Friday, March 27, 2009

Blood, Guts, and Self-Interest

There’s this famous quote about writing that says, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and open a vein.” Whether that refers to an outpouring of emotion that accompanies the craft or the idea that writing is painful, the idea is clear: to open a vein is a big deal. Bleeding is a scary thing, an idea we humans are naturally not okay with. This has never been clearer to me than when I recently opened a literal vein to donate blood for the American Red Cross.

Because I experience no pain or discomfort from donating blood, I am a little biased. I too have heard the horror stories and urban legends surrounding bleeding on purpose and letting my blood be injected into other people’s veins. Evolutionarily, I do understand why we are afraid of bleeding. But rationally, as a more sophisticated being who can think and understand that there is a .0001 chance that anything will go wrong, I find the general reluctance to donate blood something no red-blooded person should be proud of.

I was raised, and I think most people are raised, to put others before myself. I am by no means able to lay down my life for another person, but donating blood seems like a very easy way to at least try to follow this pillar of wisdom. Giving blood isn’t even really putting others interests before mine, as no harm comes to me as a result and I sometimes even get a free sticker for my troubles. There is a need for blood in the world, and I have more blood than I need. I am thankful that I am healthy and robust, and I feel sorrow that not everyone is so fortunate. An hour of my time and a pint of my blood is a tiny, tiny way for me to do something about this. Other people need blood. I have blood. Why would I not give?

I’ve heard the reasons – it makes you sick, you don’t have time, you’re scared of needles, you have an irrational fear that your transfused blood will end up in a murder investigation. Those are all fair reasons, though they do nothing about the sick people who need blood to stay alive. I am scared by how often I see this one-for-one instead of all-for-one self-interest that people do not apologize for. We somewhat have political writer Ayn Rand to thank for this, who says, “Man must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.” With all due respect to Ms. Rand and my friend Cameron, that is a terrible way to live.

The highest moral purpose in life should not be oneself. It should be other people. A little bruise on the inside of my arm is a tiny way to create some good karma, pay it forward, do unto others as I would have done unto me. I’m not being paid by United Blood Services, nor are platelet transfusions my personal crusade. The point is not to get people to donate blood. The point is to get people thinking about how their sacrifice is important, that is a good and right thing to give an hour and a pint to people who need it. It is a deep, difficult, and worthwhile thing to place someone else’s interest, a stranger’s interest, higher than one’s own. As deep and difficult as opening a vein.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Whatever, Forever After: An Early Review of Megan McCafferty's "Perfect Fifths"

We interrupt our "regularly" scheduled blogging to post a review of Megan McCafferty's new book "Perfect Fifths", in bookstores everywhere April 14.

The central relationship in Megan McCafferty’s New York Times-bestselling Jess Darling series has always been a bit like a crash. The forces that draw our snarky heroine Jess Darling and her former “poet-addict-manwhore” turned quasi-Buddhist turned Ivy leaguer love Marcus Flutie are strong at worst and jet-propelled at best. In the tantalizing final volume of the smart and savvy series that boast wide age appeal, the two literally crash into each other in the middle of an airport three years after Jess has turned down Marcus’ proposal of marriage.

If readers are wondering whether it’s over for Jessica and Marcus, here is a little of what Marcus has to say about their love in Perfect Fifths: “It is an alchemical attraction that transcends all reason, rationality, and – in three years since she spurned him – reality.”

Finally hearing from the inimitable Marcus Flutie is just one of the new tricks McCafferty has pulled out for readers, though it may be the most important. Reading from his perspective, all the questions I had about the pair from reading the diary-style entries written almost exclusively by Jess in the previous novels are answered. Is Marcus really as deep and important as Jess thinks he is? Does he love her as much as she loves him? Marcus finally gets more than a letter and some poetry to give us a feel for who he is without Jess as an incurably rose-colored lens.

