ESSAYS

Have pantyhose, will type:  a bit of memoir about the tasks, the trash, the clothes, the hose, the bosses and makeovers and endemic sexism of starting work life in the 1980s ... promising NASTY SECRETS.

"The Robo-Caller's Lonesome Wife; or, Women Who Don't Love Shoes that Much" is a take on a female-unfriendly telemarketing campaign for the Richmond, VA, Police Department that might have been scripted with Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City in mind. Along the way, I reflect on the legacy of SATC, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary while I wrote the piece.

I’d written a list of recent achievements; I considered breaking up with a perfectly nice guy an accomplishment to register, along with story publication, heartbreak (not by a guy but by the realization the life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans).

"Control + Alt + Del"

 

When a couple of concussions made me lose my mind, pretty literally, Hayden's Ferry Review invited me to write an essay about the experience.  I also lost almost all my decades' worth of writings, as I'd been in such despair at finding myself without language that I started to destroy everything ... and here's what happened.

 

 

Update for 2016:  I'm glad concussions and their long-term effects are getting so much attention from the medical community and the media--though most of that attention is focused on athletes.  The consequences are devastating for anyone, of course.  

 

Maybe I'll be a spokesperson for those of us who live and die by the printed word: PROTECT YOUR HEAD.    At least, as much as you can.

 

There was no way I could have predicted what happened to me, but I still live with the consequences.  Here's a sort of laundry-list, in the spirit of raising awareness: Severe chronic migraines have slowed my life immeasurably, and then comes depression.  There's no denying that pain sucks, and I've tried every medical remedy my neurologist can think of, plus a bushel of alternative therapies.   There are days I can't read or write or drive. I'm still terrifically sensitive to certain smells and have some nasty hyperacusis, meaning I hear everything too keenly.  I wear ear plugs and sunglasses to work and still know I'll end up with a migraine, possibly with nasty ocular hallucinations, if the least thing goes wrong. I might faint at any loud noise or sudden change in environment. Worst,  I'll never regain all the language I lost--I'm still dyslexic on bad days.  These things aren't going to change.  

 

Perhaps mercifully, 2012 is mostly a great blank in which I remember only a few bad things.  But those things are very bad.

All right, maybe that was an awfully long list.  But somebody has to tell you what it's really like--life is not a movie where you get knocked unconscious and then hop up and run off to kick the bad guy's butt (and the neighbor whose dog attacked me was a very bad guy, as criminal registries and an internet search proved).  

 

Be careful out there.

 

 

 

I erased myself. I was gone and forgotten, perhaps for the good, though of course I burst out weeping when I realized what I’d done.

I’ll probably always wish to resurrect them so I can fiddle some more, or so I can just have them, but I’m pretty sure I never will.

Is it ironic or merely coincidental that I don't seem to have a copy of this essay on my computer and had to download it from the internet??

"On Being Archived: Control + Alt + Delete"

I wanted to erase myself. Control + Alt + Delete.

Easy enough to do: Twenty years’ worth of handwritten journals, most of them full of angsty self-recrimination, tossed in the recycling bin. And my fiction: I threw out bad manuscripts and not-so-bad ones. It’s even easier with the computer, most of which I don’t bother to back up. Eight years of e-journaling gone with a satisfying crackle in the onscreen trash bin. And short stories and novels-in-progress, none of which were backed up in current condition, they went too. Manuscripts for my two published novels and the electronic edits and galleys; the Renaissance novel now in circulation, which took me seven years to write; the ghost-story novel I’m flogging now, mostly as a way to give myself hope that life is more than migraines while I recover from a couple of brain injuries.

In December 2011, I slipped in the bathroom, fell about four inches, and wiped my brain clean of the abilities to read, write, drive, walk, do math, and remember short-term. They grew painfully back as I taught my classes, until in April, a neighbor’s neglected dog, the one he allowed to roam the streets snarling and leashless, knocked me to the ground and kicked my brain back to January again. I don’t know much about what’s happened recently. But I had all these boxes and files of what I might grandly call archives.

The aphasia, dyslexia, and memory loss from the two concussions made me realize in a primal and hyperbolic way what it means not to be able to express yourself, to slur and stammer like a drunk, to forget what you were saying even in the middle of sentence, the humiliation of asking a friend or a supervisor or a student to repeat what you’d been saying because suddenly your mind misfired … And yes, it’s always a challenge to express exactly what you mean, if not to mean what you express. Every writer knows that. With the trouble I now have getting a recognizable word out, you’d think I were a chimpanzee chained to a keyboard and told to do her best to produce Twelfth Night.

