Friday, November 12, 2010

Things They Don't Write How-To Books For

I hope none of you are ever caught smack in the middle of a horrific tragedy that makes newspaper headlines. And if you are, then chances are it will only happen once.

I've had two happen in my life - roughly only a year apart (the second of the two was over a year ago now). I feel a bit like I have the lay of the land. I could write a book, but that's so time consuming. Instead I'm going to chronicle some of my thoughts here. You know, where it's messy and unorganized and will never get snag me an advance from a publisher. How's that for brains?

Actually, that's the first thing I learned:

1) Don't expect your brain to be fully present. Be prepared when it goes on hiatus for a bit. Don't feel dumb when you can't form complex sentences, but also - don't operate heavy machinery. Or try to balance your checkbook alone...

In fact, when you have survived a horrific tragedy, and everyone asks how they can help, here is the best advice I have for you: hand your checkbook or your debit card to your nearest, dearest and most trustworthy friend or relative. Give them your bills. Tell them to pay what is necessary and give you the remaining cash in increments. I'm not even kidding. You should not be trusted with money or expected to do math after a tragedy and NO ONE thinks about that. I still have no idea what I did with my May 2009 paycheck. I think I bought some food. And maybe clothing to wear to memorials. And... um... yeah. I got nothing. I have NO IDEA what I spent money on. I just didn't care. At all. I'm still trying to catch up on debts that were ignored and went unpaid during the first several months.

2) Buy a mild sedative (unless you are suffering from dangerous levels of depression). Take it at 9pm every night. I don't care how busy you are. You need rest and if you don't do this you are going to end up like me - awake at 1am on a weeknight making lists because you have forgotten how to sleep. It ain't pretty. I mean it. It's going to take years for the bags under my eyes to go away. Small birds could nest in the hollows beneath my eyes. The sleep deprivation does NOT help you regain brainpower. Take a pill. Get some sleep. Later, when you are ready to heal, you will stop taking them and start dreaming again and blah blah blah healing blah.

3) Even the nicest reporter is not your friend. Everything is on the record. I'm going to write a lengthy post about this at some point, but just remember - even a genuinely well-intentioned reporter (and they DO exist) may misquote you. If you speak to the media, do the following (even though you will sound like an idiot in person when you do this):

Think very carefully about exactly what you want to say.

Say very little.

Pause as long as you need to to come up with the shortest and least complex sentence possible.

Speak at a reasonably slow pace and speak clearly - they cannot quote what they cannot understand or, in some cases, write down (but they can more easily misquote it).

End the conversation as soon as you have said what it is most important to say, no matter what. Even if it means being rude and saying, "Thank you for continuing to respect our privacy" and then just walking off.

You can stop ANY time you feel like it.

An interview isn't a conversation. It feels like it, but do NOT forget that you aren't just talking to someone - you're giving them material. And MOST important - Accept that they WILL get some of it wrong anyway. Even if they mean well. Even if they WRITE it accurately, their editor may cut out half a paragraph that changes EVERYTHING. Be prepared for that.

4) If you choose NOT to talk to the media, you are choosing not to have your voice heard. That's okay. They're going to get it wrong to some degree no matter what. But you need to accept that if you choose not to speak to the press, then you are choosing to keep your point of view to yourself. So, when your perspective and feelings are not represented (or accurately represented) in the media coverage, you need to be ready for that and know that you made that choice. Sometimes NOT talking to the media is as bad as talking to them. You aren't betraying a dead friend if you speak to a reporter. If you knew them better than anyone else, you're probably the person who wants to talk to the press the LEAST. You may, however, also be the best person to describe what your lost loved one was actually like. You may sit at home pissed off while people who did NOT know your friend that well are talking to the press. Neither choice is right. Neither choice is going to make things okay. Even the best news story is not very comforting. But recognize that whether or not you speak to the media - you are making a choice and you need to be ready for what that choice means.

5) There is no wrong reaction. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to figure what you need. What you actually want. If someone you love has died in the tragedy in question, then nothing is going to make that feel better. Except maybe time. Everyone has unique needs and one of the hardest things is seeing what you have to or need to do and accepting that. Conversely, if a lot of other people in your life who are effected by the tragedy - realize that they may have needs and reactions that you do not understand. Their reactions are valid, too. Even if they're weird or irritating. If they bother you, put some distance there, but don't punish other people who are also suffering for their reactions. Vent to a third party but it is important to get through difficult times without increasing someone else's suffering. This is the case with ALL tragedy, but it is magnified when there is media scrutiny. You start to feel like your emotions are supposed to fit some set course - because it's so public and others are SO aware of what is going on. It increases the pressure to "act normal" in a situation where there IS NO NORMAL. So just know that that is okay. You don't have to experience or cope with this in any particular way. Do what you need to do.

