The Terror of Beauty, the Power of Love

Angela Lansbury: Goddess. The real deal. Entertainer extraordinaire.

Beauty and the Beast, the Disney animated feature now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was my first favorite movie and (perhaps not coincidentally) the first movie I can remember seeing in a theater. I was three. Stained glass and a glittering rose bigger than my eyes could take in, a young woman zooming through shelves of books on a rickety ladder, her animal friends gnawing at the pages: This cartoon might have shaped my whims and desires.

“Beauty prompts a copy of itself,” so Elaine Scarry says in “On Beauty and Being Just,” and this explains art, sure, but more importantly maybe: gawking: “Although very great cultural outcomes such as the Iliad or the Mona Lisa or the idea of distribution arise out of the requirement beauty places on us to replicate, the simplest manifestation of the phenomenon is the everyday fact of staring.”

To the movies! Yes, to the movies. Yes, and.

A child stares until he sees the doll’s nose twitch.

A child knows the world around them is alive, the inanimate world is animate, which is why a candlestick, a stuffy clock, a teacup, and swimming spoons are creatures worthy of empathy, celebration, and song.

The movie Beauty and the Beast is not without its terrors for a toddler: torches of furious townsfolk, the dark corners of a home, a well-meaning but incompetent parent, the growls and furies of love. Yet, I made it through nearly the entire 110 minutes.

Until the Beast turned into a man.

“Beast! Beast!”

I howled. I screamed. I wouldn’t and couldn’t stop.

My parents had to take me out of the theater. I believe the crying continued in the car. (What can I say? I was moved.)

The change from Beast to man was truly terrifying. The point of the fable as represented—the transformative power of love, inner beauty as outer beauty—was horrific and sad. Beast’s grotesque body was not as grotesque as his new one, one Belle didn’t know, one I didn’t know. This was not the creature I fell in love with. The crazed mob breaking down the door of the castle chanted “Kill the Beast!”

Beauty resurrects someone with her tears, but it doesn’t look or sound like the Beast.

Had the townspeople, in some regard, won?

When you are loved, does the you who you were before disappear? Do you lose your hirsute, outsized, toothy self? Do you fit better into clothes? Do you lose the power of make-believe, the stories calcifying into the bright stills of stained glass?

As a toddler, the holy terror terrified, I knew something about wildness and ugliness; I didn’t believe love could or should strip you of them. But as with most things, what we want others to want is what we see in ourselves.

My wailing reaction, an outburst, seems to speak to the nature of desire (or at least of mine): it can be loud, unseemly, excessive, claw-equipped, unkempt. We have to peel desire from its red velvet theater seat, rock it abye in crowds and parking lots, and stuff it into the sedan. It’s embarrassing.

This versus what the moral of the story, that what we desire becomes loveable because we love it, that in loving a wild soul we tame it—that this tamed love is equally (or more) desirable. That what we sense metaphysically should equal what we see or what we see we should see as beautiful, beautiful defined in the eyes of the same world that can hear a teapot sing, mistakenly thinks it’s only whistling.

I don’t want my gaze to change the object of my desire, but the object of my desire to change me.*

Metaphor is dangerous. Everything it says includes everything it doesn’t say.

I had stared at the Beast, only glimpsed the man. Beast as man, Cogsworth as man, Mrs. Potts as woman—were they any less real before I stared? Before they turned human?

The danger of looking. The danger of beauty.

(“And indeed there will be time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’”)

Later, I received the Beast Barbie doll, which was a male doll in the blue tails with hair for what we’d now call a man-bun with a furry mask that went over his head. This seemed wrong to me: The man face should be the mask—not the Beast. The Beast was the true self! The Beast was the Beloved. Given time, the prince’s hair became more wolfish, more Heathcliff; the Beast mask lost at the bottom of some tin or shelf. Eventually, as with all the other dolls, I gave them up, the alive world beckoning.

The magic mirror can “show you anything, anything you wish to see.”

No wonder then, the first section of Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” is “On Beauty and Being Wrong.”

How did the teapot put it? “Bittersweet and strange / finding you can change,” though I can’t admit to having been wrong.

*The woman, not the Beast is protagonist; she does not change in this dramatic way. Another can of worms. Also worth noting that Princess Fiona in Shrek does not change back to a human in a parody of this kind of story arc.
*Also worth noting: The idea Scarry mentions (as I understand it), using Proust as an example, of moving around the beautiful object/person so that they remain unchanged from our purview (though both subject and object could be constantly changing, just keeping equal distance between them). Geometry!

