain. The moon is a pale luminescence barely visible through the storm. She gets into bed and dreams.

Here is what she dreams of: her fellow dinner guests! (Proof positive that that St. Agnes superstition stuff doesn’t work.) One has the head of a wolf; another, the head of an owl. Still another bears the face of a tiger, and the next one, a gorilla. The rest are an assortment of horses and dogs heads. Huh? She does not see the man with the lines in his face and has a feeling (in the dream) that he has never really been there. It’s a sad thought. But she’s only dreaming.

Suddenly, she is awake. Just like that. Her eyes are open, and she is looking at the ceiling, a wilderness of tracery in an old-fashioned room. She gets up. I have to get dressed, she is thinking. She knows with a certainty that she should. She goes into the fussy, well-appointed bathroom and washes her face, even applying lipstick. She goes back to her room and puts on the clothes she had left out for the next day, noticing that her bag is already packed. I seem to have already decided to leave, she thinks. Then she remembers: the bag has been packed for a long time.

There is a knock; when she answers, the man with the lined face is standing in the hallway.

“I want to get out of here,” she says, without preamble. “My bag is packed, but I can’t find the door. It’s like ‘The Hotel California’ with inferior weather.”

“I know where the door is,” he says, “but my cell phone doesn’t work here, and I can’t imagine getting a taxi in this storm.”

“I have a car,” she says. “But how did you get here?”

“I was invited. But I only arrived yesterday.”

“There’s something wrong here, but I’m not sure what it is. I’ve been trying to understand it.”

“I agree with you,” he says. “Is there an elevator?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t work.”

“Then the stairs it is. Shall we go?”

She picks up her bag. They TIP-TOE DOWN THE HALL. At the end of a long corridor, they turn right into a small alcove in which a heavy door is set. At that exact moment, the dim light in the ornamental sconce next to the door goes out. Standing there in darkness, she says, “Wait, I have a flashlight.” There is a noise of fumbling. Then a whirring, mechanical sound. Then there is a small light. She is holding a pink plastic flashlight shaped like a pig. “I have to crank the battery to charge it up,” she explains. “I’m surprised it still works.”

He winks at her and pushes the door, which opens into a concrete stairwell with a metal railing painted blue. The door closes softly behind them, and they listen for a moment. All is silent. NOTHING IS STIRRING, or so it seems.

“I have a feeling,” he says to her, “that it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

“Probably,” she says. “But the only way out is down. We may as well start.”

So they tread lightly down the stairs, guided by the tiny light of the plastic torch. There are no floor numbers on the landings, but sometimes there are noises—cries, whispers, shouts, explosions; sometimes there are snatches of music, sometimes there is a rumbling in the walls, as if they are just outside a theater with an action feature playing at top volume. She feels that to open most of these doors would be to risk heartbreak, even the ones that are ominously silent, so they press steadily on, placing their feet cautiously. It seems to take hours. She is beginning to wonder if the staircase goes all the way to the center of the earth when they come to a place where there are no more stairs. He pushes the door open, and they are faced with a grand marble lobby with a ticking clock, a checkerboard floor, and mullioned panes on either side of a massive front door. The expanse of the lobby seems endless, as if they are contemplating crossing the prairie instead of an entrance hall. They hear the wind howling faintly beyond the building’s heavy walls.

They have just stepped into the hall when they see that they are not alone. A young boy, shivering, looks up at them from the shadow of the grand staircase that sweeps up to a mezzanine. He is about eight years old.

“Can you take me home?” he says. “Please, I want to go home.”

“Where is your mother?” she asks. “She wouldn’t want you to go with strangers, you know.” (But she sure wouldn’t want you here, either.)

“She isn’t here,” he says, insistently. “Please. She lives in Brooklyn. I know she’s wondering where I am, but I can’t get to her. I can tell you how to get there.”

The man looks at her. He is deferring to her, since she is the driver.

“Yes,” she says. “We’ll take you home. Though it would be better if your mother came to pick you up.”

“She could never find her way here,” says the little boy. (Which may be true.)

There is a lull in the storm, and it is as if the building is listening. The three of them hurry across a marble floor so highly polished that it is almost like a skating rink, and the big front door seems miles away, and someone is sure to stop them, but no—they scramble across the expanse, the door opens, and they are out in the storm, disappearing into it the moment they leave the threshold. On the other side of the street, her car is buried in snow, but they knock the worst of it off. She puts her key in the ignition, and the car starts, a reassuringly normal sound in the Stygian darkness. As they scrape the ice off the windshield and the boy climbs into the backseat, the man says to her:

“We haven’t been properly introduced—my name is Ralph.”

