It’s the first of June, which means, according to our governor, the state is ready to be “back to normal.” In fact, we’ve had a slow return to normalcy over the last four-to-six weeks, with increasingly relaxed rules and restrictions in close relationship with the CDC’s guidance. So, in our state, the shock of an overnight change should be much less severe than it has been in other places. This is all good news, right? Returning to normal is something we should strive for, or at least that’s been the suggestion. But if you’re someone like me, this might not be as exciting as it sounds. Let me try to explain.
On February 6th, 1963, an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled “It May Look Like a Walnut*” aired for the first time. The episode opens with Rob and Laura Petrie in bed, watching an episode of some Twilight Zone-esque show. It’s a kind of body-snatcher plot, where an alien who is determined to keep human beings from exploring space comes to earth and begins to slowly take over their bodies through an ingenious method of implanting bits of his own essence inside of walnuts, which are then shipped around the world and sold through local markets and grocers. When a person cracks open the walnut, he or she becomes, well, biologically possessed by the alien Kolak—really, becoming Kolak. The human beings lose their thumbs, which prevents them from being mechanically able, and they lose their imaginations, which prevents them from thinking creatively, from dreaming, and (to Rob-the-comedy-writer’s extreme horror) from having a sense of humor. Oh, the Kolaks also grow an extra set of eyes in the back of their heads so that they can literally see anything that’s going on around them at any time.
Now, the actual Van Dyke episode after that initial opening sequence, where Rob tries to scare Laura, begins with Rob waking up in the morning to all sorts of strange, walnut-flavored circumstances and coincidences. At first, he imagines Laura must be playing a practical joke on him, simple spousal payback for his keeping her up all night with scary stories and bad dreams. But soon enough, as his day progresses, that seems less and less likely. How could Laura have gotten millions of walnuts from the market so early in the morning, by herself, and gotten them all back to the house, planted in various places? How could she convince their young son to get in on the joke and not spoil it? When did she find time to call both of his coworkers and his boss to join in the fun, as they do, and to get walnuts to them, too!? It’s impossible. So, eventually, what Rob first believes to be a practical joke becomes more and more insidious. Is it a dream he can’t wake from? Or is Kolak real, and really taking over the world?
This episode is a perfect metaphor for social anxiety.
As we all clamor excitedly for the great reopening of the world, and the return to normalcy, there’s understandable joy and expectation. But for some of us, there’s a real sense of dread, too. Like Rob among the walnuts, some of us feel constantly on edge in social situations. We feel, indeed, that even our family members and closest friends are intimidating, a challenge to be around. In these settings, we stumble without thumbs. Our imaginations have been drained away. At work, we feel trapped by common conversations that, for us, are extremely uncomfortable. Everywhere we go, there are Kolaks all around, with their four eyes constantly watching our every move. Are we saying the right thing? Sitting the right way? Was that joke too crass? Too dull? Is our laugh too loud? Am I wearing the right clothes for this occasion? Just like Rob, the longer the social situation endures, the more heightened our anxiety and near-panic becomes; and all of this is when we’re among friends, family, and colleagues! The horror of ending up in a room with total strangers, where we’re sat next to someone we don’t know and are expected to make small talk? Well, that’s just like Kolak walking into our office unexpectedly and presenting himself, unabashedly and nonchalantly, as the alien among us (except, in our case, he’s not played by the brilliant Danny Thomas). How the hell do we respond to that?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Adam,” you’ll say, “you’re a teacher! How can you be anxious in social situations!?” Well, it’s true, I am surrounded by people in my normal working conditions, and I am in fact looking forward to getting back in the classroom with my students. But that’s different. For class, I am always prepared. I know exactly what topics need to be covered, how we’ll approach them, what questions are likely to be asked or need to be answered, who will be in the room and for how long. I am generally in control of those scenarios, even when things go unexpectedly, because ultimately that’s my class. This is not at all comparable to typical social situations where, at the drop of the hat, the topic of conversation can change, a new person can enter the room, or someone might decide it’s time to leave this one locale (where I’d just started to settle into the background!) for some new park, bar, or restaurant. There’s no preparing for that, and there’s nothing to do but try to blend in and put on that happy face.
