Spring, Winter, Zeus

It might have come to pass, at some point in the past couple of weeks, that I found myself sitting across two tables, in the span of five hours, from two much younger, very beautiful, exceedingly intelligent men. Both men, across from me, at both tables. Best friends. Autodidacts. Philosopher. Artist. Soldiers. Both Hispanic, both from rural NM, raised together. Thinkers. They asked me to be their mentor.

They might have inspired this song.

It might have come to pass, that at one point during the second table, a coffeeshop, the one on the left gave a half-grin, looked me in the eye and asked, “Have you ever been with two men at once?” It might have been that I almost choked on my tea.

“No. But I would not be opposed.”

Pretty, pretty, both. In different ways. The one on the left a natural runner, long and lean, with paint on his hands and arms, pain and play and purpose in his eyes, a mouth that moves with a mind that moves at the speed of light. The one on the right a rottweiler, solid, strong, sturdy, loyal to someone, not me, never to me, but to someone; to the one on the left. Artist calls rottweiler his husband. But they are straight.

“You are one of the few completely, truly free people I’ve ever met,” the artist tells me. He is that, too, for me. And I am done with labels and expectations. I am done with trying to find normal. I am not normal. I have never been. I am this, a passionate thing that makes things. Happiest alone, creating. But happy, too, in the company of other such ones. Ones like these.

They would never do the thing he asked, not with each other and me, maybe someone else and me. I swallow my tea. They are too close. They have shared a partner before, but never at the same time. They could share me. As mentor, as friend, as, maybe. Maybe that. Who knows?

Millennials.

And I, an old woman in my desert, with sand between my toes. I’d not felt hope for even the hope of rain. Not in a long time. But this hope, with 50 in February, is rational. Monsoon. A two-headed storm that comes, then goes.

And I will let it.

Lyrics:

I did not expect this
So long in my desert, I’d
Come to love the death kiss of sun
And sand, and sky
Then just like that, your clouds came
Crackling dark, with electricity
Throwing thunderbolts, you melted my chains
Zeus come to save, to save
Me
But I don’t really think that I
Am a woman who needs saving now
Other young men have tried, but time

Time is not on our side

Drown, let me drown
In your unexpected rain
Oh let me, please let me
Let me drown
I want to play
In a flood of sweet mistakes
Let me, please let me
Drown

I float here and feel this
So long without swimming, I
Had come to love the skin-torching fun
Of me, myself and why?
But just like that, these Gods came
Speaking dark, with such intensity
Tracing lightning scroll
It looked like my name
Eros come to save, to save
Me
But I don’t really think that I
Am a woman who needs saving now
Other young men have tried, but time

Time is not on our side

Drown, let me drown
In your unexpected rain
Oh let me, oh let me
Let me drown
I want to play
In a flood of sweetest pain
Let me, oh let me
Drown

Oh let me drown, oh let me drown, let me drown, let me drown
Let me drown, let me drown
Drown, drown
Cuz I don’t really think that I
Am worth saving
Drown, let me drown
In your unexpected
Drown let me drown
I want to play, yeah
I want to play

I want to play…

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Mixed Feelings on Peter Matthiesen’s Use of Eye Dialect in SHADOW COUNTRY

I came to Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award-winning novel SHADOW COUNTRY the way I stumble into most of the best things along the way – quite by accident. I was at a local thrift store, looking for pillows I might use for a dog bed. The book section caught my eye.

I had forgotten that thrift stores are excellent places to buy books. Celebrated tomes like SHADOW COUNTRY slouch against diet books written by now-dead celebrities. The thrift store book section reminds me we’re all headed to the same place, eventually.

And that place smells, at best, like mothballs.

There it was – all 888 pages of it. I’d never read it, or heard of it. I’d never heard of the writer. Google would later school me on how unacceptable this was. Matthiessen is one of those famous white guy writers other writers are supposed to know about and admire. At least, if you want the literary elites to respect you. Which I don’t, not anymore.

I long ago gave up earning respect from elites, because so many of them are idiots. They belittle Dean Koontz because he is commercially successful. They salivate over Junot Diaz because he fulfills a white-guilt fantasy of the nerd as noble savage. Besides, I learned long ago to keep a safe distance from final club parties I am not allowed to enter unless I’m invited to jump out of the cake.

I bought the book anyway. It cost me less than a dollar.

