Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Planning a novelly novel

I'm writing my first novel. I say it that way because while I've had story ideas before and have started some, I've never before had a novel idea planned out so completely that I've actually thought I had a prayer in finishing it.

I've been posting little bits about my progress on Facebook, and a friend who also writes sent me a message asking for tips/advice on how to get to that point of feeling like you can get the whole thing written as opposed to hitting a creative wall. I wound up answering with a kind of long message. Since NaNoWriMo is coming up and I have friends who are planning to do it, I thought I'd post that message here in case it could help anybody else.

Don't get me wrong--I'm still not far in the actual page-by-page writing of the thing. So I'm not a novelist. I'm still but a baby in the ways of "the writer." But with the way I've always been about writing fiction (thinking "Wouldn't that be nice?" and not doing anything about it, or getting an idea for a character and not making that character into a part of a story, where things happen ...), the fact that I have done the things I mention in this message and gotten into the headspace I'm in right now is a major accomplishment for me. So I know there are other people like me, and if I can help peeps like me, who have always been stopped early down the road of fiction-ing, actually get a step further down the road to writing a novel, well, that would be cool.

What follows is the message I sent. But first I should add: I am absolutely hands-down in love with my main characters. If you haven't come up with characters you want to be with all the time, haven't found a connection to them that feeds your ability to tell a story about them, imagine them in lots of different situations, imagine their reactions to different things, really get to know them, then the rest of what I say here probably won't matter. Now, with the kind of story I'm writing, it makes sense that I "love" my characters. It's a romance, and I'm pulling for them. Maybe the kind of story you're going to be writing requires a lot of time spent with someone unlikable--I don't know. But whatever kind of character it is, my point is, they better really, really, really, really make you tick. I don't see how you can come up with hundreds of pages of words about a character you're not wholly, completely invested in.

Here it is:


Hm ... the first thing I envisioned for this story was kind of the first turning point in the story. Then awhile later an idea for the climax of the story popped into my head. And I knew how I wanted it to end. From there, I really thought about the main characters and how they should be changed/what they should learn/what should be shifted about their lives over the course of the story. From that, I got the basic story arc.

Then I wrote down any images, bits of dialogue, happenings, descriptions that popped into my head. Kept doing this even when I thought I would never bother writing the story all out, just in case I would actually do it. I wrote out a bunch of full scenes, too (from throughout the story), when they materialized in my brain. A bunch of them I'm not using now, or I've changed them/am going to change them a lot, but they've still been important in figuring out what I want to do/use.

When I decided six months or so ago that I was really going to go for it and try to write this thing, I wrote character studies, about 3-5 pages each, from the point-of-view of my two main characters about themselves--about the way they see life, about their families, about their interests, and what's important to them. That was helpful even though I already had these people down pretty well in my brain. It was different putting it on paper somehow, having "them" talk about themselves.

After that, I wrote out full-on character histories about these two, deciding what their childhoods were like, what their families are like, what high school and college were like, the years between college and when the story starts. Decided how many relationships they'd had and what they'd been like, chose names for those other people, even though they might never be mentioned in the story. Doing this part was really, really helpful--can't stress that enough. Again, it was like, even though I thought I "knew" these people, coming up with real specifics--names, years, old jobs, blah blah blah, kind of made a bank I could draw from when I thought/think about the characters during the actual writing.

I still had a chunk of space in the first third of the story that I wasn't sure what I wanted to all happen in it or in what order, and I found that was holding me back. One day I sat down with a notebook and decided I was just going to write out what I wanted to happen in that section step-by-step, telling myself specifically that what I came up with was not set in stone. (I have a tendency to think what I've done needs to stay that way rather than be changed.) I thought about the things I knew I wanted/needed to happen in that section, and I wrote down how they should go--one or two sentences for each event/happening: this happens, then this happens, then this happens ... That day I wound up doing that all day and night, figuring out not only that section but doing the same for the whole story.

I organized all my notes (typed up) in separate documents in Word and put them in chronological order (naming them Doc1_blahblahhappens, Doc2_blahblahblah, etc.--not literally "blahblah" but you get the idea--so they'd be in order in my folder), and that helped me envision things, too, seeing how it all lined up. I wound up doing some rearranging of what I had decided in my writeup I just mentioned. And there were other things I had notes of that I had forgotten about in my writeup or that I just hadn't decided where I wanted them to go yet, and seeing the docs separated and lined up in order like that helped me figure out where to put those other bits.

And I read The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield. I highly recommend this book. I wrote about thirty pages about six months ago that when I wrote them I was really happy about, and then for months as I planned the book I didn't want to go back and read them for some reason. When I finally went back and read them, I knew why--I had feared they really sucked. They really sucked. There was about one conversation, about a half-page long, in the whole thirty pages that I found myself getting interested in, as though I were reading someone else's story. Reading The Scene Book helped me see what it was I was doing and not doing that made it suck, and what I could do to make it not suck. I changed the point in time at which I wanted the story to start, and I rewrote the beginning entirely. I'm happy with what I have now. Hopefully I still will be in a few months. But I know it's better than what I had before. Anyway, I think that's a great, great book for getting to know what makes fiction writing work.

Geez, this was long. I hope it's helpful.


To those about to write, I salute you. <---Total cheese.

Oh yeah. Some helpful links:




Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thank you, thank you ...

My sister, Deb, gave me an award! I'd like to say that she didn't know I was her sister when she gave it to me (separated at birth, soap opera or V.C. Andrews style) and she was just wowed by my mind-blowing bloggage, but no, she knows me.


