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It is with great sadness that we report the death of Ronan Louis, the dear son of TNB contributor Emily Rapp and her husband, Rick Louis.  Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease in January 2011.  He passed away peacefully at 3:30am on February 15th, surrounded by family and friends.

If you would like to join us in making a donation in Ronan’s memory, please do so at the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, who have been a huge support to Emily and her family.

Also, please feel free to express your sympathies on the Little Seal Facebook page.

On behalf of everyone here at TNB, our most heartfelt condolences.

-BL

Fifty years ago today in Los Angeles, where I’m writing these words while facing a screen of a kind that didn’t exist in 1962, a thirty-six-year-old woman fatally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate, sedatives she used, or tried to use, to sleep. She had a documented history of insomnia and a hearsay history of attempted suicide, but there’s no conclusive proof that she killed herself intentionally or accidentally or that someone else administered the drugs. Her housekeeper, whom the LAPD thought “vague” and “possibly evasive in answering questions,” reported finding her dead at around three a.m. in the master bedroom of the Spanish Revival hacienda she had bought six months earlier on the advice of her psychiatrist, who supposed it would give her a sense of stability. She lacked that sense, having lived since childhood like a nomad, for the most part in California, where flux was and is the norm.

(Verse 1)

 

Girl.

They don’t understand.

You swirl and twirl in your world.

I want to hold your hand.

One day.

“Just get to it,” Nora Ephron might say.

Obituaries and year-end tributes will illuminate Ephron’s groundbreaking career as a writer and film director. They will toast her wit that shined and carved like a scalpel. The irreverent will quote her infamous line about her second husband Carl Bernstein:  “The man was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” Her peers and loved ones will share tales of her oft-noted generous spirit and culinary panache.

On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday significant to engineers in the USA, I wrote about the prominence of that profession within my family. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to expand upon that on another holiday. I’ve never really been big on Father’s Day, despite having four children of my own, but on the usual phone call to my father we got to talking about his background in electron microscopy.  He was not only a pioneer applying it to materials engineering, but also involved in education, looking to produce the next generation in his field, particularly from Nigeria.

Reading Ray Bradbury’s work marked the first time I ever took reading seriously. The first time I borrowed his short story collection The Golden Apples of the Sun from the library was the first time I tried to appreciate fiction for grown-ups, the first time I wandered into the quiet neighborhood of the adult fiction stacks.

To be honest, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with fiction. I’m insufferably impatient. In the fifth grade, I enjoyed reading Bradbury’s short fiction because it was ofttimes really short. (I still can’t help but peek ahead to see the glorious white space marking the end of anything.) I liked that Bradbury wrote about space travel and elementary schools on Venus and what household appliances would do after the bomb dropped, but most of all I liked how he wrote about summer.

Mr. Jack sat under the hanging light at the kitchen table with an ashtray at one hand, a book under the other, and a cup of coffee in between. His casual posture made him look shorter than he was. Sometimes, he braced his elbow on the back of the chair and dwarfed a novel in the palm of his hand. His dark, wooly eyebrows straightened in concentration, sometimes lifting as he took a drag of his cigarette. From my place in the living room, near a lamp with a book on my lap, I could barely whiff his Marlboro. That’s what my dad had smoked before he quit cold turkey. But Mr. Jack and my father smelled alike anyway, that humid smoky scent of the Intracostal base where they both waited to fly helicopters to offshore oil rigs.

“The main character is totally vicious, but she has her reasons. Actually, she kind of reminds me of you.” The friend who insisted that I read The Hunger Games knew me all too well. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was insulted or flattered.

Prickly. Proud. Calculating. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Lethal. These are the adjectives ascribed to sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the hardscrabble heroine conscripted into a gladiatorial arena as popcorn fodder for the proletariat. Even fans of the book fault Katniss for her arctic reserve: “Yeah I was kind of not a fan of Katniss as a protagonist,” says i09 commenter CaffeineNictoteneVodka.  “She seems to run from this hero role kicking and screaming … And she has no idea how ridiculously awesome of a man Peeta is.”  Fellow commenter Vvornth concurs: “While being an iconic person Katniss acts in a completely selfish and unsympathetic manner.”

 

I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.

I was 18 or 19.  It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive.  Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae.  After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.

Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.

I have a drawer in my desk which for years I have thought of as Jack’s. I tuck into this drawer all of the things I’m planning to mail to him: old postcards, articles to make him laugh, stickers, photos I’ve torn from Birder’s World, address labels, and of course Jack’s cards and letters to which I have yet to reply. I’ve had a drawer like this in one desk or another for thirty years.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

For many years, I went out of my way to feel embittered and surly at Christmas, refusing to live in the moment, opting instead to wallow in memories of lonely Christmases past. Looking back, though, I’ve never actually been alone. The memories I wallow in are false.  They’re little stories, truncated and manipulated versions of reality, created by me.  They make it easier to share my past experiences with others and to convey a version of myself that best fits into—maybe not how I saw myself at the time, but how I want people to understand my past.

For a long time, I held tightly to the memory of the Christmas sixteen years ago when I was nineteen, pregnant with a baby I was going to put up for adoption, and homeless. Truth be told, I’ve never spent a night outdoors except when camping. I’ve never spent a night starving. I’ve never really been homeless. This fact, however, doesn’t fit into the story I’ve told about me.  It serves to make my bitterness justified—yet it no longer feels authentic or serves the new narrative I’d rather tell.  I realized recently that I’ve built an identity around myself that no longer fits into my current understanding of who I am.  It’s not who I want to be anymore.

She was every greeting card illustrator’s vision of the angelic blonde child: milk-pale skin and eyes as blue as polished slate, perfect ringlets of a blonde so blonde it was nearly white. She was the girl that girls like me—fat and loud, with our bowl haircuts and our Goodwill dresses—should have envied. But she was too sweet; not that kind of tactical sweetness that pretty girls learn early on, but a quiet decency that many adults would’ve done well to acquire.

My fascination with fart descriptions in literature began in graduate school when a fellow fart-loving classmate and myself began to ponder the seeming lack of flatulence in serious literature. Why don’t writers describe farts?  Or do they?  I decided to be on the lookout.

Thankfully, I soon found this stunning sentence in William Styron’s 1967-Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner from the POV of Nat Turner, the imprisoned black revolutionary describing being interviewed in prison by his white lawyer:

“I saw Gray stir uncomfortably, then raise one haunch up off a fart trying to slide it out gracefully, but it emerged in multiple soft reports like the popping of remote firecrackers.”

[Transcript from an interview exclusive to The Nervous Breakdown.]

Milton: Since Halloween was last night, and October 31st is his birthday, I am here talking with Satan, on Skype, from his holiday villa Pandaemonium deep in the depths of Hell. Satan, let me first wish you a Happy Birthday!

Satan: Gee-wiz, thanks, John. So kind of you to call. I am touched, really, I am. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you. And may I say you look marvelous for a 400-year-old? What is your secret? Who is your surgeon? You could pass for a teenager. It must be the poetry—Paradise Regained.