Nicaragua, the Blonde, and the Lady in Blue

Friends, I am back from (clears throat) a yoga retreat in Nicaragua. Yes, yoga. More specifically, the Find What Feels Good/Yoga With Adriene retreat. The essay below is what I took there and took from it.

Welcome! This is the view looking out of a domicile in Maderas Village, Nicaragua.

Welcome! This is the view looking out of a domicile in Maderas Village, Nicaragua.

Friends, I could tell you about the monkeys that played in the trees above me, howling hilarious (or rapacious?) noises at each other; I could tell you about being overwhelmed my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean—how hard the waves break (no, really I couldn’t); I could tell you about that ocean’s throaty, sultry rhythm and blues, and how, as in Matthew Lippman’s poem “From God’s Notebook” one can hear it and say “It is my fault, it’s not my fault”; I could show you pictures worthy of (if I had the right hashtags!) capturing the Instagram hearts of thousands of scrolling strangers worldwide, one photo in particular of boats without docks, anchored right beyond shoreline, bobbing like fishing tackle and lures, and beyond these boats a succession of blue oblivions; how conflicted I felt about traveling somewhere and meeting very few residents besides staff; how conflicted I felt about how much I have, how I need to work harder to share it. Then, there were the flowers, like bright mid-century atomic clocks, like the skirts of can-can dancers, big and flashy and a little peek at something sexy; American flowers, I’m afraid, will never do now.

Sometimes I’m convinced the Earth was the mold for the curvature of the question mark. The only thing forged in iron the questions.

Who am I and what am I made of?

Do I want to make my mark on the world or leave no trace?

What is home? Where is it? Can’t some well-intentioned child set me on the front of his bicycle and pedal me past the moon and there already? When will I be beamed up to where I am supposed to be?

In my real life, my career is not thrilling, and sometimes can feel like it lacks purpose or meaning. My hobbies interest me more than my 9 to 5. My spouse and I recently moved to a beautiful area but I have yet to make lady friends (essential to any Jane Austen novel and also to the good life!). I struggle to acknowledge that I take issue with these things because I live such a charmed existence of choices (dog! loving spouse! instruments and books strewn across a house! a garden! family and friends who if not near are dear to me!); but of course (only me?) repression always seems to transform into wallowing. I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m . . . lying in bed all day and if you question it I am hissing at you like a cat trapped under a laundry basket.

If I sketched this life out, it would look so plain, Lindsey, this hissing voice starts up. Maybe you don’t have friends because you’re a weirdo, Lindsey. (Fair enough.) You’re a traitor to feminism because you are young-ish and married and are not leaning in, Lindsey. What about your obligation to the planet? To your family and your mentors? To yourself?

And that move to that beautiful place.

Home is a slippery word. It seems everywhere you go, someone is telling you about home and what it is and that there’s no place like it. Home is where the heart is; home is where the light is; home is wherever I’m with you; change your place and there you are!

Click my heels three times.

Woops.

Enter another night spent on the Youtubez (I’m gonna say with wine, but if wine wasn’t present, it was in spirit). Enter watching yoga video on said Youtubez or Googling for one and finding YWA at the start of a new year, a year, I promised myself, that I would work to “embrace routine,” that I would work to be content. There was pre-recorded Adriene saying it was time to be responsible for my own happiness.

It’s own your shit o’clock!

It was a bigger decision for me to get on the mat the first time, to get on it every day since, than it was to pony up for a YWA-style trip to Nicaragua, which I did.

The first night there, we were supposed to say what brought us; for me, I talked about having been more brain than body before yoga. It’s true. A mind can float anywhere, a body can only be one place at one time.

But what kind of home is a body?

But what kind of home is a body? | Photo courtesy of Oscar Lopez—Check out more of his work as he travels the globe here: https://www.instagram.com/oscarlopez/

But what kind of home is a body? | Photo courtesy of Oscar Lopez—Check out more of his work as he travels the globe here: https://www.instagram.com/oscarlopez/

The mostly inescapable kind. An untakebackable gift.

It’s hard enough to be comfortable in my own brain, much less my own body. How to build anything outside of either? Instead, for years, I went invisible. It’s easier than it sounds. After all, isn’t there a whole song about hiding light under a bushel?

The only answers I’ve found: Burn the bushel. Not either but both. Less or more and. (To make that or mean more than it did before—Sondheim fans unite!)

In a foreign country in a jungle on a mountain in a hut under a ceiling of dried palm fronds, I laid down. In a guided meditation after a particularly steamy practice, Adriene asked us to imagine a walk in a jungle, at some point landing on a warm rock on a beach, making ourselves comfortable.

“What do you see?”

"What do you see?" This is the roof of the yoga building at Maderas Village.

“What do you see?” This is the roof of the yoga building at Maderas Village.