She has a couple blogs, which I enjoy--one is It's Always Something, in which she chronicles life as a wife and mother in exotic central Wisconsin and also reviews books, movies, & products such as handmade (and not handmade) wax tarts, soaps, candles, & cleaning items. The other is Springvale Handcrafted Goat Milk Soap, where she discusses her soap-making business, which she created out of nowhere about a year ago and has been very successful. I'm so impressed with all she's done in so little time, considering she has a full-time day job. Check her out and try her soaps. Since I started using goat milk soap, I've rarely needed to use hand lotion, and the soaps' scents are a lot of fun.

Here is the award, and it has RULES. I'm betting they don't make you do this stuff after you get an Oscar, but okay, fine.

The Versatile Blogger Award

1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post.
2. Tell us seven things about yourself.
3. Award recently discovered new bloggers.
4. Contact the bloggers and let them know they've won the awards(s).

Things About Myself
1. I can't swim, ice skate, or roller skate. *gasp*
2. I have to arrange things--on my desk, on the kitchen counter, etc.--just so.
3. I like strong black tea.
4. I've met the band (Stimulator) that do the cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Magic" that's used in those Macy's commercials.
5. I've been married since I was 18.
6. I love me some Pepsi.
7. I need to put some laundry in the dryer.

The next winner of the Versatile Blogger Award is ...... singer/songwriter/friend of mine Rachel Schain! She's a really good, caring person and it's very cool to see her following her dreams and succeeding step-by-step. Please check out her blog and her music (and maybe buy her first CD, an EP called Happy Happy). She's going to be on the 93.7 WSTW (Delaware) radio show Hometown Heroes tomorrow night, Sunday, March 27, 8-10pm EST and you can listen live. I will be :)

Thanks for reading :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sibling Revelry

Wow, this is four years old now?! This is an interview that choreographer Trish Sie graciously conducted with me over email in 2007. She was so nice about it--it consists of questions from several OK Go fans (including me), and I think I originally told her it would be around ten questions long. She still kindly obliged when it actually turned out to be thirty or so ;) Thanks, Trish.

Some things have changed--I don't think the Snark-a-Snoops exist anymore--but please enjoy this blast from the past:

She's Invincible

March 2007
okgocentral.com [now defunct]

She hardly needs an introduction, but for those of you new to OK Go World, here you go: Trish Sie--Grammy winner, world-class ballroom dancer, sciencey children's entertainer, big sister to Damian Kulash, Jr. She created the dances in the most downloaded videos in history, "A Million Ways" and the Grammy-winning "Here It Goes Again"; she's been instrumental in OK Go's recent surge of success. I asked if I could interview her with the help of questions from fellow fans, and she said yes (okgocentral.com partner-in-crime Michael and I were honored). If you are interested in what a certain band did after the Grammys, the inside scoop on the making of the "Here It Goes Again" video, the hair-raising world of competitive dance, life in the Kulash family, and dirt on Damian (and Tim Nordwind), read on.

How was the post-Grammy partying? What was your most mind-boggling celebrity encounter, there or at the VMAs?

Believe it or not, I only went to two parties after the Grammys. The first was a ridiculous gluttonous smorgasbord of Armenian food from our favorite restaurant, served with champagne, at Damian’s house, because none of us had eaten all day and we were getting a little glassy-eyed-speak-in-tongues-low-blood-sugarish-overwhelmy. Plus, it had all been such a colossal tidal wave of insanity, we needed a reality check. And Damian’s dogs and backyard are really good for that. Also, I, for one, was wearing really obnoxious strappy sandals with heels about nine inches tall and I needed them OFF.

After we refueled, we headed out to EMI’s swank party at a club in Hollywood. It was fancy. The best parts about that were a) the roving waiters actually served In-n-Out burgers and goody bags of fresh-baked nubbins from the bakery next door and b) I got to tell a reporter that for my next groundbreaking video, I plan to shove a bottle up someone’s ass and out their nose.

The most mind-boggling celebrity encounter to date has got to be JT at the VMAs. The dude is unreal. We were watching him rehearse at the VMA dress rehearsal. He was doing his dance-romp-sing-strut thing right there, about four feet in front of us, and we were all a little dizzy and hyperventilatish about it. And then he just ripped his headset mic thing off, and pointed, and sorta snarled, and said something aggressive and explosively awesome, something akin to “I FUCKING LOVE YOU GUYS.” There was this demented pause wherein we all collectively attempted to control bodily functions and maintain consciousness, and then I think it was Damian that warbled something back in reply. CRAZY.

Whose idea was it for the band to wear the "Do What You Want" outfits on the red carpet?

As far as I know, it was an epiphany the band experienced all together.

Where were you when you found out 1) about the guys’ invite to perform at the VMAs, and 2) about the Grammy nomination? Did Mom cry?

Both times, I was in my living room, which is where I am a lot. Also, both times, I believe I was trying to convince the naughtiest of my three dogs that chewing the crotches out of my underwear and eating the bloody centers out of my blister band-aids is gross. That’s also something I find that I do a lot. Mom cried when we won the Grammy, and she may well have cried when the guys pulled off the treadmill dance at the VMAs, but for the latter, she was in New Hampshire and I couldn’t swear it for sure.

Have the band and you and the rest of the family become reacquainted with a lot of long-lost friends due to the success of the viral videos?
A fan who wants to remain anonymous

A lot of people email to congratulate us, which is always nice. I had one creepy ex-boyfriend write to me and confess that for years now, he’s been secretly watching me and my “creative processes at work” because he links in to my psyche at night via the Astral Plane. No joke. That was pretty spooky.