I remember the previous decades much better. And now, a flashback to events and feelings recorded in my lost archive:

When I was in junior high and high school, I had people call me by an alternative pronunciation of my first name (as "Susan" rather than "Suzanne"). I thought it sounded ugly, but I was glad I could keep my “real” self hidden, the real things I did and tried and wanted; an emotional archive as yet untapped. My desires are obvious by now: I wanted to be a writer (which no one could know about), I wanted cleavage, I wanted to be out of that dreadful little town and away from the bullies. I admit it freely: I was the least popular kid in my high school, which is why I don’t attend the reunions to which I get inexplicably invited. Why relive those memories?

College was great. I got the book learnin’. I got the cleavage. I swam in the Pacific at 6 a.m. I found out that people who didn’t know me from the past were approaching me to talk and be friendly and maybe even date me, not to torment me with some halfwitted insult to make their stoner friends laugh. I used my true name.

But I was still too shy to let anyone know about the writing. Then and after, when my stories were published, I rarely told my friends. I still don’t. I assembled a little archive—very little now—just for myself.

HFR was one of the first places that took one of my stories, “Where You Came From”—about a girl’s relationship with her Barbies, whom she considers her true family. I was dazzled by the staff’s kindness and by the cover, a gorgeous photo of a skull shrine on Day of the Dead. I was in there with Gloria Naylor! But still, I didn’t share the exciting news, because the story was so much about where I came from. It belonged to my memory.

 

About twenty years later, HFR accepted another story, “Sleeps Well With Others,” a catalogue of failed relationships and strange things men have expected of me or my girlfriends. I was thrilled again. I was even more thrilled when Beth Staples suggested I contribute something to the Archive-themed issue … It meant I had arrived! I actually had a use for my archives (and they still existed, in abundance)! I sent in a bunch of handwritten manuscripts, marked-up printouts, and a few journal pages that, in my then-mood, were sort of funny, from the time “Where You Came From,” came from.

Back in the 1980s I’d written a list of recent achievements; I considered breaking up with a perfectly nice guy an accomplishment to register, along with story publication, heartbreak (not by a guy but by the realization the life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans (thanks, Lennon)). I also, less merrily, accused myself of being a no-account hack, an idiot, a person who wanted too much from my writing and who would never be Great.

Of course that was what the editors chose to feature, along with the flashes of inspired note taking and draft writing by authors of far more consequence. I was fine with the selection—actually, I don’t remember seeing the galleys; that was during the time my brain retained nothing.

I forgot about it. Note: Flashback ends abruptly. Imagine a barking brown dog has jumped you on your way back from the trashcan.

In spring 2012, after what felt like several bullying experiences in a row (work, dog, Life), I wanted to throw in the towel and everything that went with it—hence Control + Alt + Delete. Everything I’d written since I started a novel in a notebook at age thirteen should be gone, it deserved to be gone, I deserved for it to be gone—no one should ever see into that secret part of me anymore. I could do nothing about what was already published, but I accepted that printed work belonged to others now.

I erased myself. I was gone and forgotten, perhaps for the good, though of course I burst out weeping when I realized what I’d done. (Then again, frequent weeping is a classic symptom of a concussion.)

And then, mere days later, here came my new copy of HFR, the one with the beautiful ghost on its slick dark cover. I remembered I was in it. I read my entry. I recognized the person I was twenty years ago and saw she’s the same one I am now—with exactly the same handwriting, exactly the same worries and fears and wishes and practiced self-loathing. It was what Freud would call unheimlich, uncanny, the sense that the familiar has been defamiliarized. I knew myself, and yet with the wobbly brain, I didn’t.

And so I began bullying myself for doing it, angry that I’d shared something that might give someone matériel with which to embarrass me (but that I hope makes other writers feel they’re not alone). It was also uncanny, but appropriate, I thought, that this should be what survived of my attempt to wipe out the long-term memories along with the shorts. I bullied myself some more, starting a new journal and then crackling it into the computer’s trash.

Flash forward, without memory or dog:

Weeks later, some things reappeared. My boyfriend confessed he’d pulled most of the journals out of the recycling bin. I remembered I’d emailed the Renaissance novel to my agent, and I could get the attachment out of Sent Mail. The current novel, the ghost story, was in my bf’s inbox. (Breaking up with him would not be considered a great accomplishment.)

Still, all of my stories from about twenty-five years, and all of their drafts, are gone forever, including two that I rather liked, plus one that I worked on all last fall and realized was the opening of another novel.

I know that I’ll always remember lines from them, and I’ll probably always wish to resurrect them so I can fiddle some more, or so I can just have them, but I’m pretty sure I never will. Because as I said earlier, I am the same person and also not the same one who wrote those manuscripts. They have no place in my new-name archive, the one that began when two simple accidents wiped away the life I’ve lived recently.