The top of my vision: a(n extremely fashionable) straw sunhat, ocean in periphery, and front and center, there on the sand, my husband in the cap he always wears and our dog, walking toward me.

Imagine that—a desire fulfilled, and yet. What I want is what I have and I just want more of it.

Soon before heading to Nicaragua, I read an article about how Emily Dickinson—that poet long rumored (despite any attempts toward right-ing) to have lived a lonely spinster life (can spinsters have un-lonely lives? nay!) crying into her rejection letters, locked in an attic in Amherst—had a garden full of rare flowers, that she spent days and seasons at this hobby, that when she was alive she was better known as a botanist than as a failed poet.

To think, a life thought tragic (and sexless! and progeny-less! but thank goodness we kept the only thing worth salvaging—the art, right fellas?) was full (and created life after life after life!) and maybe (who knows?) full of happiness on the daily. One way to draw it is dreary; another full of color and light. (The truth maybe an overhead projector on which we can layer slides.)

Like those poses where I’m pretty sure it looks like I’m doing nothing but I’m working up a sweat, from the outside it’s hard to know how much work is going on inside. Looking from the outside in—I don’t have to do that with myself; why not grant myself the gift of not doing that? The world is full of harsh eyes; I can give soft eyes. (I give really good eye—sue me!) The world is full of bustle; I can give stillness. The world is full of noise; I can give it a listen, I can give it quiet, but that doesn’t mean being invisible.

Me, rocking the same hat that Sissy Spacek wears in one episode of Bloodline Season 2, I am pretty sure | Photo credit Jennifer "Woodsy" Woods—see her photos daily here: https://www.instagram.com/woodsygolightly/

Me, rocking the same hat that Sissy Spacek wears in one episode of Bloodline Season 2, I am pretty sure | Photo credit Jennifer “Woodsy” Woods—see her photos daily here: https://www.instagram.com/woodsygolightly/

I misunderstood the dictum to, in times of trouble, turn inward. I thought it meant going it alone. I mistook my shell for my insides and wasn’t careful and almost, or did for a moment, turned to stone. But then, during those years, all that darn laughter, all those dreadful singing people on porches and on couches, all the bad dance moves one can’t help but dust off. I’m thankful for all the people who weren’t afraid of my being afraid, who aren’t afraid of extremes of volume or feeling, or of fumbling. People who will just sit with you are the best people. (Many people who took the FWFG Nicaragua trip are the best people.)

Another photo from Oscar Lopez, taken at a party that will go down in infamy. Check out his website at http://www.be-lost.com/about/

Two beautiful women, Andrea and Jude, avec moi, all drinking delicious juice. Another photo from Oscar Lopez, taken at a party that will go down in infamy. Check out his website at http://www.be-lost.com/about/

In line to board the plane from Managua back to the States, an older woman—dressed in bright blue—in front of me was speaking to the flight attendants in Spanish, trying to work something out. Double-checking that I had out the right tickets, that I hadn’t dropped my passport, I didn’t pay it much mind. When we reached the nexus between plane door and hall, I realized she was trying to transport a piñata, several feet tall, of a blonde girl onto the plane.

I like that stupid-looking, needs-a-comb blonde piñata girl—full of nothing or full of sweets—waiting for the delight of being busted open. I like the lady in blue insisting—checked or no—she make it on the plane. I’m grateful she asked (or, that I think she did), and that we sat rows apart on a machine in the sky headed toward a place we both chose to go.

San Juan del Sur at sunset.

San Juan del Sur at sunset.

Good Me, Bad Me, and Interview with The Mondegreen

One of my favorite online magazines is The Mondegreen, named for “a kind of misunderstanding: you mishear a word or phrase in a way that gives it a different meaning.” Their content is lively, fun, weird. Yes!

It’s nice to have the chance to have some of my favorite writing–a series of poems about the adventures of Good Me and Bad Me–up at one of my favorite sites. They also interviewed* me.

In this same issue the featured fictioneer, W. Todd Kaneko, writes about Rockgod and Metalhead, who form a kind of rad Midwestern Good Me–Bad Me duo.

*If one is interviewed on record, one most certainly confesses her dying love of the Louisville Cardinals. That information will surely be disseminated weeks later during the height of the team’s prostitution-ring imbroglio. Who can tell when one will earn the designation super fan?

Two Poems at The Mackinac


My poems “Saudade [Unspill the Salt]” and “At the Edge of a River” are posted at The Mackinac, complete with a really awesome Spotify playlist and liquor pairings. Whether it’s muzzy heat or heat lightning headed your way for the last few days of official summer, whether you’re hitting the couch, the beach, or the pub, check them out.