And she says, “I’m Estelle. I’m glad to meet you. Now let’s go.”

Then they get into the car and drive away, the mansion disappearing behind them like a mirage in the storm. They find a good indie rock station, and life instantly gets a lot better. (This version does not record what happened to the old beadsman or Madeline’s nurse, since they are not in this story. We presume the hare hopped off to a warm fireside.) OK?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Watching People Multitask at the Oscars

Sunday night I watched the Academy Awards, despite not having seen any of the nominated films. In years past, I found the Oscars occasionally entertaining but mostly annoying (and often embarrassing). I often wondered why the Oscars came off in such a clunky fashion when they’re meant to celebrate the movie industry—shouldn’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, of all people, be able to pull off a polished awards show? In the end, though, I guess some people are more comfortable than others in front of live audiences, and some people do better than others at reading jokes they didn’t write. Sometimes, I watched with the sound turned off so I didn’t have to listen to people limp through lame jokes and look ill-at-ease. All I really wanted was to see who was there, what they were wearing, and who would win the big honors.

Now I look back at those days with longing. This year’s awards show was groomed till it barely had a hair out of place—everything seemed to have been calibrated to within a millionth of an inch, but any sense of fun or spontaneity appeared (to me) to be lacking. I longed for someone to fumble their lines and appear to be something other than an automaton or a walking billboard. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed seeing who was there and admiring the gowns, which, if anything, are distinctly more tasteful than they used to be. My problem is that instead of movie stars being movie stars, everyone seems to be busy representing something. I’ve got no problems with people speaking up about issues that are important to them, especially when they affect the movie industry, but I mainly watch the Oscars to be entertained, and I thought everybody else did too (but maybe not).

There are probably just as many fine people in the film industry as there are anywhere else, and I feel that most of them are well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean their opinions about the state of the world today are any better informed than anyone else’s. I feel that most of the media and entertainment outlets today are the source of misinformation that at its worst is no better than propaganda and that some of the people propagating it may not even be aware of what they’re doing. They are passing along information or putting out ideas that they may or may not have formed in good faith but that in any case go beyond the purpose of entertainment and/or the creation of art.

I had this discussion with someone the other night. Plainly stated, I feel that any artist, no matter what his medium, is only responsible for doing the best artistic work he or she is capable of. I don’t think all entertainment rises to the level of “art,” and that’s perfectly OK. Some people aspire only to entertain but occasionally rise to the level of art because they transcend the limits of the ordinary. Sometimes art has a “message,” but not always. Sometimes, you’re just looking at what happens when someone sets out to create something, and whether it “means” anything or not is an open question.

There’s a poem I first read in graduate school in the form of a note of apology from someone who ate plums someone else had left in the refrigerator. It reads very much like a note you might actually leave for someone in such a circumstance, except for the cadence of the language and the placement of the words in lines. So what does it mean? In my opinion, it doesn’t so much “mean” anything other than to reveal that by looking at ordinary things in a certain way, you can transform them into art—or maybe the art is already there and all you’re doing is cutting away the extraneous material to reveal what’s already present. I’m not an art theoretician, but I can see it working either way.

What I do know is that art is one thing and advertising is something else (not that advertising can’t have great artistic merit, because it can). What’s different is the underlying purpose of art versus advertising. Art exists for its own sake, though it may also delight you, horrify you, or make you think. Advertising is an attempt to sell you something, and propaganda is a particularly sneaky form of it. My wish is that people would just go back to what it is they are good at doing and leave off the propaganda. I think propaganda has long had a place in popular culture, so it’s really nothing new, but its uses have been especially egregious in recent years. How about if we left advertising to ad people, news to news people, entertainment to entertainment people, and art to artists? My feeling is that everyone is so busy multitasking that news, entertainment, literature, and many other things have been muddied so that you no longer know what you’re looking at. Occasionally, an authentic voice breaks through the fog, if it can manage to make itself heard in the din, but we’re living in a very noisy world.