 

In fact, I have no place in my remaining archive. I shouldn’t go poking around in there; if I really am going to do something wonderful, I have to begin completely blank. Onward into the great unknown…

Should I begin with a list of recent accomplishments? I can’t remember.*

 

-------------------------------

*(I don’t know where the phrase “Control + Alt + Delete” comes from. My computer doesn’t even have an Alt button, and I tried myriad combinations of terminal-sounding keys to see if they’d erase anything. The command is useless. But clearly it means something to me deep down, so I’m keeping it; maybe it’s my new beginning.)


 

 

 

"Making Friends with Midge": an essay on female friendship made manifest through Barbie

Featured in BROAD STREET:  An essay about female friendship, Barbie, and her bff Midge--in the fall 2013 issue of Broad Street magazine.  Shout-outs to my bff from high school, Leslie Hayes!  This essay received a special mention in the 2014 Pushcart Anthology.

     Portrait of my own personal vintage Barbie and Midge by Tyler Darden.

“Will you be my best friend?” is tantamount to a proposal of marriage, and on every playground, at every recess, the question gets asked at least once.

 Excerpt

 

    “Who’s your best friend?”  Every little girl has been asked that question a dozen times.  Mainstream American culture exerts tremendous pressure to pair off, not just heterosexually, but also with a same-sex friend who will be a long-term better half.  Sharing secrets, sharing clothes, practicing kisses—harmless girl fun.  It’s one of our childhood fantasies, even if a real girl’s best friend changes from one day to the next.  “Will you be my best friend?” is tantamount to a proposal of marriage, and on every playground, at every recess, the question gets asked at least once.

    Girls need female admirers.  It’s a kind of romance separate from what most women have with men:  someone who is very much like us recognizes the best in us.  Only another girl (and I am writing primarily of heteronormative culture here) can truly understand and help us express our worth.  Even into adulthood, women feel a need for a single person with whom to share every little experience and thought of the day.  That sharing typically comes with an exchange of compliments, sympathy, and an underlying current of support and admiration, but danger always comes with offering up too much of the self.

            My best male chum tells me that men don’t have best friends the way women do. Famous male pals such as Achilles and Patrokles, Roland and Olivier, seem mostly to have been comrades-in-arms, sometimes homoerotic, not quite symbiotic.     

    I know one man who used to field those playground “Who’s your best friend?” queries by naming whichever kid his eye fell on first, even the drippy little nerd in the sweater vest. 

    A few years ago, at a destination wedding, I saw a little girl lounging in a hammock.  She watched out of a pair of ethereal green eyes as some other children played in the dirt.  When I saw her slender brown fingers fidgeting against each other, I recognized that her posture was misleading; she was tense, absorbed, and wary about what the other kids were doing.

    Her mother was also watching.  I sidled over and complimented her on her child—one of two ways women have of initiating social contact, the other being a comment on some article of clothing or jewelry.

    The mother volunteered, with a degree of candor I hadn’t expected, “She has Asperger’s.  She’s high-functioning, but she’s in third grade and she’s just starting to realize what Asperger’s means … She asked me the other day what a best friend is, and when I explained, she said she would probably never have one.”

    So that was why the girl just lay there watching other children interact.  She was absorbing the ways in which she wasn’t like them.  As a lonely kid myself, I felt for her, an overwhelming sadness.

    “She’s beautiful,” I said weakly.  It was true; this little girl who was starting to realize that she was different in a way our culture did not celebrate, a way that in fact shut her off from that culture—she was like a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a sprite, too otherworldly to belong to the injection-vinyl Mattel family.

    The mother just smiled and thanked me, acknowledging the truth inside that beauty with a sadness more profound than I could imagine.

 

 

Conception

    The original Barbie, released in 1959, was based on a willfully sexy German doll for adults:  a ponytailed strumpet called Lilli, from a cartoon series that ran in the newspaper Das Bild.  Before Mattel executive Ruth Handler brought a Bild-Lilli back to the U.S. from vacation, little girls who wanted to continue doll play with fashionable clothing had been forced to graduate from vinyl babies to paper ladies.[4]  Handler’s idea was that a three-dimensional doll would allow for much more fun, especially with learning to dress a “real” body rather than a cardboard one.  Handler pulled a Lilli out of her own travel bag and told Mattel’s other executives they were going make something just like her.

    Nota bene:  I do not intend to pass judgment on Barbie’s shape or face or what she’s done to the girls of the world.  Her 11.5 inches of injection vinyl have done me nothing but good, as far as I can tell.... 

She asked me the other day what a best friend is, and when I explained, she said she would probably never have one.

Susann

Cokal

SINCE 1372
MIRABILIS  USA
BREATH AND BONES
MIRABILIS ABROAD
THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS
MERMAID MOON,
March 2020
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