Honestly, if a large group of people are experiencing the same loss - the part about trying not to increase other people's suffering at all is dang near impossible. But try. When people are reacting to trauma they all have different needs. Be there for the people you love, but also locate some friends or family who are NOT sharing your loss. I don't care if you have to call someone you haven't talked to in ten years. I guess that would be #6...

6) Have at LEAST one person (preferably more) in your life who has not experienced the same trauma. Sounds easy, right? Well - depends on the scope of the trauma. But seriously - FIND someone. Like actually designate them. Let them KNOW. You are going to need to have someone around or someone you can call who has not ALSO just experienced this devastating loss. It took me forever to figure that out. You can't just lean on people who are also in the middle of healing and you need people you can trust - because acquaintances are not the best people to depend on when someone you love is in the news.

People can be surprisingly odd and unintentionally callous when, instead of just dealing with, "Oh your friend died, that's terrible." they are dealing with, "Your friend died and it's on the national news and the camera crews were right down the street from where I work and..." Yeah. Choose carefully, but find a non-trauma buddy. Someone who isn't excited about the fact that the newspaper reporter wants to interview you. If you stick with fellow survivors, then not everyone's needs will get met and some damage can be done. When massive, bizarre, life altering tragedy strikes - try to find at least one person to stand by you who isn't a fellow "victim." Even if that person is your awesome new therapist (**I HIGHLY recommend finding a good therapist!).

7) When you can, define your situation for the people outside your trauma. Basically, provide "Clif notes" to them. This is actually a good rule when dealing with a lot of types of tragedy - not just news-story horrific level stuff. But... remember that not everyone who matters to you is going to "get" it. And their ability to understand the level of impact the trauma has had on you does NOT mean they are a bad person or that they do not love you. Maybe they aren't imaginative. Maybe they've never experienced any sort of trauma. Maybe they are just human and have bad crap happening to them, too - smaller stuff than in your world, maybe - but still damn big in their world.

I learned to tell people in my life things along the lines of, "I am not okay. I may look okay and act okay sometimes, but I'm not really okay yet. I may not be okay for a long time. This _________ is what happened to me - in practical terms, that is what I experienced. That's a lot to process. I need you to try to remember that I'm always thinking about that, too. Don't give me a free pass to be a jerk or anything. But just be aware that that is part of what is happening inside me. All the time. So if I forget things or I don't reach out a lot - It's not that I don't care. It's that I'm still healing and I have a lot to work through."

It kind of feels like having to explain to the people you love that you were fully functional, but now part of your brain is gone. And you're sorry. And you don't actually know if it's going to come back.

But the things is, they DON'T KNOW unless you tell them. You may be really lucky and be surrounded by people who are incredibly empathetic and just pick up what's going on with you easy as can be. But this is the real world, so I'm thinking that's unlikely. If you talk to the people you love, even in the most rudimentary way, about where you are at and what you are still working through - that gives them some perspective and reminds them that you DO still love and need them. You just don't have complete access to your brain right now.

8. If you can, find ways to laugh. At least try. Again, good advice in all traumatic situations, but more so if it's something SO outside of normal experience (violent act, natural disaster, freak accident) that you have to process both the loss AND a horrific foreign experience. If someone has died, find someone else who knew them who will talk with you about the funny, stupid or weird things about your lost loved one - not just the simple, nice stuff. ESCAPE by watching a funny movie. DO something completely silly. One night shortly after the shooting, a bunch of my friends came over to my house and one of the guys - a big, butch guy's guy in the group - shows up with a hair highlighting kit. He let us highlight his hair. He was walking around with this silly cap on and strands of hair sticking out everywhere and, while my heart was so heavy, it made me see that there would be good again and there would be laughter again. It reminded me that the friend I had lost would want me to be able to smile - and would be laughing himself if he saw this big tough guy with a women's hair processing kit being used on his head (this man is one of my personal heroes).

Finding ANY joy and ANY normalcy kept me from losing my mind. When the world feels like it makes NO sense, the best thing you can do for yourself is find anything at all to laugh about. Or help someone else heal by giving them something to laugh about.


These are the basics as I see them right now. I'm sure I will think of other things. Hindsight is 20/20. I think it was oddly helpful to me and the friends I went through the second tragedy with that I had had some previous experience with trauma in a public arena. I was better prepared for the media. I was more acclimated to the whole idea that terrible things actually happen to real people. On the whole, the big trick is to allow yourself to slow down. Take things one at a time. Don't rush any decisions that you don't have to. I know you don't have much choice about funeral arrangements. When you are involved in the memorial, those things have to be done. So you do them. But everything else can wait. And that's okay.

