Thursday, September 30, 2010

Making Love to an Ice Pack

Here's a lesson I have now learned that I am sharing with you: Before you are scheduled to have surgery at a place, check that place out. Meet the doctor, if possible. And make sure you're not going to be outnumbered by people in Ed Hardy shirts.

I arrived at my oral surgeon's office yesterday at 12:20 for an appointment at 12:30. After two hours of waiting in a crowd that would have been equally comfortable at an OTB parlor, I was finally taken to the back and put in one of a room's two dentist's chairs. The other was occupied.

The guy in the other chair and I waited for another half an hour or so as moans came through the walls from other rooms and hygienists walked in and out changing their gloves. Hip hop blasted from a Panasonic boom box on the floor, circa 1991, so retro that it didn't even have a CD player, only a tape deck and a radio.

At some point I started to shake -- a normal enough response to perpetual anticipation, especially when you're waiting to get all four wisdom teeth out to the soothing sounds of Jay-Z. Hygienists shot me amused looks and talked to each other in Spanish. I tried to calm myself down by silently reciting the Kipling poem "If," which my dad had me memorize ages ago:
If you can keep your head / when all about you are losing theirs / And blaming it on you / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / Yet make allowance for their doubting too / If you can wait and not be tired by waiting --
Then the surgeon and a fleet of hygienists came in to start working on my roommate. They wasted no time: within five minutes, he was gasping and twitching; within ten, he had arched his entire back off the table like Cary Elwes in the Princess Bride when his life is being sucked from him by the Machine.

I'm not a brave person. There's a reason I carry small, dissolving tablets of Klonopin around with me in my change purse. I don't like pain, I hide from danger, and I am not even that crazy about excitement. I am CERTAINLY not crazy about watching dental patients reduced to begging for their lives.

Roommate #1 was restored to a sitting position, stuffed with cotton, and released. Then the hygienists ushered in Roommate #2.
If you can dream and not make dreams your master / If you can think and not make thoughts your aim ...
You've got to be joking, I thought to myself. But the same team went to work, and again I had to watch. There wasn't so much as a curtain dividing my side of the room from theirs.

The surgeon approached me and I asked to be knocked out. Retroactively, if possible. Wake me up when it's over.

Sorry, said the surgeon. We don't do that here. We don't have the equipment to monitor if your heart stops.

I don't care if my heart stops, I said, glancing across the room.

He laughed, and then shot me in the mouth from all angles.
If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same. ...
I was left to grow increasingly numb as they finished with Roommate #2. By the time Roommate #3 had come and gone, I was ready to give up. If this were war, I would have been ready to tell them anything -- name, rank, serial number, state secrets, battle plans, you name it. I didn't sign up to be a soldier. I work in a Jewish non-profit, for God's sake!

But they didn't want secrets. They wanted my teeth.

They switched me from my chair -- where I'd been sitting, by that point, for an hour and a half, feeling much like I had when a film prof put on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class -- to the other chair. The one that had been wiped down three times already.

New York ... trilled the voice from the boom box. These streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you ...

Ready? asked the surgeon.

I whimpered, and he went to work.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / to serve their turn long after they're gone / and so hold on til there is nothing in you / except the will that says to them "Hold on." / If you can fill the unforgiving minute / with 60 seconds worth of distance run ...
Thankfully, compared to the agonies of waiting and watching, the pain of the procedure itself was not too bad. I mean, it didn't feel GOOD -- it felt like someone was tearing my teeth from their sockets, which is more or less what was happening. But the surgeon was done in ten minutes. I was stuffed with cotton and returned to a sitting position, given two prescriptions and a pack full of sterile pads, and proclaimed a champ.
Yours is the earth / and everything that's in it. / And, what is more, you'll be a man, my son.
In my case, a man who eats lots of applesauce and watches episode after episode of Buffy. But Rudyard helped me through it, for which I am grateful. More, I am grateful to Charrow, who spent her whole afternoon in the dentist's office and then helped get me home, ignoring all emissions of bloody drool. That is true friendship.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On 'Franzenfreude,' gender, and genre

ETA: This has been cross-posted on

Having finally released three different but related books back into the wild of the Brooklyn Public Library system -- Freedom, Catching Fire, and The Passage -- I feel the time is right to weigh in on the literary meme of the moment, Franzenfreude, a term that, loosely defined, indicates that Jonathan Franzen represents all that is wrong with the contemporary high-brow book world.

Is that stupid? Quite! Except there's a caveat. The phenomenon referred to by "Franzenfreude," that the high-brow book world restricts its highest praise and most fawning attention for the works of men, is absolutely true. It just happens that Jonathan Franzen is a terrible poster boy for that problem.