So, as we reopen and return to “normal,” I’m left wondering, what’s so great about normal? For people like me, not much. It’s a challenge to get out there and participate in the social things—even if the idea of these reunions thrills me. I’m filled to burst with love for my friends and family, and I very much like the idea of being with them again. But the idea of something and the experience of it are not equivalent. Luckily, my husband, who experiences his own anxiety of a different kind, is extremely good in social situations. It comforts me to know that, if the time has come to recommence gatherings, social visits, and get-togethers of whatever type, then I’ll at least have someone with me who can talk to anyone about anything, for however long. He lets me off the hook. Bless him.
If you’re like me, a person who loves people but would much rather be by yourself, at home with your books, then I wish you well as we transition back to a daily life that was never easy for us to begin with. Be kind to yourself. Go slow. Breathe.
*Incidentally, this episode plays a prominent role in the recent Disney+/Marvel television series, WandaVision.
And a quick note on my reading in May: I posted some of my thoughts on my AAPI reads here, and a review of A.S. King’s Switch here. I also read Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Masque (a classic of Japanese gay fiction), and a re-read of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (a poetry collection that I found to be just as brilliant this time through, though I learned even more upon a second reading.) That’s a total of eight books read in May.
Switch is innovative, perplexing, and heartbreaking. In other words, it’s exactly what we have come to expect from the one-of-a-kind mind and talent that is A.S. King. Even among her unique oeuvre, though, this novel stands out as experimental, which might explain some of the rather tepid reviews it has received thus far. It’s hard to prepare readers for a truly surrealist experience, and perhaps that’s especially true for young readers who might be experiencing surrealist literature for the first time. So, how does one prepare to read a book like this?
Well, the best way I can describe Switch is to say that it’s a visual depiction of what happens at the crossroads of trauma, grief, and recovery. Imagine every scenario, every emotion, that manifests from trauma: Isolation, doubt, self-loathing, fear, suspicion. Next, imagine the cause of all this is your own family, the very people (or person) you’re trapped with. And these people are also the ones you must rely on. Got it so far? Now: make that story visible. Literally, tell this story, in words, in such a way as to make the readers see and experience the unraveling of that trauma, that grief, right there on the page in front of them, not necessarily in the prose, but in the construction and deconstruction of that prose. Memories are metaphors. People are tools personified. Can you imagine? I doubt it. And there’s the genius of A.S. King. There’s the brilliance of Switch.
The story itself is told from the perspective of teenager Truda Becker, whose parents are going through a kind of separation, whose older brother is being blackmailed by their sibling over something that sort of did but sort of didn’t happen, and whose sister is a manipulative narcissist hellbent on turning the family members against one another. Truda’s father, in a noble but misguided attempt to heal his family, creates something that changes the world. As a result, many young people are discovering they have certain special abilities, and one of those young people might be Truda herself. What does all this mean? How can the world outside seem totally normal, everyone going about their business as usual, when one’s own home is descending rapidly and maddeningly into a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and makeshift security blankets? And how does one find the courage to right the world again if it means sacrificing her own special abilities in the process?
Why does time stop, how do we get it moving again, and is it worth it to try?
This is an uncomfortable read, and intentionally so. Not only are the themes unsettling, but so too are certain actions and events that are alluded to with greater or lesser detail at different points in the narrative. So, it’s going to be tough to finish reading this story, close the cover, and walk away feeling what we might normally expect to feel after reading a young adult novel: Joy? Elation? Comfort? Well, no, not really, but there’s hope for those things. There’s hope, indeed, in the fact that, despite the visceral, almost painterly displays of trauma the protagonist Truda Becker experiences and depicts, she remains open to love in the end. She remains open to forgiveness—forgiveness, that is, for those who deserve it (including herself); but she also learns how to draw a firm line between herself and those who would harm her, and this is something she, even as the youngest, manages to teach the rest of her family, too.
Grab your crowbar. Flip the switch.
“To understand anything is to understand energy” (24).
“Carrie has been on antidepressants for six months. She has gained eighteen pounds. The people who point out this weight gain to her far outnumber the people who ask how she’s feeling today, or if she feels like dying anymore” (59).