And last but not least - I hope no one I know ever needs any of this advice. If nothing else, though - rules 3 and 4 are really good to keep in mind during all media interaction.

Just in case, btw - to reiterate - I realize many of you put two and two together and will know which tragedies I am speaking of - which is fine. I just don't want this post or my blog linked to or mentioned in conjunction with anything that identifies my friends or the incidents in question. I hope my own awful experiences can be helpful to others, so I certainly want the advice or ideas passed on, but I don't want media-circus-gawker traffic. I appreciate your consideration.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Hand Dancing

I am almost done with my next post (trying to blog on the regular these days!) but for today I just want to share this:


Jeremy Irons

Totally at random, I found this wonderful entry at "The Selvedge Yard" about the style of Jeremy Irons.

While I realize that he was styled for practically every shot used in this entry on him as a style icon, and I tend to be more fascinated with the style of people like - for example - Marlene Dietrich (who was fastidiously in control of every aspect of her own presentation at all times) because THEY are the person creating the style and selecting the clothing...

God, Jeremy Irons just knows how to wear clothing, doesn't he? There is something fabulous about how he wears the clothes... about how he wears HIS BODY, at all times.

I actually held onto all the ads he did for Donna Karan.
Another thing to dig out from my vaults.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire Revisited

As I mentioned yesterday, I've wrote my original post regarding Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire a while ago.

Then I answered it here.

But that was four years ago. A lot has happened in four years. So I've been working on doing it again. As a little exercise. Just to see how much I've changed.

As I said before, the trick is to answer honestly with yourself - not trying to impress your potential reader. I actually also keep a file of these from old issues of Vanity Fair, so I'm thinking I may pull some of them out and scan them in to share in the coming months. I love reading what Tom Waits and Edward Gorey and Shirley MacLaine had to say. It's fascinating to me.

The Questionnaire:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Freedom from material worry ...and living in an enormous house surrounded by the people I love.

What is your greatest fear?
To die without having done everything

What historical figure do you most identify with?
I'm not sure I identify with anyone

Which living person do you most admire?
Tom Waits

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
my need to be liked

What trait do you most deplore in others?
Pretension... and being quick to judge

What is your greatest extravagance?
Time. When I let myself have any.

On what occasion do you lie?
To protect someone

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My size... I'm not big, but I yearn to be tiny.

What is your favorite journey?
from knowing nothing about someone to knowing everything

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
stoicism... and chastity

Which living person do you most despise?
Glenn Beck

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
"Awesome." "I'm sorry."

What is your greatest regret?
the time I didn't spend with the loved ones who are now gone

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Until now... the man who climbed Mount Desert Island with me and caught me when I fell coming back down...

But my life isn't over yet. And I have hope.

When and where were you happiest?
In a hotel room in Boston watching someone sleep roughly a decade ago

In Western Australia, driving to see my Aunt and Uncle in Perth with my fantastic, absurd, brilliant 18 year old Aussie cousin who is like my long-lost brother and realizing I was somewhere I belonged.

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be a tremendous athlete and dancer

What is your current state of mind?

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be more athletic and more motivated.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
probably a worried little hen. Or a bear.

If you could choose what or who to come back as, what would it be?
A great dancer

What do your consider your greatest achievement?
The lives I have had a positive impact on

What is your most treasured possession?
My grandmother's engagement ring

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Witnessing the death of a friend or loved one who is not yet old

What is your most marked characteristic?
my red hair, my (almost compulsive) need for everyone to be happy and safe and okay

What is the quality you most like in a man?
decisiveness, honor, kindness

What is the quality you most admire in a woman?
warmth, confidence, kindness

What do you most value in your friends?
loyalty, a lack of judgment, acceptance

Who are your favourite writers?
A.A. Milne, Tom Robbins, Terry Pratchett, Harlan Ellison, Jane Austen, Cormac McCarthy

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
Jamie Fraser
(Go ahead, make fun. I don't care.)

Who are your heroes in real life?
One of my friends who died last year - she ran toward danger when every other person was running away. I hope to have that strength of character in my life in the moments when I have no time to think about my choices.

What are your favourite names?
Christopher, Grace, Gabriel, Michael, Dougal, Colin, Lorelei...

What is it that you most dislike?
getting out of bed on a rainy morning, yelling of any sort

How would you like to die?
Many decades from now, in the arms of someone who loves me

What is your motto?
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their own battle.