I’m not against movies (or books) with messages. What I’m against is propaganda masquerading as entertainment and news, and people running around saying things when they don’t know what they’re talking about. Rather than asking for “more matter with less art,” like Hamlet’s mother, I think what I’d really like to see, at least from Hollywood, is more art and less matter. Then it might be fun to go to the movies again (if I could afford it). What Sunday night’s Academy Awards really needed, in my opinion, was for Cher to show up in one of her trademark over-the-top outfits and throw everybody on their ear, as in days of old. On the other hand, if more journalists were out there actually doing their jobs, perhaps people in Hollywood wouldn’t feel as if they had to do it for them, which I suspect is what happens on occasion. So maybe it’s really the journalists I have a beef with, and not the movie people (or at least, not all of them).

Don’t mind me. I get cranky when I’m in the bardo for years at a time. But could somebody see about getting Cher back into the loop for next year’s show? Or at least the girl with the swan outfit?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Glamorous Life

This past week, I finished reading Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, a fictionalization of the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, his own novel based on actual events from the couple’s life together. It was a similar experience to my reading a couple of years ago of The Paris Wife and The Sun Also Rises (the former a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and the latter Hemingway’s fictionalized account loosely based on the marriage). I’m not sure I have anything more profound to say about it than the fact that, 1.) yes, your perspective of events really does shift depending on the point of view of the person telling the story; 2.) being a world-famous literary figure ain’t all it’s cracked up to be; 3.) marriage sounds like a pretty tough bargain even for (and maybe especially for) the rich and famous; and 4.) those people sure did drink a lot.

I felt rather sorry for Zelda as I was reading Z; she is portrayed as a woman with talents and aspirations of her own who languishes in the shadow of her husband’s literary fame, loving and resenting him at the same time. I don’t know how closely this hews to the actual truth of the matter, but one can sympathize with the fictionalized Zelda’s concern about preserving her own identity. Mr. Fitzgerald comes off rather badly, appearing to be insecure to the point of jeopardizing his wife’s mental health for the sake of maintaining his hold over her. Mr. Hemingway is also portrayed unsympathetically in this telling as a friend to the couple who is really a friend to neither.

But here’s the thing: in both The Sun Also Rises and Tender Is the Night, I was awed by the artistry that enabled each author to use painful (one presumes) personal events as the raw materials of a great work of literature. It seemed to me that, regardless of how closely the events of the novels matched reality or how self-centered or egotistical each author may (or may not) have been in real life, both writers became selfless in the process of writing. Both Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Hemingway “disappeared” inside their works, which seemed not so much self-referential as the result of a transmutation of lived experiences into art. In other words, I didn’t see either novel as an attempt at self-justification; both of them are tragedies that transcend the personal to reach the level of the universal.

Aside from that, of course, are the personal reactions of the authors’ acquaintances who may have seen themselves reflected in the novels and been hurt or dismayed by what they saw there. As I read The Sun Also Rises, I wondered how the first Mrs. Hemingway might have felt about her husband’s alter-ego, Jake, being portrayed as impotent and whether or not she took that personally. I also wondered whether Mrs. Fitzgerald would have resented the way in which her struggle with mental illness was incorporated into the events of Tender Is the Night, in which the wife becomes, in part, the instrument of her husband’s undoing. Finding oneself transformed into a literary character, no matter how celebrated, isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. I’m not sure I would take too well to it myself.

Those of us reading the novels of Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Hemingway at a distance may not be aware of the interplay between real life and imagined events that may have been a cause of joy or sorrow for the participants, but we can imagine the discomfort of finding oneself in the spotlight as a result of proximity to famous writers. So does the creation of a great work of art justify offending someone or possibly invading his or her privacy? It’s a real question but not one that’s easily answered. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t envy the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, or those within their orbit. Glamorous, well-traveled, and well-connected they may have been, but their lives did not seem particularly happy to me. It’s certainly possible to live both a creative life and a happy one, but I don’t look to these folks as examples of that. A life with less glitter and more happiness seems to me infinitely preferable.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Wordplay Travel Column: Know Before You Go

Salvation Army Shelter
Caters to: Single Women, Families
Number of Stars: 1
Dining Facility: Yes
Amenities: Laundry on Premises; Free Parking; No Swimming Pool; No Wi-Fi

The Salvation Army isn’t quite what I expected. It starts with the other residents, who in many cases don’t match my idea of folks you’d expect to meet in a shelter. It’s a bit like the experience I had last spring when I jumped through the social services hoops to get a Medicaid card: many of the people in the agency office looked like they’d been sent over from central casting. I’m serious. I’m not making fun of the plight of homeless people in any way when I say this but am merely observing that doing double-takes is a nearly daily occurrence for me. There could be several reasons for this, but I’ll allow you to make what you will of it. After all, if I’m in a homeless shelter, nearly anybody could be, and it seems likely that they are, based on what I’ve seen.

