Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Small lights illuminate a star.

Photo by Elias Tigiser on Pexels.com

A brain goes rogue

on December 26, 2004, I experienced a major brain bleed that sent me into a coma and brain surgery. Up until that event, I had been a totally healthy 22-year-old. And then POP, just like that, what I knew of health and normal and independence vanished. Waking up was a two-day process after brain surgery. When I finally had my wits about me, I learned that I’d experienced a stroke, I couldn’t walk and might never live on my own again.

It would take another day for me to get up and test my legs — they worked— and months before I could drive again.  But I did it. In early 2005, I returned to some semblance of a normal life.

At the same time that I was gaining a sense of balance, both physical and metaphorical, another young woman was dealing with her own cerebrovascular event. In 1990, Terri Schiavo, then 26, had a heart attack and collapsed. The loss of oxygen to her brain sent her into a “persistent vegetative state.” For years, her husband, Micheal, had rallied against her parents, insisting that Terri would not want to live in such a state. Her Catholic parents said she was still a human, still their daughter, and they fought his attempts to end her life.

At just 22 when my brain went rogue, I was horrified by Terri’s situation. I watched news updates from my  parents’ couch, torn between siding with  Terri’s parents and her husband.

If it were me, what would I want?

Decisions

In those first days of recovery, before I could drive again, and thus before my independence was re-granted, I decided that I would have wanted to die.

“If I stroke out again,” I’d tell my dad, “you better let me die.”

He’d nod, knowingly. That’s what he wanted for himself, too.  I didn’t talk about it with my very Catholic mom, who I knew viewed every life as sacred, and would do anything in her power to keep me alive. As time went on and follow-up visits persisted, with each new care provider I saw, I would be given paperwork for an advance directive.

“It’s not a bad idea to state what you’d like done in the event of another emergency,” they’d say, handing me the folder. I’d carry it home to throw away, not wanting to think about such heavy decisions.

For the 14 years that Terri had been caught between her parents and her husband’s decisions,  the court in her state of Florida sided with her husband. But in 2005, President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed Federal courts to have a say. Terri’s feeding tube, the thing keeping her alive, came out.

On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo’s decades’ long ordeal was over.

Today

Today marks the 15 year anniversary of  Terri’s death, and I have been thinking about her off and on all day, as I do every year. I didn’t know her and didn’t know of her until my own medical crisis brought hers into my world. But in the past 15 years, her legacy has continued to orbit in my mind.

When I finally returned to life on my own in May of 2005, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since before my stroke.

“Mars,” he shouted from across the packed bar I had entered with a friend. “Shit, I can’t believe you’re here. I heard you’d been Terri Schiavo’d or something.”

I assured him that I hadn’t and sent a heart call out to Terri, feeling connected to her despite our differences. I’m so sorry you died, and I lived.

When I moved to Chicago fifteen months later and began volunteering on the stroke and traumatic brain injury floor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab), I felt Terri’s presence as I talked, or walked, or sat with patients recovering from their own traumas.

When I studied the therapeutic power of writing during grad school, I felt her presence when researching and writing about disability.

And in my current life and work, I think of Terri every time I write about advance directives, difficult conversations and life support paperwork. I do some writing for a company that has designed a web platform and coach system to help caregivers navigate responsibilities in their role of caring for an adult loved one, so these topics come up a lot.

And outside of my own  bubble, I see a raging debate about who should get care during this time of COVID-19, how those decisions are made and what it does to those who are actually making decisions.

On this anniversary of her death, I think of Terri not as someone who died stripped of dignity, but as someone who we should all think about on occasion. We should all have in place our desires for our own end of life so that no matter how it comes or when, we’re able to have a say in what we want.

Love and light to you, Terri.

 

Don’t be a sponge

loki couch

Loki the dog is great at getting stuck in couch potato mode.

In my work as a freelance writer and editor, I’m currently engaged in a project designed to help unpaid caregivers find more time for themselves and make it easier to do the extra work they do in caring for a loved one. Free time is valuable and hard to come by for so many of us, but for working caregivers who deal with concerns for their loved ones while at work and then again when the return home,  it’s an even more fleeting thing.

As I recently reviewed caregiver news online, I stumbled across this article in Stria, “a media platform for the longevity market.” The piece explores data that shows how interdependence develops between older married/partnered couples. It was interesting to me from a working perspective; maybe it’s something I can do some more research on and write about later, I thought. But as I read, the findings struck me as something that’s applicable to me, now.

“We all know couples that are joined-at-the-hip couch potatoes, enjoying nothing more than streaming a hit show while sharing a loaded pizza,” writes author Kevyn Burger. “Equally familiar are the couples who regularly hit the gym together, then treat themselves by splitting a post-workout protein shake.”

I cringed a bit when I read that.

My TV-loving partner is not responsible for my decisions to sit with him and get sucked onto something terrible like Younger or 9-1-1, and yet…I find myself doing this more often than I’d like over the winter. I could be reading, working out or visiting a friend. Instead… I’m couch-potatoing it. I’ve been mad at myself for doing this in the past, but when I read this article and gained confirmation that negative behaviors like this can have a particular bad psychological effect  as one ages (not to mention the extra physical effects of weight gain, in my case) I felt called to action.