SHADOW COUNTRY is not a quick read. Written from a multitude of first-person perspectives, each crafted, meticulously, in a distinct voice, it is not an easy read, either. This is where my mixed feelings come in. I love reading. I love writing. Reading should not be hard – and by “hard” I don’t mean I can’t understand it; I mean that I have to step out of the narrative and pat the writer on the head too often. It’s hard because the writer is the way.

I was trained as a literary nonfiction writer, a journalist – first at Columbia J-School, where William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL was our bible, and after that under the tutelage of brilliant long-form features editors Lincoln Millstein and Mary Jane Wilkinson in the newsroom of the Boston Globe (and, to a lesser extent, under Oscar Garza at the Los Angeles Times.) Journalists, as writers, are the opposite of academics or MFA grads; we are tasked with taking complex ideas and reducing them, as one might make a plum and wine reduction over a high fast heat, into something easy on the tongue, something deceptively easy. Never use a big word when a small word will do, preached the Zinsser. Get out of the way. Let the story speak for itself.

Set in the Florida Everglades in the 1800s, SHADOW COUNTRY is written, almost entirely, using a device called “eye dialect,” meaning that words are misspelled, punctuation misused, to reflect the ostensibly authentic voices of the (usually uneducated and poor, though not stupid) characters in whose heads we find ourselves.

In the chapters told in a first-person voice, Matthiessen uses eye dialect not only in direct quotes, but continuously. His use of eye dialect is masterful, dizzying, meticulous and consistent. I admire it. A lot. He presents differing levels of ignorance, patterns of speech that are undeviating and wholly believable for each class of person he portrays. What an incredible feat of listening, of observing, of capturing cadence and tone and linking it, without saying so, to race, sex, class. This is brilliance.

What stops me from loving it, as others have, is the sense I get of the author, ever present, showing off. Matthiessen is everywhere, doing verbal somersaults just because he can. It is the same issue I have with overly-long and showy and narcissistic bebop solos. Music, at its best, is utilitarian, an escape, a place where the listener goes to connect to cosmic truths unnamable in any other way, a way for the listener to connect more deeply with themselves, not more deeply with the musician. So too, for the greatest of literature. Great writers do not need your validation. They get out of the way.

In Dickens or in Koontz, I lose myself and inhabit the characters completely, I forget the author altogether, as he serves only as the master of ceremonies who announces the performance then goes away. It should be noted, too, that Dickens also uses a great deal of eye dialect, but does so gently and genuinely, unobtrusively, with kindness.

Matthiessen, meanwhile, never goes away.

Never.

It is as though he is peering over the top of the book at you all the way through, needy, wanting you to admire how perfectly he has captured these voices – which only comes across, in the end, as judgmental, though I know the author’s intention was, fundamentally, to have compassion for his characters.

Adding to my unease is the fact that the third-person chapters sprinkled throughout, written in gorgeous descriptive prose, are all from the limited point of view of educated white men. These, Matthiessen allows to sound classically respectable. I get why he did it; he wanted to show that they were the only ones with access to the education and privilege that allowed them to “sound” this way. But was that really true? I don’t know.

I’m probably being a little bit unfair. Matthiessen was a Buddhist, a socialist, a humanist, an all-around compassionate and good human. But he was incubated in the ivy leagues and the CIA, born in 1927, and he was embraced by an elite New York literary establishment that has long celebrated rich white men who “capture” the experience of the proverbial Other, while overlooking (at best) and flat-out condemning those same Others when they don’t “sound” the way men like Matthiessen perceive them to. I can’t count how many times a white editor has accused my characters of not sounding “Latino enough,” because, to him, Latinos are Others, and Others cannot possibly be default humans.

I know that Matthiessen sought to portray these Others of his with great compassion; he shows their innate intelligence working its way through their self-consciously damaged prose, in spite of it all. For me, however, it still comes across as patronizing; I have lived all my life among these Others, and they never sound, amongst themselves, this graceless.

The beauty of living in a community with supposedly poor grammar is that no one is there to judge the grammar; they cannot, after all. Rather, they relate, one to the other, directly through their agreed-upon shared system of symbols; never realizing their grammar is poor, they hear, then, only the meaning of the ideas, thoughts and feelings being conveyed. It is only outsiders who perceive the flaw in their system, and this is exactly why an outsider will never adequately capture these voices as they sound to those who use them.

 

Freefalling

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u6This week has been rough. There’s really no way around it. A rough week, punctuating a rough year, two years, three. Seven. Ten. So many painful years, all piling up, and I look in the mirror and there she is, the older woman I somehow managed to become along the way, still standing, still breathing, still here, in spite of it all. Still alone. More alone than ever. Still intense. Far too intense for everyone. I wrote a book; no one bought it. I wrote a film; no one wants it. I met a man; he did not want me enough to commit. I walked away. From all of it. Walked. Away. Alone.