The SA differs from your typical lodging experience in the number of rules and regulations imposed on residents. It has almost a quasi-military flavor, as if you were lodging in a barracks rather than a shelter. I won’t say there aren’t reasons for some of these rules, but they seem to be applied somewhat haphazardly, so that you might get dinged for something someone else does on a regular basis. The main complaint I hear from other residents regards this inconsistency.

My main complaint in the first few days was about how seriously people seemed to sweat what I considered to be small stuff, and how disrespectfully some of the staff and other residents acted toward me regarding things that didn’t really seem to matter. I have one roommate who was apparently unnerved by the presence of an opened (dry) umbrella I had placed on my bunk to keep it out of the way, an episode that escalated into a threat of expulsion for yours truly. I don’t know if my experience is typical, but I can imagine someone coming in here with fewer inner resources than I have ending up bullied and depressed very quickly. This seems like the opposite of what a social services agency ought to be doing, because don’t you want to build people up rather than tear them down? Again, I’m not sure how typical my experience is, but I have been leery of getting too involved with the culture or resources on offer here.

Some people say they don’t like the food, but although it’s a bit too heavy on the starch, there are days when it’s rather tasty. I haven’t been poisoned yet, though I do avoid the Kool-Aid flavored drinks. We’re not talking about Dinner at Antoine’s, after all. It’s communal dining typical of a school cafeteria. I eat a fair amount of doughnuts for dessert and must assume the SA has a generous donor from that industry. I don’t make a big deal out of what’s on the menu, I just eat it; from past experience, I know food service isn’t the easiest job in the world.

The lack of privacy is one of the worst aspects of being there. There just isn’t any place to go to be really alone, but as I told someone, in some ways it’s not much worse than my last apartment. I never really felt I was alone there, either, with the intrusiveness of my neighbors breaking in on me even when I had closed my own door behind me. There is something in the SA experience that reminds me of the almost cult-like place my apartment building had become in the last few years I was there (due in part, I felt, to the presence of several members of a Christian youth organization who lived and/or worked on the property). I seem to get a whiff of the same quasi-religious, quasi-military atmosphere at SA, and if I were an investigative reporter, I would probably dig into it a little further. Could be a story there.

The worst aspect for me has undoubtedly been the people I have in my room. It’s as if someone took all the worst neighbors I had on Nicholasville Road and handed them to me for roommates. Now, you know Wordplay doesn’t like to exaggerate, and furthermore I am not a mental health expert, but it doesn’t take one to know when someone has boundary issues that are serious enough to indicate possible psychosis. I’m not saying, though, that I would necessarily do better by trading some of them out. I’ve encountered other guests who seem to be a couple of pencils short of a pack as well. I’m not talking about the type of personality clashes you always see when people live together but something more troubling, something that goes beyond the simplistic notion of just getting along with others. Do you, after all, really want to get along well with someone with criminal tendencies? Well, do you?

I actually like some of the people, although I have a suspicion that many of them are other than what they appear to be, and I tend to think this is not a good thing when I myself am exactly what I appear to be. It gives me the feeling that I’m a part of something that I never signed up for, and that is disheartening. I wish you could see some of these folks; they run the gamut from a girl who looks like a sorority sister fresh out of the Chi Omega house to a woman who resembles just the sort of person you’d meet at a Pacifica cocktail party or soirĂ©e at the Getty Villa to someone reminiscent of your grandmother or great-aunt. There are also a number of mothers with young children, people with tattoos, and some who really do resemble what you probably think a homeless person looks like, though some of them are surprisingly sharp dressers.

Customer service runs the gamut from harsh to indifferent to friendly, but again, things are not always what they appear to be, so take it as you will. Obviously, it’s not a five-star experience, and it’s surprisingly difficult to get paper towels in the bathroom, something that is of more import to me than, say, free tickets to the Met, but I try to make the best of it. Based on my experience so far, I am likely to leave the place with fewer items than I went in with (who steals underwear, for God’s sake?), but it is what it is (whatever that is), and perhaps my next hotel experience will be more to my liking.