What’s the latest on the possible development of a Snark-a-Snoops TV show or movie? Anything you can tell us?
Kay and Theresa

We’ve had a nice steady stream of TV execs and production companies coming to our live shows, and we’re in talks with a few different networks about development possibilities. There’s one particularly rad network that will have to remain unnamed for now, which looks like a good possibility. We’re crossing our fingers on that one. These things are so damn complicated and multifaceted, though, who knows what or when. I’ll keep you guys posted.

When was the "Here It Goes Again" video shot?

August 2005.

Are there any moves you envisioned for the HIGA video (at any point between the dream that inspired it and your getting together with the guys to actually work it out) that didn’t make it in because they turned out to be impossible/too difficult/just didn’t fit?
Michael--okgocentral.com and Sheri

Well, there were the somersaults. I was pretty devoted to the idea of the somersaults, but when the skin on Damian’s back split open down his spine on the third day, we put the old 'saults to rest once and for all. Then came the wheelbarrow, where you hold a guy’s feet and he walks on his hands. There was also my fantasy of true old-world ballroom dancing on the mills … foxtrot or quickstep, maybe. But between the g-a-y factor and the sheer difficulty, we never even seriously considered that one. We experimented for a while with exploiting the incline feature … the treadmills look unspeakably, chaotically malignant and wonderful when they’re all simultaneously ratcheting themselves up to their maximum height—they look like an evil army. And then, when fully erect and viewed from the front, they look demonic and cross-cross-funhousy. But the anarchy of the shifting angles just made everything exponentially more dangerous. Ok ... this one’s tough to visualize, but I also had this vague notion that a person could swing Tarzan-style under the console of one treadmill, feet landing on another treadmill, feet being pulled to the end of second mill, stretching out the arms and body and creating a sort of inverted dangling plank shape, and someone else could leap through the space created by the arms and the first treadmill’s console, landing on the platform of the first treadmill and sailing off down the belt in triumph. We never figured that one out, although the Tarzan swing part managed to stick. There was also a hot-looking ball-sack-splitting move wherein you jump and land with each foot on a separate mill, which drags your legs into a split. With time, that move morphed into those spinning helicopter jumps at the end. The sack-split aspect wasn’t so fun for them.

As a creator, how do you overcome the fear that “it won’t work,” or “it isn’t good enough”? Is fear even an issue for you? If so, how do you deal with it?

The night before OK Go rolled into town to do the treadmill video, I had a panic attack. These guys had agreed to spend the only chunk of time they had off in two years to work on this crazy thing. And just about everyone with whom we’d talked about the project had the same reaction: awkward, polite smiles and a sort of “ummm … wow … ok, interesting … yeah” response, combined with a “please tell me you aren’t really serious” kind of facial expression. So I was getting pretty scared, thinking maybe this was going to be a colossal waste of everyone’s time… that we would make something really lame and then scrap it because it sucked so bad. Or worse, that we would make something really lame and then NOT scrap it because we couldn’t tell if it sucked or not. But I guess that’s the same shit that everyone goes through on a daily basis. It’s the feeling of standing in front of your mirror--wearing the dress your grandma wore at her bridal shower and the belt you bought at a truckstop in Arkansas and the bohemian lime green suede boots you pulled out of a dumpster—-and wondering if you look really fashion-forward and bold and hip or just really really stupid and pathetic. So in the case of the treadmills, and with any creative endeavor (including getting dressed in the morning), you eventually just have to try to look at what you’ve done (or plan to do) as objectively as possible, and then trust your instincts. You’ll always be afraid that you’re going to fail. No way around it.

It seems to me that you're so incredibly driven by your creativity, what with your degree in music and your multiple careers in creative fields. After you got out of college, did you ever go through a rut where you had to work in an unrelated job for bill paying/stomach filling purposes? How did you propel yourself out of it and back into the arts?

I’ve starred in my own personal parade of paltry, soul-crushing jobs. Clerk at a record store. Receptionist. Pool cleaner. Administrative assistant to an administrative assistant to an administrative assistant to a douche bag. I tried to keep doing what I needed to do on the side to keep myself from spiraling into absolute mercenary insentience. I wrote songs, choreographed goofy dances with friends, volunteered as a synchronized swimming coach, wrote enthusiastic first chapters to about eighteen novels. I was also lucky enough to get jobs in creative fields pretty early on. But the tricky thing is that even jobs in industries that seem interesting can get pretty oppressive and suffocating after a while. At the risk of sounding like a stinky wedge of ripe cheese, I’ll dare to say that overcoming the boredom and fatigue of the real world is a lifelong pursuit. The single most helpful thing for me has been finding fascinating friends with crazy minds and spending as much time as I can with them. And making 180-degree changes in my life when I need to.

What do you like to read?

Right now I’m reading that book, A Million Little Pieces, by the dude that recounted his battle with addiction and his crazy stint in rehab [James Frey]. He got a lot of flack a while back when the Smoking Gun outed him as having totally fabricated his story. I love Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Stacey Richter, the New Yorker, Discover magazine, Jared Diamond, various blogs I stumble across online. One of the best books I’ve ever read is one Damian gave me for Christmas the year I was pregnant: A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. Really good. And not the self-help book that it sounds like.

We know from your MySpace that you are dancing in the new "Do What You Want" video—is it you in the dress? And who are you dancing with?
A fan who wants to remain anonymous

Yeah, that’s me in the skirt with my most recent ballroom partner, Sonny Perry.