For the past ten years, I have been trying to reclaim a sort of fame I was able to acquire, briefly, in 2004. Back when I was able to sell my first book for half a million dollars and land on the New York Times bestseller list. It was intoxicating, to suddenly be recognized for this thing I have loved doing since I was a little girl – writing. Creating. Imaging. Making people laugh, feel, empower themselves. It felt good while it lasted. But it didn’t last. For a long while this has been painful. It is not painful now. Buddhism has made it possible for me to just observe and describe, accept and…just…be.

As a young person, I was geared, as so many are, towards reaching my goals. No one prepares you – well, almost no one – for a reality where, yes, you reach those goals, more so than you imagined, and it is fun and you are powerful, and then, because you have a mental illness you are not yet aware of (it being the dark side of the light side that is writing and creativity) you fuck things up, over and over, and slowly, excruciatingly, the dreams you reached are plucked from your life, like fingers pulled from your hands. You alienate everyone. Fight with everyone. Insult. Ruin. Destroy.

No one tells you what to do then.

We are aimed at our dreams. Advice abounds, for those yet to reach them. But what is there, for those who have reached them, but then destroyed themselves and everyone who ever loved them, and are now..just…no one. Nothing. Incapable. Poor. Laughable. Stuck. Broke.

I email my previous editors. They never write back. Same with former friends. And lovers. Everyone is gone now, except my parents and my son, the ones who don’t have a choice. And the dog and cat who are my prisoners. This is what is left.

I have tried. I’ve tried hard. No one denies there is talent here, in these fingerless hands, in this much-too-much heart. But talent doesn’t seem to matter once you’ve pissed everyone off, alienated the entire power structure for your industries. I did these things. Part of it was arrogance. A larger part was an undiagnosed mental illness, Borderline Personality Disorder, that manifested in anger, rage, emotional outbursts, instability. I did not know I had this disorder, a severe mental illness caused by biological issues in the brain coupled with childhood abuse, neglect and trauma, until a few years ago, and by then it was too late. The damage had been done. And here I am. Completely and utterly alone, unwanted and unable to even support myself.

I’m going to blog with full transparency now. I have nothing left to lose, no one left to impress. I need not hide the truth of just how deeply flawed I have been and just how irrevocably I’ve painted myself into a cold, dark, lonely corner. Perhaps this is the path. Perhaps the entire journey was leading me here, to this corner. Perhaps this corner is the place where enlightenment lives. Perhaps here, stripped of every success and identity I ever had, I will be able to find, as Pema Chodron says, transcendence and peace and love, everything I’ve ever wanted, in the tenderness of pain itself. Perhaps we must lose it all, in order to see that we never had it to begin with; perhaps we must fail and fail and fail, in order to realize we always had everything we needed, here, below this breastbone, in the beating of this heart. In the relentless rising again, each day, of the sun. And the setting. And the rising. Perhaps nothing is ever real, for any of us. Perhaps the only consistent thing upon which any of us can rely is change.

People still call me a bestselling author, and I laugh. I once was. It was brief, and now it’s gone. Very gone. I have written six novels in the past five years, and cannot sell a single one of them to any publisher. I’ve written five scripts – three feature films and two TV pilots. Four thousand pages typed out, in the past five years, and cannot sell one word. A time comes when you realize this is insanity. When you realize there is no point.

There are many reasons why no one wants my work anymore. I’ve written a “post-apocalyptic” young adult novel at a time when no publisher wants that sort of material, at a time when they all seek gritty realism or something else. I have written a literary novel about revolution, at a time when no publisher is buying literary novels. The last couple of books I sold tanked. I offended people. I scared people, by being open about mental illness. I don’t know. I’m Amanda Bynes, I’m bald Britney, I’m Lindsey Lohan yelling at street children. I’m that writer. That person. The one who spoke her mind and terrified the world. The talented writer no one can stand. I’m her.

Two weeks ago, the entire editorial board of a major NY publishing house told my agent they wanted to acquire my new young adult novel. My agent said it was a done deal. And then the acquisitions team, marketing folks, decided it was a no. Nope. They did not see the potential. The editor, when I spoke to her before all this, when she called to say she loved the book, had begun the conversation by saying “I bow down to your literary genius.” My agent had said of the same book, “you are better than everyone else out there right now.” But I could not sell this book. To anyone. I bled all over the keyboard for a year to get that book out. A feminist book, full of magic and orishas and a girl queen who must rise from the jungles of victorian era Cuba to find her rightful place as the daughter of Yemaya. Could. Not. Sell. This. And so it goes.

