there was this thick volume on world war II always sitting on the coffee table thus I guess it was a coffee table book which although I cannot remember a time when this book was not there I do remember the first time that I read it from cover to cover. it had pictures. it had pictures of everything but in my insulated six-year-old immortality none of them struck me particularly one way or the other. it was however the first time that I realized the germans were the bad guys but this is not necessarily about the germans even if this whole thing began with their idea but all while growing up I was told how german I was and thus even so early on it was with some shock that I discovered it was not something to be inordinately proud of.
I left it that way for a reason.
this book was what made world war II the beginning of history for me. as though it were sitting there to make sure I knew the defining event of the century as soon as I was able to know about anything. I've never asked why we had it or what was the motivation behind buying it and placing it on the coffee table where anyone at all could leaf through pages of corpses bulldozed into ditches and watch hands fused to the time of 8:15 and the sores and the burns and the footprints in the concrete of where buildings used to be and limbs torn off and the bunks upon bunks filled with bodies barely occupying space and only making faint gestures of living itself and twisted scraps of cars and people and the blasted earth shorn of both vines and dirt and of crawling things still crawling and this was all in the coffee table book which shared its designated place with Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping and McCall's all of which taught me about sex before my mother had a chance to say anything on the subject but still I was dismayed to find out what it actually consisted of.
I should point out in case you have forgotten that I was a girl and girls tend to be dismayed when they first find out what is popularly understood as "sex."
what's the use of descriptors. I will let you know when I get to the other side I will send you a sign and finally we will have our answer to what comes after and don't they all say that and don't we then never hear a word. it's the question we get wrong and subsequently the answers are but moments away from that kind of lunacy that does not satisfy the romantic in us but rather tries to kill it. why do we squish bugs out of reflex or whose reflex is it that does the squishing through us. what do you mean we white man.
in the book downstairs which also included pictorial narratives depicting the reasonable yet miraculous recovery of emotionally disturbed individuals after the application of modern psychiatry and I pored over these somehow recognizing my future which turned out not always to respond to science and wasn't it in the eighteenth century that we thought we were on the verge of knowing everything and wasn't it in the 1950s that we thought we had just about finished the project begun in the salons and isn't it interesting that the encyclopedia to end encyclopedias will be infinitely modifiable and thus never be finished and how long did it take to come to realize that. after the psychiatric triumphs the section of this book that fascinated me most but no I lie the sections that next fascinated me the most were those on the various physical illnesses that we could now treat and how and the long section on infantile paralysis one of whose symptoms was difficulty in swallowing and I with my preternaturally strong gag reflex always was a little scared that I had polio but as time went by and I did not die over and over I figured I was ok but I'd say that after those sections at least I never could quite understand the one about the flash and how to avoid radiation and how ducking under the wall holding the window you saw the flash through would save you from this thing and finally I asked what it was but I do not remember the answer except to the extent that it was probably so bad that it wasn't even worth worrying about because how can you worry about instantaneous oblivion. so because I was young I left it for the adults to worry about and this is how I grew up in the crosshairs without noticing anything unusual.
war then was like baseball in that I thought that there was always a war and that you kept track of who was winning by the casualty counts given like a scoreboard on the nightly news and the pictures of helicopters over jungles and picking up the shards left of soldiers or circling above the ash rings of places where people so strange I did not even know how to comprehend how far away they were or how they could talk to one another or know which hand to use the fork in or conceive of a chair or the airplanes overhead and how strange a thing tv was or should have been even to me did not make an impression used to live because you see the most remarkable thing about the footage from vietnam was that I assumed it was exactly what happened every day in some part of the world and I suppose I was not that far from wrong but exasperatedly now I shake myself and yell that's not normal but you know I'm not so sure of that anymore either.
a little later when retro first made its appearance I came to understand that at first it was always assumed someone would have the hands with which to sift through the ash but then I was taught that you couldn't even rely upon this anymore. but then at the same time I was also taught that only a heartbeat lay between me and eternal torment so it was sometimes difficult to know whom to take seriously. thus in my childish credulity I believed them all.