So some people thought you were Mr. OK Go Head, and some thought it was Dan, and we’ve been told it’s neither (btw, I was in the Dan camp—I never thought your legs were that mannish! lol). Can you tell us who it is or give us a clue? Might it be someone to whom you’re … married?
Michael--okgocentral.com and Sheri

No, it’s not Roe. If I said his name, it wouldn’t mean all that much to anyone because it’s not one of the OK Go personalities you’ve come to know and love over the years. He’s a friend of mine.

Any scandalous stories from the world of competitive dance? Is it cutthroat? Do you know of any instances of sabotage?

The world of competitive dance is pretty brutal. One of my good friends, Juliet McMains, just published a book called The Glamour Addiction, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in the bizarre vortex of DanceSport read it. She covers it all … from a pretty intriguing sociological perspective. Basically, learning to dance at that level was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, both physically and psychologically, which is really pretty ridiculous considering that this is BALLROOM DANCING we’re talking about, here. It’s a very insular community, and people really get caught up and lost in it. I do have some pretty spectacular stories, souvenirs of my days on the pro-dance circuit … like the time my fake ponytail flew off during a competition and landed on a lady’s lap … or the time my coach got so angry during a rehearsal that he left the studio in his dancewear, hailed a cab to the airport, and flew away without another word … the time when my ex-partner and my current partner’s ex were both on the competition floor, dancing against us, and we switched partners and danced with our exes mid-round, just to confuse and piss off the judges … once the crotch snap on my dress came open and I had to dance the rest of the round with my legs closed as much as possible.

As a dancer, did you travel the world? Win any awards? Did you have the same partner the whole time? Where did you get the costumes and where are they now?

I did travel a lot. Won some awards. I think I had twelve professional partners in all. But most of my career was spent in two very serious partnerships, the strongest and most successful ones. My dresses were outrageous. I had a costume designer, and most of my dresses were sold right off my body on the competition floor. If you’re a pretty high-level dancer with custom dresses, students or other dancers will see your costume when you perform and buy it from you on the spot. Then you run around naked the rest of the night. Just kidding. I still have some of my dance dresses. I use them for shows now and then. And if I ever have a daughter, she can have a kick-ass dress-up box.

Now that your choreography is world-renowned, do you have loads of people trying to get you to teach them to dance?

Hmmm … kind of. Mostly I have people wanting me to “make another treadmill video” for them or their clients. I’m never sure what that means. Do they want me to make a silly dance video for them, but with, say, lawn mowers this time, instead of treadmills? Or do they want me to come up with something totally new that may not involve dancing at all?

What did you think of OK Go’s Las Vegas episode? Did you laugh hysterically? (And I mean that in the most loving way ;D ) Should OK Go get shipwrecked on Lost a la the Mosquitoes on Gilligan’s Island?
Deb and Sheri

Yes and yes.

When and where was your first OK Go show, and what did you think?

I can’t remember when my first OK Go show per se was. Obviously, I had seen Damian in a multitude of bands when he was growing up. Some of those early bands were pretty wretched, and ALL of them practiced at our house, as I recall. And then I saw him play a few shows at college … many of those same songs later became OK Go songs, so it all kind of blends together in my mind. I know there was one point when I went up to visit him at college, and we were actually working on a music project together at the time. I saw his band play that weekend and also got the chance to see him at work in the recording studio. That was probably the point at which the switch flipped in my mind, and I said, “Holy shit! My baby brother really, truly knows what he’s doing here! He’s a bad-ass!”

Did you always support Damian in his aspirations to be a musician?

I think so. My mom’s a musician. The three of us used to play chamber music when Damian and I were growing up. We’d play Mozart quartets without the viola part and Christmas carols and even show tunes, I think. Anyway, music was always a pretty big part of our lives.

Assuming there was a time of sibling rivalry between you and him, at what point did you start seeing eye to eye and what was your first successful (i.e., no hair pulling) collaboration?

Honestly, we’ve been collaborating since Damian was able to walk. Maybe even earlier than that. My parents have old photos and recordings of us performing elaborately choreographed dances and staging productions together starting when I was six or so and he was two. When we were a bit older, we used to make videos when we were out of school on break. One summer, we made a series of videos starring a Pop-Tart. We called him Star Tart and carried him lovingly around in his own “trailer,” which was a Pop-Tart box. We filmed Star Tart in all kinds of situations and involved him in all kinds of hijinx. It was pretty rad. Over a lifetime of summer visits to a lake in New Hampshire, we also created our own two-man inner-tube water show which involves a signature move that no one else on the planet can do: the Land Bridge.

Do you two ever get into any sibling-rivalry-caused fights while working together now?

We have a special siblingesque way of pushing each other’s buttons in a uniquely churlish way. But we don’t do it often.

As brother and sister, you and he must have influenced each other a lot. How do you think you have influenced him, and how has he influenced you?

I think that being the older sister, I introduced Damian to things that most kids his age weren’t aware of yet … Squeeze, Depeche Mode, tampons, beer, Downtown Julie Brown, jelly bracelets, filthy language, hair gel, the Cabbage Patch, etc. But the flip side of that coin is that he was always a much more evolved and cool kid among his contemporaries than I ever was. So as we’ve gotten older, he’s definitely outstripped me in the brainy-cool department, and I turn to him a lot when I need his more advanced sense of aesthetics.

Damian mentioned that he finally became won over to Aerosmith, a band that you liked. Damian played violin and then got into the punk scene. You liked Aerosmith and went on to become a ballroom dancer. That's a pretty eclectic mix that shows a strong affinity for music and creativity. What were the musical and creative influences in your house/family?