I guess.

I don’t know anymore. I can’t worry too much about it. I am poor, struggling. Unable, even, to find a day job. There is truly nothing left in me but story. In the past, before I sought treatment for my disorder, before I learned to manage my broken mind through mindfulness, before Buddhism, I might have been despondent, suicidal. John Kennedy Toole with that last rejection letter in his hand. There was that, too. My suicide, in 2015. I died. They brought me back. Everyone knows. I am a loose cannon. That one. The woman hanging on by one raw nerve, dangling from the ceiling, the red string of it all just ready to snap and drop her wet flopping to the hard cold tiles.

But now? Now I am at peace with letting it all go. I write this post to say I am completely and fully releasing any and all attachment I have had to my past identities. Journalist. Writer. Author. Bestseller. I am none of those things in this moment, and this moment is all I have. It is all any of us have. In this moment, I am a woman with a cat who sits on the mousepad and purrs at me, headbutts me as I type. That is all I am. A woman who hears the UPS truck rumbling up to the neighbor’s house, the barking of a distant dog. This is all there is. What a blessing, what freedom! What a beautiful moment this is, when everything has been removed, fallen apart, been rejected. What a raw, fertile, nascent thing, this moment, this life, the life we are all living, where everything, eventually, will be lost.

Who am I now? It doesn’t matter. It never did.

For ten long years, I have tried to open doors, movie doors, TV series doors, that remain solidly closed against me. Hollywood is high school, all over again. No. Worse. Middle school. Gossipy, cruel, cliques, popularity contest. And all the failed attempts, all the development deals that went nowhere, my name is associated with these things, with these failures, and somehow, the inability of certain executives to see my audience, and my inability to allow them to put my name on stereotypes, ends up as a visceral sense among those with power in that industry that Alisa Valdes is TROUBLE. Their inability to see my audience means that I, personally, am marred. I am trouble, for defending my black Latino characters when one producer tried to erase them all. Me. I’m the problem there. For being smart and insightful in rooms where I was expected only to be grateful. For questioning the status quo. For having the nerve, the dangling nerve, to tell other people when they were wrong. For asserting myself when I wasn’t. For being unattached to money. For throwing riches away in exchange for my integrity. It is easy to see that if I had been a white man this would have ended differently, I would have been said to have vision and leadership qualities. As a Latina, as a woman, it was something else. Trouble. I was, I am, trouble. Untouchable. A fucking head case.

Fine.

I cannot be upset about these things anymore. I cannot beat my fists bloody on these doors anymore. I cannot change this. I cannot change any of it. And Buddhism has taught me one very important lesson. Pain is inevitable, yes, but suffering? Suffering is optional. We suffer when we resist what is. And what is, right now, is me, with nothing, going nowhere, unable to be who I was anymore, unable to go where I thought I wanted to go.

So.

What now?

Now, I retire from professional writing. But not in the way you might think. Now, I find a day job, a simple job, of one sort or another, to pay my bills. And I give my writing away for free. I will never stop writing. It is impulse for me, essence of Alisa. Do I have an audience anymore? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. The gatekeepers don’t want my words anymore, but still the words come, like adrenaline, like carbon dioxide. What use are they to me, locked away on my computer? I will give them away. They were never mine, anyway. Story exists on its own, out there. It just comes through us, writers. It was never mine to keep. It is its own life. And I will set it free. I don’t want this basket of leaves anymore. I will scatter them to the wind.

What a journey. What a corner. What beautiful inky darkness. What freedom in this, the disappearance of everything. What a moment to forget what was or might have been, and to breathe, just breathe, and be, in the beautiful empty bounty of the absolute nothing that is left.

My Special Keto Mood-Lifting Breakfast

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Can we just start this post by saying menopause is a bitch?

Thank you.

Or, more precisely, menopause is making me a bitch. Haha! Not really. I’ve always been a bitch. 😉 But still. As I go through this major life change, I find that my moods are up and down with far less predictability than they used to be. In the past, as one of my ex-boyfriends used to say, “everyone becomes the worst person in the world to Alisa, every 28 days.” Now, it could be every 28 hours. Or minutes.

Or seconds.

Meow.

Heh.