Franzen writes gorgeous women. Fleshed-out, interesting, three-dimensional, vivid women, women with brains. He writes for them, too, and perhaps most importantly of all, he READS THEM. When, at a Brooklyn Book Festival panel, someone asked him what he was reading, he replied, "Edith Wharton." To the follow-up question of what should we, his audience, be reading, he listed several books, all by female authors, including the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, of which, up to that point, I hadn't even heard. (Then I read it. It was good!)

A friend and I cornered him after the panel to ask whether he'd realized he'd been promoting work by ladies. He blinked for a moment, then laughed and said it honestly hadn't occurred to him.

Thus: "Franzenfreude" is the wrong label for this particular can of worms. (As a language nerd points out, it's also stupid for other reasons.)

That said, let's address the can of worms itself. Yes! Fiction by women is customarily and routinely dismissed by the intelligentsia in favor of fiction by men. Because why should fiction be any different than anything else? The most exalted spaces in any pantheon are reserved for men. So it has been, so it will be. This is because women can have babies, whereas men can only have egos, and also testicles, or something.

However! The less important the pantheon, the more likely it is that you can find a woman at the top of it.

The high-brow book world also dismisses almost all genre fiction. Genre fiction is where women reign supreme or, at the very least, hold their own: romance, mystery, young adult, sci fi, fantasy. Having just ingested the Hunger Games trilogy, a sci-fi YA extravaganza that took not just me but America by storm, I feel particularly drawn to this point right now.

Even in most genre fiction, there remains an idea that boys won't read books about girls. Hence the sad-but-true fact that J.K. Rowling couldn't publish under the name "Joanne" for fear of frightening off huge numbers of young male readers. But this to me feels wrong. Step on the NYC subway right now and look around -- I guarantee you that someone on that car is reading, not Freedom, but the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. About, as you've perhaps heard, Lisbeth Salander, one of the most kick-ass female characters in any book of any genre. The Golden Compass books didn't suffer for focusing on Lyra, another quite impressive young woman. Even Dan Brown's idiot bestseller the Da Vinci Code was a FEMINIST conspiracy theory.

Best of all, perhaps, is Suzanne Collins, whose hugely popular Hunger Games books center around Katniss, who doesn't want to get married and doesn't understand why having leg hair is bad. Written by a lady! Starring a lady! Yet everyone's reading them. Hopefully the next J.K. Rowling can be inspired by this and publish under her full name.

This doesn't, of course, solve the problem of the white male taste-makers -- and the sufficient numbers of female taste-makers who concur -- giving all the plaudits that matter to white male authors. As Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker author I admire, put it just this year in his tribute to Salinger: "In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: 'Huckleberry Finn,' 'The Great Gatsby,' and 'The Catcher in the Rye.'"

What Gopnik meant to say, no doubt, was, "Here are three books I really dig!" He's hardly the first intellectual to fall into the tar pit of generalizing from his own experiences. But it's a disturbingly prevalent trend among white male taste-makers: assuming that what they relate to and find meaning in, the rest of us must as well, AND that those books must be "the best."

It's bullshit, and I'm glad people are finally beginning to realize that. But leave Jonathan Franzen out of it, would you? He's one of the good ones.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Recap of recaps, Mad Men edition

You like Internet black holes, right? Who doesn't? And I take it for granted that you, educated, affluent, and intelligent reader, also like Mad Men, the best television show ever that is on basic cable right now.

Bearing all of that in mind, here is a round-up of every Mad Men recap I read, or have read, or is worth reading. You can thank me in the comments.
You're welcome! Let me know if I missed a good one.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kiss me, I voted!

Voting in the primaries is so exciting. You know your vote is going to count, since almost no one turns out. You know it matters, since local politicians, unlike state or national ones, often manage to get things done.

So, bright and early this morning, I popped into my polling place, got my fancy new optical scan ballot, and went to a booth to fill it out. Progressives down the line, check, check, check. That much was easy. Then I got to a long list of names I'd never heard of all running for Judicial Convention Delegate. The instructions said, "Pick any eleven."

My pen poised in the air, I decided to do what I always do when I'm faced with a choice of strangers: Start with ladies and Jews and then, when I run out of those, pick the best names. (This is how I landed with my first doctor in New York, the unforgettable Democleia Gottesman.)

However, this morning though I found myself gripped by a crisis of confidence. What if "Benjamin Abelman" couldn't live up to the name? What if "Mercedes Neira" rode more like a Kia? As much as I loved the idea of "John Longo" marrying "Karen Johnson" for the sake of their future hyphenated children, how could I base my vote on a giggle?

In the end I didn't vote for anyone. A step forward for representational democracy? Who knows.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Other Ester lives!

Dude, there are plenty of reasons life Does Not Meet Expectations right now, and I don't care about any of them. My essay, "The Other Ester," is above the fold on The Morning News, a website I've been reading since college.

What a perfect way to usher in New Year #5771.