In addition to my mom being a violinist, my dad is probably the world’s most amazing whistler. He used to whistle Kingston Trio songs and old plantation spirituals around the house. And he also played accordion as a kid.

Who rode in the front seat of the car when you were kids and why? Did the hierarchy change at some point? What happened?

Damian and I generally both opted for the way back of the station wagon, which had one of those jumpseats that face backwards. That way we could scan for Sneaky Snookers, the radical wing of the KGB that had kidnapped me and my friend Rachel and was constantly threatening our safety.

Looking back, compared with other sibling relationships you’ve observed, was there anything special about your relationship as kids—did you get along remarkably well or were you the bicker twins like most brothers and sisters?
Sarah and Sheri

Believe it or not, we have one of those weird rare sibling relationships where we’ve sort of always liked each other and always liked doing things together. We bickered and pissed each other off plenty, but we really always enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, our whole family was pretty much like that. We traveled a lot as a family and spent a lot of time at our cottage in the middle of nowhere, with no one but ourselves to hang out with. We’re really lucky that we all have a great time when we’re together. We still do.

Was Damian ever short? :D


I mean, he was three feet tall at one point. But never short for his age.

Do you know how tall he is precisely? 6’3”?
A fan who wants to remain anonymous

I’m gonna guess that he’s 6’3” or 6’4”. There’s a standing joke in our family about when Damian will stop being “Little Damian” (because Dad has the same name). And it seems like they’re still always good-naturedly giving each other hell about which one is Little Damian now. And my dad is 6’3”.

The guys make the fans happy, and fans want to make them happy back. Do you know what kinds of fan experiences the boys appreciate most? Are there any sorts of things fans should watch out for, and not do?
The same fan who wants to remain anonymous

I really don’t know. I do know one of the most gratifying things is for them to know that their music does something good for people … helps them through a rough time, comforts someone who’s sick or injured, etc. So I know that when they receive letters or messages from people who tell them about what their music has meant, it’s really rewarding.

And now for the dirt on Damian, of course. And Tim.

What were Tim and Damian like when they were younger? Did they bother you? What is the worst trick Damian or the two of them ever played on you, or vice versa?
Sarah, A.N., and Sheri

Damian and Tim were these two little highly-coiffed, pegged-pants-and-Sebago-wearing, Run-DMC-listening coxcombs. The little girls couldn’t get enough of them, I’m not kidding. They were like first-rate prepubescent peacocks. They didn’t generally bother me. They made a lot of movies, ate a lot of pizza pockets, listened to a lot of rap, talked a lot of shit. I can’t remember any tricks they played on me … Once they roped me into playing a Hispanic TV news reporter in a Chupacabras movie they were making. But that wasn’t really a trick since I was totally into it.

Do you know if Tim ever had a crush on you (the classic crush-on-best-friend’s-sister)? Was it expressed in classic love/hate fashion?
Another fan who will remain anonymous

Wow. You guys are sick.

Tim had a crush on my good friend Lesa … who was indeed pretty extremely crush-worthy. She was kind of nurturey-coddley-older-woman-flirty with him as well. We were all at Interlochen summer camp together, and she used to pretend she was his big sister in order to sign him out of the Junior Division so he could come get ice cream with us.

Did Damian have any especially amusing crushes, from what you remember? Unattainable classmates? Teachers? What celebrities do you recall his young self lusting after?
Mandy and Sheri

Hmmm … I truly don’t remember. I was pretty self-involved with my own love life. Damian used to counsel me on my man problems and field my calls in the evenings. We had an elaborate code for which boy was calling and whether I wanted to speak to him. Seems like most of our conversations in the romance arena were about boys I liked. If he told me much about girls, I didn’t listen or remember. I was too adolescent myself. We watched a lot of CHiPS and Dukes of Hazzard. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Heather Locklear and Daisy Duke were on his mind a lot. And we went through an intense Miami Vice and 21 Jump Street phase. Were there any hot girls on there? If so, he probably had a crush on them.

His high school picture ID was published in Alternative Press a couple years ago, and he seems to have had a Billy Idol hair thing going on … What was Damian’s worst fashion phase?

The Euro-trash chapter of Damian’s fashion journey had to be the worst. He was in fourth or fifth grade maybe… He looked like a nine-year-old cross between A Flock of Seagulls, Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos, and a pineapple. He wore a lot of shirts with elastic waistbands and V-necks. His hair was rooster-like and swoopy and—WAIT. Scrap that. At one point, he matted his bleached-out hair into dreadlocks by mixing raw eggs into it and not washing it for six months. Then he twisted up bits of metal and other objects into it.

If you had to describe the teenaged Damian in two words, what would they be?

Lamé tuxedo.

How are Damian and your dad alike?

They both sometimes put one foot up on something when they’re talking on the phone. They do it in the same special way. They put it up on whatever is around, as high as possible, and then they lean into it and bounce a little. Neither of them notice that they do it.

Last, do flowers scream when you pick them?

Not that I’ve heard.

Check out the Snark-a-Snoops (official site/MySpace) and Trish Sie (official site/MySpace).

Photo credits (from top):

WireImage/Amy Tierney
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Marjorie Galen Kitman
Nicole Szalewski
Alternative Press magazine

Friday, March 11, 2011

Migraine in the Membrane

My dad died 24 years ago yesterday of a stroke at 63. The very first migraine I ever had came the day before that. I was 13, I felt sick, and I left school around lunchtime. It was a very windy day, and I remember damp, cold wind blowing into my ears all the way home. I went straight to bed--by the afternoon, my head was full of searing pain, and, having taken aspirin and not knowing what else to do, I tried to just go to sleep. Eventually I did fall asleep. Hours later I was vaguely aware of muffled noises downstairs, lights, and a siren. I didn't fully awake until an hour or so later, upon which I found out from my mom that my dad had been taken to the hospital by ambulance after he called my mom's name and collapsed. I still didn't feel well, and I went into the bathroom and threw up in the bathtub.