“I think the universe is rewarding me for dismantling Fear” (134).
“This is the solution to fourteen generations of bullshit that we don’t have to pass down to our kids. That’s our job. Generation fifteen. We’ll be the generation who heals” (164).
“Time stopped because it was sick of us being assholes to each other. So the only way to start it again is to stop being assholes to each other” (221).
The weather here in America’s hottest region has been strange this weekend, to say the least. It’s tens of degrees cooler than normal and we’re even getting snow in the mountains! Snow in late-May! It’s quite an event, let me tell you, and I’ve been trying to enjoy every second of it. Soon enough (like, just a few days from now!) we’ll be nearing 100-degree highs. I thought I’d take a little break from enjoying the outdoors, though, to share some reading & writing updates, as well as some “laudable linkage.”
Recent Reading Updates
This month, I’m focusing on Asian American & Pacific Islander writers, in honor of AAPI Heritage month here in the United States. So far, I’ve read four texts:
Currently, I’m reading Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. It’s funny, about half-way into the book, I felt the urge to learn a little bit about the author. His style intrigued me, as did the story, so I wanted to know who this guy was. While doing some light research, I realized I own two more books by this same author! I’m not sure how I missed that, but I guess it’s a sign that, really, I have too many books! (Is that a thing?)
Recent Writing Updates
Something exciting that’s happened since things have begun to reopen is that I found a new morning writing spot. I don’t want to name names because I’m not particularly interested in giving free advertising, but I will say that it’s a rather large chain which currently has an awesome marketing ploy to get people in the doors. It worked for me! I’ve been a little distracted there, to be honest, because the place gets very busy. That said, it’s so good to be getting back into a routine. For some reason, I’m the kind of person who cannot write well at home. I do all my editing and revising at home, but as far as the original invention and writing/drafting phases? I just can’t do it!
I’ve also just found out that Broad River Review will be publishing one of my poems in their 2021 issue releasing late-Fall. This poem is part of a collection I’ve been working on; it’s very dear to my heart right now, so I’m absolutely overjoyed that Broad River Review liked it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.
Items Worth Sharing
Hello, everyone, and Happy May Day!
I had an incredibly active reading month in April, so I’m going to post the list of titles that I read (by genre) below, with very, very brief comments on each. I read a total of 16 titles, so there’s just no way I can give any kind of detailed reviews this time around. My focus was on poetry because April was poetry month, but my two favorite reads of the month—and indeed of this year so far—are listed last, under the “Novels” section. P.S. May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month so my focus for the next four weeks will be on AAPI texts (see image at the end of this post.)
And a quick note on writing progress: I’ve submitted two chapbook manuscripts for poetry and have written some new poems, as well as worked on revisions of a half dozen. I’ve got ideas for another half-dozen poems jotted down in note form & hope to work on those this month. I’m also working on a new(ish) novel. Poetry has been my focus, though, and I’ve been reading a lot about it from a craft perspective. It’s also the current strand of coursework that I’m pursuing at UC Berkeley right now (I’m in the creative writing program and will be completing work in fiction and poetry, but right now I’m tuned into the poetry track.)
What I Read in April:
So, I had a wonderful time with poetry this month and will continue it (to a lesser extent, probably) next month. My two starred readings of the month, though, are At Swim, Two Boys and Hamnet, both of which are also two of my favorite books of the year. We’ll see how they hold up to the next 8 months of reading!
Oh, right! Here’s what I’ll be reading in May for AAPI Heritage Month:
The Classics Club Spin is back for the 26th time. Despite my near-constant failure with this challenge (I think I’ve “won” once or twice?), I’m going to try again. I’ve been on a reading hot streak and have been gravitating back towards literary works, lately, so maybe now is the time. Or maybe not.
I’ve linked to the Spin page here, but simply put, I list here 20 books from my Classics Club list (see the full list below) that I’m willing to read depending on where the “Spin” randomizer falls. The magic number will be revealed this Sunday, April 18th. I’ll then know which book I’m supposed to read by May 31st. Okay? Okay!
I am hoping for one particular number/book to “spin” my way this time, but we shall see. Wish me luck!
Progress: 17 of 50 Completed (34% done)
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