For more on saudade, might I introduce you to Wikipedia?

On Dolly the Dog, Liv Tyler, Shibboleths, & My Favorite Part of Speech

When I’m feeling resistant to Strunk & White and other style shibboleths, I love to remember Schoolhouse Rock. During the American Copy Editors Society’s May tweetchat, we gathered to discuss “what to sweat.” This discussion led to the pet peeves of others by which we cannot abide. (Refusing to end a sentence with a preposition? Check.)

I forgot to say: I am fighting the good fight against generations of writers who disparage the adverb.

Adverbs can be slashed (visibly wounded on many cutting room floors) for brevity’s sake. Adverbs can be very, very bad. How bad? Extremely bad. The stuff of blockbuster film trailers.

But adverbs are the Liv Tyler of language. You can’t put them in everything. Apply sparingly. But when perfectly cast: Well, what can be added to That Thing You Do or Arwen in the LOTR movie series or Corey Mason in Empire Records? They are the strange part that makes the whole better, richer, somehow more credible.

Adverbs, when applied well, are evidence of a language full of quirks, of a writer’s great (or not-so-great) diction. An adverb is a tell.

I’d like to stand up proudly for the pulverized little guy who often sports an -ly or dark in cognito bug-eye sunglasses. Many afternoons I take a dance break with my dog and sing the song above: “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, get your adverbs here.” Dolly the dog also enjoys the occasional adverb, as it is frequently accompanied with a treat. (What? She is my workplace proximity acquaintance.)

Dolly the Dog: My relatively new workplace proximity acquaintance. No, I don't normally work from bed. But Dolly does.

Dolly the Dog: My relatively new workplace proximity acquaintance. No, I don’t normally work from bed. But Dolly does.

The Most Important Question I Ask

I often find the best rules of thumb for life go hand-in-hand with the best rules for writing and editing. In this case, a parenting tactic is one of the strategies that has wide-reaching applications at the end of an interview.

“Do you have anything else you want to tell me?”

While this may have been used as a shame tactic on teens forming lies of omission (not saying it was used on me, not saying it wasn’t), in an interview with a source I use it as a catchall. Usually the answer amounts to not much–“No, I think we’ve pretty much covered it”–or a PR pitch that I didn’t need. But the few times it’s come in handy it doesn’t just serve as a CYA policy, but given the story the most important facets and details. When a longer interview goes well, a source warms up and might be willing to share something they hadn’t thought of or been willing to at the beginning of the conversation, particularly for cold calls.

For Pearl Harbor survivor Will Lehner’s story, the most important piece of the puzzle didn’t appear until I asked that question, thinking the conversation was wrapping up–not only starting. His ship sank a Japanese submarine about an hour before the attack, and for years, it wasn’t on record. Few would believe him or his fellow sailors. It wasn’t until 2000 he went with a team led by Bob Ballard (the guy who found the Titanic) to search for the sub, and not until 2002 with another research team that it was uncovered and his story “checked out,” gumshoes. Little old me? I didn’t know any of that until after we had talked about Indiana, driving (the next time he’ll need to renew his license he’ll be 103) and his post-military career.

Click here to read how Lehner’s incredible story was stitched neatly into a full circle over six decades.

The Alcatraz 11 and National POW/MIA Day

Friday, Sept. 19, is National POW/MIA Day. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Bob Shumaker, a retired Navy rear Admiral who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly eight years. When he left, his son was a newborn. He would become part of the Alcatraz 11–a group of POW dissidents confined to solitary for more than two years. I also spoke with all-around amazing person Louise Mulligan, a housewife-turned-activist, who broke government policy to speak out in order to bring her husband, and many other men, to the forefront of American concern and finally, home. Alvin Townley, author of Defiant, a book about the Alcatraz 11, shared the wider history and context of this movement.

One of the 11 men would go on to receive the Medal of Honor. One would serve as a senator, another a congressman. One never made it back to the States.

Read the story here.

I had to cut an original draft of nearly 4,000 words–all quotes, not just my own babbling–to the 1,600 presented. If you want to know more, do some Googling, look at newspaper archives and check out Townley’s book.

On anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, how her visit inspired one vet to keep going

Today is the fifty-second anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. A veteran I spoke with late last year had a lot to say about what her life as a public figure meant to him as a lowly soldier in Korea.

When I spoke with Mr. Miranda about his time in the military, a photo bulb’s flash made for one of his brightest memories–evidence he had seen Marilyn in real life. On base in Korea, the troops were visited by Marilyn Monroe, right before she would marry Joe DiMaggio. To read about his encounter and what her presence meant to him, click here.