Seventeen or so years later, I started having very brief but intense pains on one side of my head. Like I said, they were brief, but I hadn't felt anything that intense in my brain since my dad died. Cautious, I had an MRI, which turned out normal, and I was prescribed Imitrex, which I took on days when I felt the pain. It all went away within a month or so.

One day maybe that year or a year later, I was sitting on the couch in our house and didn't feel quite right. I felt spacey and slightly headache-y. Turning off the TV, I picked up either a book or magazine, but when I tried to read it, I felt confused. I decided to read a line out loud to better concentrate. When I spoke, I knew what words were supposed to be coming out of my mouth. But what came out wasn't those words at all.

I was having exactly the same experience as reporter Serene Branson when she spoke gibberish on TV outside the Grammys last month. I heard myself saying things, and I knew that what I was saying wasn't what I was trying to say. I think I tried again and heard the wrong words/sounds again. This was not right. This was freaky. I put whatever it was I was reading down and lay down on the couch, closed my eyes, and waited to feel better. What was earlier only the hint of a headache came on much stronger, and my stomach was queasy. Within fifteen minutes or so, however, I was fine. I sat up, grabbed the book/magazine, and read it aloud again. This time, everything came out fine.

I should have called 911 as soon as my words didn't match what my brain tried to tell my mouth to say. I should have at least called my husband, who wasn't home. But I let it pass. I opened the windows for awhile and changed the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector on the wall. For years I thought it must have been a mild case of carbon monoxide poisoning and thanked God it had apparently peaked at that moment and not at night while we slept. I felt silly and embarrassed for not having called a doctor when I wasn't speaking right--for heaven's sake, I could have been having a stroke. But since it passed so quickly and I felt fine afterward, I figured it must have been some sort of air issue and left it at that.

Last year, I was working a filing job, and I started getting intense neck pain when I sat at my desk and sorted papers. I adjusted my seat height and kept my head in a different position and tried to avoid developing that pain as best I could. Sometimes it would turn into a full headache and I would feel somewhat nauseated. Several months later, I was entering data on the computer at work, and when I tried to reach the number keys above the letter ones, my fingers wouldn't go there. They would go to the letter keys instead. This wasn't a typo here or there or finger malfunction. My brain would say, "Type an '8,'" and I'd type an "i" instead, even when I concentrated on making the "8" happen. I also wasn't feeling right that morning--my head felt funny and I felt mildly sick to my stomach. Hm.

Time for a trip to the emergency room and another MRI. Thankfully, it was normal. I had been sure I was having a stroke. In fact, it was a migraine.

I told them about my reading/speaking misfire years back and they said that was a migraine, too ("complicated migraine"). That had never occurred to me. Apparently people can even have paralysis on one side of the body during certain kinds of migraine.

The next day, I felt funny again, and I wound up with bright spots, zig-zags, and floaters in my vision as I tried to work. Eventually it passed. Again, I had a migraine--this time, migraine with aura.

The next day, I had symptoms again. Not mental or visual, but nausea and head and neck pain. Again, eventually it went away. I hadn't felt completely normal throughout those 2 1/2 days. Symptoms came and went and changed and appeared and finally really left halfway through the third day.

This happened again about a month later. I have Crohn's disease, and I get Remicade infusions monthly as my main treatment. The migraines were starting the day after I got my infusion. Oh joy. Was the Remicade causing it? I had fought hard enough to get back on the Remicade after a doctor took me off of it for a different reason the year before (off the Remicade, I got sicker from Crohn's than I had been in years). I wasn't about to tell my current doc and be taken off of it faster than you can say "Pre-meds." I decided that the pre-meds I had to take just before my Remicade infusions were the culprit because I didn't like them. Then the next month I didn't get a migraine, so I didn't think about it anymore.

Fast-forward several months: three days ago I had my monthly Remicade, and two days ago I got a migraine. Sigh. And I'm not on pre-meds anymore, incidentally, so I can't blame them. Yesterday I got a migraine again, and I'm feeling the pre-migraine feeling right now.

It's the strangest feeling having a migraine. They are not all alike, so I can't describe everyone's experience, but the ones I've had this week and had last year have been similar to each other. The first feelings are a somewhat odd, spacey feeling--my first inclination is to say I feel "light-headed," but it's not that. I also feel cold, and I feel slightly sick to my stomach. An hour or two later, a pain begins in the back of my neck and my ears eventually start to ring. By an hour or two after that, my guts are starting to churn a little. I start to feel bloated, and I'm burping and farting--pretty. Meanwhile, my head feels weird. It's not the searing pain of my first migraine when I was 13--it's a dull pain all over. A strange pain--it almost feels burny inside. I feel it behind my eyes and nose and eventually throughout my skull. By this time I've become sensitive to light and sound. At the height of it, I feel like my brain is too big for my skull and it's trying to ooze out, my internal organs are liquefying, and the back of my skull, where it meets my neck, is on fire. It's not pleasant. It could feel much worse--it's painful but not intolerable (though when it gets to this point, I'm lying in a dark, quiet room and doing nothing else), and I know that a lot of people suffer horrendous pain with migraines. But it's rather scary. Because it means that something is not right with your brain.