The article notes that researchers are finding that this sponge-like tendency can lead to chronic issues in the future, and cites Courtney Polenick, assistant professor of psychiatry and faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

“We need to look at the broader picture and gather information about what each person is managing and also what couples jointly manage,” she is quoted as saying. “This study looks at the impact of chronic conditions across a long time frame. We need additional research about how spouses interact to help one another and how couples jointly manage multiple chronic conditions at a daily level.”

Winter is almost over, I hope, and at the very least we have longer days now. When the dogs, the couch, the blankets and the TV beckon, I’ve been working hard to remind myself that there are other things I could be doing to more purposefully engage my brain and my body.  I have yet to use that time for the treadmill, but I am making my way though a few physical books — and I’ve been writing more!

What are you doing to stay healthy, independent and still connected to your partner?

 

Seeing each other

Photo cred to my honey, Sean.

May 1. Finally.

After a tough semester, wherein I started out with 122 students in four composition I and II classes, I am finally done grading. I am done with submitting grades. I am done with students…at least until May 6, when my next term starts. It is a small break, but a good one, and it will allow me to send out some submissions I’d neglected in April.

I had hoped to do more writing last month but had to put my goals aside to focus on my students. One of the things I DID accomplish for myself last month was submitting a poem and a picture of my eyes to a project put together by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition is part of a project called “Growing Freedom, the art of John and Yoko.” It features music, written word, images, and I think even more interactive events like yoga and talks. It’s been featured in Iceland and Germany so far, and went up in Montreal on April 25. According to Yoko’s call for submissions, it will continue to make its way around the world.


THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW
AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.

I VERY MUCH HOPE FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION.

– Yoko Ono


Focused on giving women a chance to share “a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” it sounds like such an interesting way to draw audience participation and raise awareness about a current topic in a new way.

My understanding is that anyone who submits material will have their writing and photo added to the installation. Today I received an email confirming they’d received my work and thanking me for “participating” in the exhibition. I think that means I’m in, but I replied and asked if they could confirm that my submission had been added and maybe even take a picture for me.

If you’d like to submit to the exhibition, you’ll find instructions in the link I shared to the exhibition.

If I hear back, I’ll post an update with the picture. If not, I’ll post an update about the project. Or, if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

Does it matter?

Not a part of Chicago’s subway system, but fitting. Credit to Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

When I lived in Chicago and would tell people at a party that I was writing a memoir, there would always be one person who’d ask, “What makes you think your life is so special that anyone would want to read about it?” It was almost always a guy, and although this person wasn’t trying to be a dick, it was clear that he really believed that a random person’s story probably wasn’t that special.

I’d tell my inquisitor that I had survived a stroke just a few years before; learning to walk again, do math, drive, FUNCTION, had been a challenge. I wanted to offer hope to anyone who had gone through some similar setback, I’d say. A “Whoa,” or a “Hmm, I’d probably read about that,” would often follow.

Creative writers, especially memoirists, can be labeled as navel-gazers for writing about themselves. Any one of us who writes about life’s experiences could be seen that way, I suppose, if we impart our own spin or understanding on the experiences we’re writing about.

But I’d argue that even if it is not as polished as it could be (like this blog!), writing about the human condition and one’s experience can shed light on something in a new way for a new reader.

Today is day 6 of the poetry challenge I’m participating in, and I’m thinking about all this because of the poem I wrote for our prompt. Descort was the form, and “downtown” was the word of inspiration.

Here’s my crack at it:

Downtown

My favorite schizophrenic
rode the Red line
with me Mondays and Wednesdays.
 The people around us,
the many voices,
added
 to the cacophony of the city.
Oh, how I loved that Chicago grit,
that
you could be
alone in togetherness with so many.


After writing this, I started thinking about “my favorite schizophrenic.” This man would often be on the train when I’d get on in the morning, and he’d ride downtown with me. Somehow, we frequently rode in the same car, and fascinated, I’d watch him have conversations with himself.

Today, I feel so naive whenever I think of him.

Until my time in Chicago, I didn’t understand the depths of mental illness and its correlation to the homeless population.

My only experiences with the homeless were in Bogota, where my mom would always yank me away from staring or trying to give a homeless person a few pesos. Even though she would become a mental health counselor, she never offered any lessons on why the person conducting an invisible orchestra might be homeless.

So as I think about the man, a character in real life, and a person in a poem now (I also wrote about him in grad school), I hope that anyone stumbling across this post takes a minute to learn more about mental health, homelessness and their connections.

These resources are a good place to start
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Healthcare for the Homeless Council
Mental Illness Policy Org

Posting a few websites is not much, I know. And drawing on my memories to write a poem to fit this “purpose” of completing a challenge could probably be looked on as appropriation by some. But I believe that art can make a difference for others while also allowing the artist to gain something new.