I didn't re-read the old one first and looking at them both - some things obviously have knee-jerk automatic answers... But I feel like so much has changed. I love this exercise. Sometimes so much happens that you come out the other end different. I think I am different. But in a good way. Or at least mostly in good ways.

It's kind of reassuring to look at the changes in yourself and walk away from it thinking that, on the whole, you're happy with them.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Dame Questionnaire!

I'm working on answering the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire again. Now, I'm no Proust (then again, when it comes to questionnaires, neither was Proust. The Proust questionnaire is famously named for him because he ANSWERED two questionnaires rather notably when he was young - not because they were his idea). OBVIOUSLY. But working on that questionnaire got me thinking. I have questions. I have a lot of questions, actually. I narrowed them down to the ones I would most like to ask, the ones I would submit to someone, were it socially acceptable, upon first meeting them. Some of the ones that are most interesting to me.

I realize it's very presumptuous to put together a questionnaire, but these are just some of the the things I wonder about how and why people tick. I'd love it if someone chose to answer (post me a link, or if you don't have a blog - you're welcome to answer in my comments), but I'll probably just use it as an inventive new way to harass my sister. I can email her the questions to her one at a time when I'm having a slow day at work. I wonder how many I can send before she calls to ask why I'm torturing her with my incessant questioning.

Also: I am going to post links when people let me know they have answered the questionnaire - so you can view answering blog posts to the dame Questionnaire at:
The Chick Voice's At Altitude
cookiegeisha at The Death of Glitter
Lenore Kay at Pugs Can't Fly

Ideally - answer as simply, as quickly, and as honestly as possible. That's where the fun really lies in a questionnaire. In having an honest conversation with yourself.

Dame's Questionnaire

(imagine jazz hands here... and maybe a snappy drum intro)

What fictional person, place or thing would you make real, were it in your power?

What do you find comforting?

What makes you almost hold your breath in excitement?

What offends you?

What always makes you smile?

How are you in a crisis?

What is your most unusual or rare quality?

What woman has had the strongest impact on your life?

What fictional character did you love most or identify most closely with as a child?

What's the strangest job you ever had?

What's the hardest job you ever had?

If you could relive any moment in your life, which would it be?

Who was your first crush on?

What song makes your heart sing?

What book do you never tire of?

If you could live in a book, which book would it be?

What film have you watched the most times?

What film do you quote most often?

(Actually quote, not wish you were clever enough to quote regularly and INTEND to quote. What do you ACTUALLY quote?)

What film's dialog do you love most?

What poem or line of poetry resonates with you most strongly?

What famous quote do you repeat or refer to most frequently?

If you could (or had to) freeze your physical self at one age, what would it be?

What view would you choose if you could have any view from your bedroom window?

What one thing would you give to everyone you know if you could?

If you could be a tremendous success at any one thing, what would it be?

What, if anything, do you hesitate to do for fear of looking silly or being laughed at?

Who would you choose if you could talk to anyone who is no longer alive for an hour?

If you wrote your will, who would you leave your most prized possession to?

What sentence did you never say to someone, but wish you had?

What do you most like getting the opportunity to say?

When have you laughed the longest or the most?

Whose face is your favorite face?

Where do you feel safest?

When do you feel most yourself?

What makes you nostalgic?

What is the best lesson you have learned in life?

I pared this down by a few questions because I felt it was too long. And too repetitive. I'd ask you 50 questions about film and never tire. Also, I can only email my sister so many questions before she just goes insane... ;)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

How to Write Again

Obviously I'm having trouble with this. Life got hectic. Then I lost someone. Then I lost a few more people and this got so much harder to do.

I guess it just feels trite sometimes. Useless. Self-important.

I'll be walking down the aisle in the grocery store and start thinking about some topic and I'll just ramble on and on about it in my head but as soon as I sit down to write... it seems hollow and silly.

A friend and I were talking today and she has had a hard year or so. And I have had a hard couple of years. And she was talking about a crush she had on someone and then she stopped and looked up at me and said, "But this is stupid. It's so unimportant. It feels stupid to even think about it." Because, in the grand scheme of things, a crush on a stranger or fleeting thoughts about life, the universe and everything that come to you in a grocery store aisle... well, it all starts to seem a little trivial by comparison.

But I'm determined to get writing again. Even if it means subjecting Tracey (my most patient and faithful supporter) to terrible drivel.

I can't tell the drivel from the revelations any longer. I think all the time. And when you'd give anything to hear a person's voice again... suddenly small things can seem so large, can't they?

How do I separate the trivial and the tremendous?

The thing is - I can't. And for a little while, that may have to just be okay.