I read up on migraines yesterday (every time I've done so in the past, it seems like I've conveniently forgotten everything I've learned), and, as I had feared but told myself not to think about during my migraine two nights ago, a migraine can apparently become a stroke or put you in a coma. GREAT. People with migraines are also 2.2 times more likely than the non-migraine population to have a stroke. Women on birth control pills are also apparently 8 times as likely as the normal population to have a stroke. I was on the pill until a few months ago (my husband and I are trying to have a baby). I don't think I'm going to go back. Migraines and stroke are also genetic. Migraines also might be a risk factor for MS, and one of my brothers has MS.

Apparently I'm supposed to avoid triggers. Thankfully, I recognized several in myself, particularly over the past few days:

- disrupted sleep pattern--not enough or too much sleep (in my case, I've been getting too many hours of sleep the past two weeks, and I've had all-over-the-place bedtimes and get-up times).

- dehydration. I have not been drinking enough water or other fluids the past several days. Today I've got a timer going off every hour to remind me to keep drinking and refilling my glass, and it's been a real education for me. I let a full glass sit a long time and apparently tell myself I've been drinking when I haven't. I don't know what my problem is with this. Sometimes I wonder if the part of your brain that tells you you're thirsty doesn't work on me (not joking).

- Remicade. I looked up migraine as a side effect of Remicade and from anecdotal evidence online, apparently this is fairly common; same thing with Humira injections (Remicade and Humira are related drugs). Probably because I don't want to be taken off of Remicade, I'm choosing to believe that the Remicade infusion is one of several factors that together have led to this string of migraines this week, not the sole cause. The fact that I went through several months without a migraine nor any Remicade side effects at all seems to back this up.

- stress. I don't by and large buy into stress as the root cause of most physical ailments, but I do believe it can be a contributing factor along with other factors. The past two weeks I've been traveling a lot, stressed out, and emotionally exhausted more than once, related to an illness in the family. My coping mechanisms have never been the same since I went through an extremely stressful period nine years ago related to my own health and hospital stays. I'm prone to panic attacks following intense circumstances--kind of an aftershock effect. It's possible that's playing a role right now. Over the summer when the migraines started, it wasn't long after my stepfather passed away.

So I'm going to try hard to avoid the convergence of these triggers. I'm scared to death of having a stroke and I don't want to die as young as my father or, God forbid, younger. Thankfully I've never smoked, I'm not on the pill anymore, and my blood pressure has always been low. (My dad had high blood pressure and smoked all his life.) Because I have Crohn's disease, my blood is checked every few months, so that's a nice back-up, knowing that weird health issues might be seen in my blood before they are too far gone to fix. And according to this assessment, I only have a 1% chance of stroke in the next ten years.

Hopefully I can avoid burping-farting-burningbrain next month. If you run into me, please tell me to drink a damn glass of water.

KHW, 1923-1987, rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Deep Thoughts

I am supposedly a writer now, so since I can't seem to get myself organized professionally lately, I at least want to get myself writing every day while I get my act together. I figure it might as well sometimes be an entry on my bloggy blog.

Things on my mind lately:

It is hilarious that the social network that characters use on One Life to Live is called "MyFace." LOL!

The Maybelline model whose mouth really irritatingly never closes. Her name is Emily DiDonato and they've allowed her to speak in a couple recent commercials, and her voice surprisingly isn't airheadish at all. That makes her bother me less, but she really needs to stop mouthbreathing.

Justin Bieber. Why are not just two-year-olds, or nine-year-olds, or fifteen-year-olds, but also grown women, in love with this sixteen-year-old who looks like he's fourteen? I don't mean motherly or grandmotherly "Lemme pinch your cheeks!" love, but college-age young women squealing and crying during his recent surprise new-haircut appearance on Ellen. I read the March 3 Rolling Stone cover story on him today and in it, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis--who is my age, 37--says the Bieber is her pop-culture crush and calls him "sensual" at the start of the article before she meets him and sees that he is plainly still a "child." My questions are: 1) Why don't these women feel creepy? 2) Am I the only woman in the world who can see that he hardly looks pubescent? and 3) How in the world is barely adolescent hot? Ew. Besides, even if he were a young-looking 21-year-old, I don't think he's anywhere near good-looking enough to warrant the spazziness he's inspiring. He's no John Taylor. He's no Damian Kulash. Weird. The new issue of Rolling Stone discusses the puzzling popularity of Snooki & Jersey Shore--I find Justin Bieber's popularity among people over twelve years old just as odd.

More seriously ... Over the weekend, at least 300 buildings were burned down by militia linked to the Khartoum government in the Abyei region of Sudan, about two-thirds of which were civilian dwellings; and at least 92 people were killed in clashes between south Sudan troops & rebel militias. Article here. South Sudan voted to secede a couple months ago, and the new country will be officially born in July of this year. Abyei is the disputed border region between north & south Sudan, and border demarcation is going on now or starting soon (more info). So now killing has begun there again. What is the point of that? Hopefully the UN can actually do something about it. I often wonder what the point of the United Nations even is, since a genocide can go on for years without the rest of the world actually putting a stop to it. Please go here to try to do something about the violence.