Anyway, this is all a way-too-much-information way of saying I am super happy to have found a way to blunt the impact of my negative moods and mood swings, and it’s all about the food I put into my body! People, food really IS medicine. What we eat affects EVERYTHING, including mood and hormones.

For a couple of months now I have been (mostly) following a ketogenic diet plan, and I have seen many of my health and mood issues – poof! – disappear. I came up with this very simple yet satisfying keto breakfast as a way to fill me up and balance out my hormones. Soy is known to mimic estrogen in the body, so while it isn’t for everyone (man boobs, no thanks) soy has been a lifesaver for me lately.

A few of you asked me for a recipe for this after I posted it on Facebook and Istagram and Twitter, so here it is. Not much to it. Oh! And I should tell you, when I’m in ketosis I really only feel like eating once or twice a day. This meal, plus coffee with a couple teaspons of heavy cream (yep, we do heavy cream on keto, as it has fewer carbs than half and half and less of an impact on your insulin), keeps me satiated all day. The fiber in the greens helps my body digest the food slowly, and the fats and proteins work to keep my blood sugar consistent for many hours. Oh, and also, salmon is a known mood booster. If you have any kind of depression, try eating salmon and walnuts a couple of times a week. They really help me.

ALISA’S KETO MOOD LIFTING BREAKFAST

2 organic eggs

2 ounces of sustainably wild-caught canned salmon

2 tablespoons of organic salted butter

dash of garlic powder

1 cup of organic salad greens

a handful of small cherry tomatoes

1 teaspoon of sesame oil

1 teaspoon of rice vinegar

1 cup of frozen edamame pods

pink Himalayan sea salt to taste

Okay. So all I did was scramble the eggs, and cook them in the butter over medium heat, adding the salmon in at the end and dusting with garlic powder. You can omit the garlic, but I’m Cuban and we put garlic in almost everything. (Sometimes I think I might even buy garlic toothpaste, then I remember the whole point of toothpaste.) Just slide these onto a plate with the salad greens, top the greens with the tomatoes, oil and vinegar. Nuke the pods for a couple of minutes, dust with the pink salt (more minerals than most other salt) and voila!

By the way, if you’ve never eaten edamame, you only eat the raw soybeans inside. Don’t eat the pods. They’re fuzzy. Ew. Just put the pod in your mouth and use your teeth to squeeze the beans out, sucking the salt off the pod as you go. Yummers.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. Have a beautiful Sunday!

Besitos.

 

The Washington Post Compared Me to My Mentor Today! Yay!

Author Tom Wolfe poses in his New York apartment, Nov. 12, 1998. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper)
I have a handy little alert from Google that lets me know anytime someone has written anything about me that appears in a major publication. Today, it chimed for a book review in the Washington Post newspaper, for the wonderful young adult novel Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden. In the article, reviewer Valerie Strauss, a reporter for the Post, writes the following:
 
My own favorite novels have always been by authors like Zadie Smith, Tom Wolfe and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. These writers capture their worlds using multiple points of view, a satirical eye, and a believable cast of colliding characters.
 
I’m heartened to be compared to Smith and Wolfe, who are also two of my own personal favorites. If you haven’t read their work, you must – especially if you enjoy mine. We are three peas in a snarky lil pod.
 

Memories of Tom

Reading the Post review brought back the moment I got the call from Tom Wolfe himself, about ten years ago, telling me he had chosen me as Artist in Residence at his alma mater, Washington & Lee University. I was a new novelist at the time, and almost could not believe my ears. I’d been a fan of his work for decades. He told me that of all the new young (I was, then – ha!) writers he’d read, I was the one who most reminded him of himself. He said he enjoyed my social commentary and humor, my wordplay. It was truly a dream come true.
 
I spent an unforgettable week at Washington & Lee with Tom, as he introduced me around to students, faculty and alumni. I gave a talk one evening, beneath an enormous portrait of Robert E. Lee, which was surreal of several levels. It was such a Tom Wolfe thing to do, putting a young, outspoken Latina author there, on that stage, to address a group of aging alumni, many of whom still longed for the days of the confederacy. He knew the nation was changing, and he embraced those changes with delight. He was a great ally, mentor, supporter and friend to me, and enough of a free-thinker to recognize my raw American talent in a way many at that time could or would not.
 
How lovely it was today to get this Google alert on my phone, and to see that another reader out there saw a similarity between me and Tom.
 
Tom Wolfe passed away in May of this year, and I miss him a lot. I do wonder what he’d make of all the crazy things doing the boogie-down at this, the apparent end of the world.