what was the difference between holocaust and hell after all. not much. if I believed at any moment the world could flip over into the last judgment what difference did a few Russian warheads pointed at me make. really what were they thinking of threatening us with hell if we died and with the day after if we survived. terror exerts its discipline not to mention its little hells on earth.
the cover drill consisted of huddling under your desk but we were never told what we were hiding from. I kept waiting for some vague earthquake or whatever might make the ceiling tiles fall as it was not at all clear how our desks were to function as protection. these were the metal and wood jobs with the cavernous space underneath the seat for books and until sixth grade you sat in the same desk in the same room all day every day through the whole year and the space you sat on became filled with pieces of paper and spiral notebooks and pencils and small toys snuck in until on the last day of school they passed around the round metal wastebasket to shovel your desk out into and although it seemed an endless mess somehow the whole class' worth of mess fit into the wastebasket. still it seemed likely that at least by christmas time there was enough mass in the space underneath the seat to act as counterbalance to whatever it was that was supposed to fall on your desktop to keep it from simply tipping over and bumping you on the head. by high school of course your belongings were smushed into your locker and you changed rooms every forty-five minutes and the cover drill had evolved into three blasts on the electronic bell but there was still nothing to do but get under the desks which were now wire and formica and more likely to be hurled into you in the event of a cataclysm of moderate energy than to save you from whatever it was that was attacking the two of you.
I was still not sure what we were hiding from although I had my suspicions. my brother was on safety patrol because he was an even bigger dork than I was. it was not clear to me whether they thought the drill was supposed to help us to learn to do anything useful but they did spend a lot of time pretending they were storm chasers.
(the tornado drill was something entirely different.
there was that one day dark as midnight at 9am and the pounding of hail but at least we knew what that was. this did not help me at all as I was far more terrified of tornados than of the nameless predator that couldn't find you under your desk.)
(I tried something different at first. I tried something different but typical and being typical it turned out not to be topical which is the bind really whenever I sit down to do this and when you think of it the blast o butter popcorn on the shelf seems to know better what to say than I do and there isn't any of it that can be anything but a joke sort of like the sort we bantered back and forth that day after we awoke to the back wall on fire and ran out in the dark yelling at the firemen that the fire was in the back where you couldn't see because from our perspective they were just sitting there while the building was being consumed and suddenly we remembered that we had not grabbed the cats first like you always think you will and the photographs but when you see orange flickering outside your window as you struggle to get your pants on all you worry about further is a shirt and shoes before the window breaks or the fuel tank on that motorcycle that parks outside explodes and that's it you beat it out of there and then you stand and watch after it occurs to you.
the cats lived but smelled like smoke for some time. don't cry.)
the reading itself was really good and there were only a couple of pretentious/boring readers so listening was not painful at all and the time went by really fast but it does that all the time now so maybe I should start thinking about going to see movies again as until now it has always driven me insane to have to watch a movie more than two hours long unless it is Lord of the Rings but it seems that two hours now takes fifteen minutes.
the reception afterwards reminded me of all the reasons I am glad to be spending more time at the art institute than at berkeley as I was roundly ignored by all present except for Lyn who said very nice things and introduced me to Robert Hass who asked me what my dissertation was about and looked away and started talking to Lyn once I was three words into my sentence. how long does it take to say postmodern ethics and gertrude stein. not that long. surely he hadn't yet had the opportunity to get bored with me.
the way things go with me now I can feel like dying and resolve to get out there and try again all at the same time. every time I read I say to myself I must do this more and then all this time goes by while I sit in my room writing autobiographies and dissertations and lectures and paper assignments and drawing naked men and a month later I realize I have not read anywhere and I need to fix that. remember the one-gig-a-month rule. more often and they get tired of you but less often and they forget you.
they clapped. they did clap and at least as long and loud as for any of the others and longer and louder than for some. so I don't know what the ignore trip was about. too busy impressing each other with their recent acquisition of the latest postmodern buzzword I think. or maybe I looked imposing in my pink shirt and silver jewelry and shaved head and nerd glasses and the complete absence of companionship. still. if a performer is standing alone isn't someone supposed to walk up and say hey I liked your piece? or is it my job to walk up to them and say so did you like me.
maybe it was because I was wearing a dick. maybe I should have put on the small one.