Bye-bye, buy bonds--

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Crying out to me from the ground": Father Patrick Desbois on the Search for Mass Graves of the Holocaust -- St. Ambrose University, Davenport 8/27/09

Look out your window and imagine armed men entering the home across your street, dragging the family out, lining them up, and marching them away at gunpoint. Imagine this happening up and down your street, the people--men, women, and children--lined in rows of five and marched away. You rush outside to get a closer view of what is happening. Women--mothers you know personally--carry their infants. You hear gunshots: some people have refused to leave their homes and they have been shot dead inside them. Everyone else you know in town--everyone who has not been led away--has streamed out of their own homes as well and you all follow the soldiers and your defenseless neighbors. The armed men bark orders at your neighbors and smile and joke with each other and generally act like people bored on the job. The march stops at a pit near the woods outside of town. Your neighbors, who have been ordered to give up their heavy winter clothing, or even forced to strip naked, are ordered to line up along the edge of a newly dug pit. Soldiers and hired men, some cold and detached, some drunk, raise their guns and shoot your neighbors in their heads. Your neighbors fall into the pit. Some of them, anyway. Some of the shooters missed. Those missed targets--men, women, and children--are pushed by other soldiers and hired men into the pit. They will be buried alive by their neighbors. Your neighbors. Buried alive.

By the end of the day, nearly every family on your street is in that pit. Every home on every street for blocks around is vacant. All of those families are in that pit. Your town's population has shrunk by one thousand or four thousand or ten thousand--or even more. Those thousands are dead--or still dying. That pit, dug half a mile from your home, by trees and views you have known all your life, is moving. It won't stop moving for three days.

Last night I attended a talk at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, by French Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois, whose work to find the mass graves of Jews shot to death in Eastern Europe is described in his book, "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews."

The mass murder of Europe's Jews and Gypsies was not only carried out in the death camps. One and a half million Jews, along with Roma, Polish intelligentsia, Soviet political commissars, and Communist Party members, were killed throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by pistol or machine gun by special German paramilitary groups called the Einsatzgruppen and local volunteers between 1939 and 1944 (the majority occurring between 1941 and 1944). I learned about the killings in Dr. Werner Braatz's excellent courses on the Third Reich and the Holocaust years ago when I was a student at UW-Oshkosh (I highly recommend reading Christopher R. Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland on the topic), but I didn't realize until recently that few people in the general public know anything about this chapter of the war. Given that fact along with the honorable nature of Father Desbois's work, it was a privilege to have the chance to hear him speak.

Father Desbois described how the killings were done, how he seeks out the graves, and how he is received by witnesses. He answered questions from the audience after his lecture. The event was eye-opening.

After the massacres, the pits were covered with dirt and left unmarked. The residents of the villages in which these murders took place, most of whom are poor people who have never left their hometowns, witnessed the killings as children and now are being asked their stories for the first time. Father Desbois and his ten-person team are working against time, as these witnesses are dying of old age.

Father Desbois is also working against denial. The mayor of Rava-Ruska in western Ukraine denied over and over to Desbois any knowledge of a massacre in the city. That mayor's eventual replacement brought Desbois the truth that everyone in the village knew. Now Desbois goes straight to the average people as they walk down the street, conducting their everyday lives.

He has met a woman who was compelled by the Germans as a young girl to climb a tree--a tree the woman could see from where she stood during the interview--to retrieve the body parts of a woman blown apart in a pit by grenades, which the Germans had thrown in after the shooting to kill survivors.

Rarely, survivors managed to crawl out of the pits at night. Some are now witnesses.

Father Desbois and his team have interviewed over a thousand witnesses, covering half of Ukraine. They have just begun work in Belarus. They have yet to begin in Russia. Unfortunately, they likely only have a six- or seven-year window in which to collect these testimonies before the witnesses are all gone. The memories of the villagers, forensic evidence collected at the sites that the villagers help the team locate, and the endless job of reviewing German and Soviet government archives--the pages of which number in the millions, according to Desbois--are what make it possible for the grave sites to finally be marked, nearly seventy years later.

Unfortunately and frighteningly, Desbois and his team have been witnesses to anti-Semitism, alive and well. They interviewed a family at their home on Christmas Day and, as part of the family's celebration, watched the performance of a Christmas play. The nativity portion, said Desbois, was lovely. Then came the arrival of Jewish characters, portrayed as evil, thieving hoarders--caricatures that could have been pulled straight from Nazi propaganda but have existed for centuries longer.

This sort of dehumanization has been appallingly effective throughout history, of course. Desbois, discussing the fact that it was legal to kill Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II and that villagers turned in their Jewish neighbors to the Germans for money, shared the worst example he knows of this kind of trade: a woman whose daughter had married a Jewish man took advantage of her daughter's absence one day and turned in her six grandchildren to be shot.

Apart from the village raid graves already described, there are more mysteries to be solved: Desbois spoke last night of the fact that the Germans did not kill all the Jews in the villages; they kept some alive to work for them. This included a group of girls kept as sexual slaves. At the end of the war, these young women, pregnant, were shot. Desbois asked last night, "Where is their grave?"

The Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose was, thankfully, full. In a world where Holocaust deniers do not seem to be going anywhere and hold frightening positions of power--Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--and in which one still hears things like "He jewed him down on the price" thrown around casually, Desbois's work is extremely important. Desbois, who is an advisor to the Vatican on Jewish relations and whose life's work has been confronting anti-Semitism, discussed why he is drawn to the task of finding these graves. He spoke of the story of Cain and Abel, specifically the Bible passage in which Cain denies knowing his slain brother's whereabouts, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Desbois quoted God's answer: "Listen! Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground."

Donations can be made to Father Desbois' nonprofit organization, Yahad-In Unum, which searches for and documents the mass execution sites of Jews in Ukraine and Belarus, here. All profits from his book, Holocaust by Bullets, also go to Yahad-In Unum. The organization is also looking for a college senior or graduate student with excellent writing skills to work for Yahad-In Unum as a telecommuting intern. More information can be found here. Go to www.holocaustbybullets.com for more information on Desbois's work.