The most delightful parts of the new book are the various “shticks” McCafferty employs to make this one different. It’s told in third person this time, and though I had feared it would dilute Jessica’s delightful wit and observation, the new point of view actually makes me more forgiving of Jess and keeps her from being too whiny, as her diaries seemed at times. The two much-discussed sections of the book that are very different from any books are the 80-plus pages of pure dialogue and the chapter of conversation written in haiku. When Ms. McCafferty was talking about the dialogue portion at the Tucson Festival of Books, my creative writing professor was in the audience, slowly shaking her head. She didn’t need to worry: this section is a pithy delight, giving the often tongue-tied Marcus and the sometimes babbling Jessica a balance we haven’t seen in the other books. The awkwardness of the conversation feels so authentic, I felt myself cringing even as I was smiling at the chemistry the two characters have even on the page. As McCafferty said in her talk at the Festival of Books, it is the things that are not said between the two, the things they almost say, that is most tantalizing and most telling.

Long-time readers will already know the importance of haiku in the series, and its importance in the final serial of this love is sweet and fitting. It’s often hard to write authentic flirting, and here the author does it within syllabic confines. The section has received much attention and anticipation, and rightly so: it is fun and funny, whip-smart and Smarties-sweet, a lovely device in a story and a love propelled in the most uncommon ways. Some of the other fun new introductions are Jess’ protégé Sunny Dae, her “Korean reincarnation and alter-ego”; an older version of the always charming Marin (Jessica’s niece); and an effective and not all overbearing summary of what everyone’s been up to since we last saw them. A “Hey There Delilah”-like hit song written about Marcus and Jessica by high-school friend, Cornell grad, and now emo-rocker Len Levy is a another treat for readers, as is the Internet backlash about the song lead by frenemy Manda Powers, whose hilarious and apropos screen name is “couchsurfeminist.” Perfect Fifths is filled with delightful morsels of foreshadowed future for readers of McCafferty’s previous novels, but even the Notso Darling Newbie can find much to enjoy.

My only criticism is that there’s not much new going on here – all of the pivotal, important moments rely heavily on what has happened in previous books. For example: if you knew Jess when she was in high school, you know why it’s so important that it’s not just karaoke but Barryoke (Barry Manilow karaoke) featured in the climactic scene. As a devotee, I loved how well everything fit together, but these books have been so unfailingly realistic, it’s a bit odd to ask readers to rely on so many coincidences now. Readers have also criticized Jess for turning into a brat in her old age, but it’s hardly a fair criticism to fault someone for getting older. I believe and like Jess as she is here at 26, and what is new about the book more than makes up for how little there is of it.

A friend told me she threw Fourth Comings across the room when she finished it, but I don’t think that will be her reaction this time: McCafferty has crafted a kinetic, frenetic, and heartfeltly hopeful ending for the series so many have loved. Jessica Darling has grown up and changed, just like a real person, and like a real friend, I’ll miss her. This is a satisfying and fitting final chapter in Jessica’s youth, a classically witty and refreshingly honest portrayal of youth and life that is both savvy and sappy in the best possible ways. It’s a high Five for McCafferty: this ending is pitch-perfect for Jessica and Marcus, even when it’s slightly off key.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Days in the Life

Like every young person who trying to become less of a projection of my own shortsightedness in all the most misguided ways, I watch the news. Or rather, I try to, but usually I am distracted by either the incomplete and gimmicky reporting of the corporate media conglomerates, their dismally poor grammar, or the home design marathon two channels over. But even after I am again blissfully lost in paint hues and my own bubble of existence, I always think about the people that have to make those big decisions. I don’t have (get?) to make decisions that affect even ten people, let alone millions of soldiers, or Iraqi civilians, or every single American, or the entire world. I’m not in a position to effect much change in an obvious or very pragmatic way. I just always think about how after these people whom we have placed all our hopes and trust in make all these very serious decisions that will affect every person alive, they’re going to go, like, eat a sandwich. The people that send us to war, bring us back, cut our taxes, raise them again, and decide if we’re all going to have classes to take or pensions to retire with are (to again quote my brilliant mother) just people. They make all these wild and vast-reaching changes, and then they go to Starbucks and decide if they want a hazelnut or a vanilla latte today. In my life, that is the biggest I’ll make in a day. I want to deeply affect people and live an important and far reaching life, but I’m still working on the balance between living each small day and having it add up to be a big life.

Before I decided to get over myself and think about real life (that is, listen to my parents) I kind of thought that once I got out of high school, life would only be the big things. I thought life would explode into a fanfare of only being deep and important, and I would somehow get to opt of the niggling little small-life things. This was not a well-founded theory, as remain unsure of exactly what big life that was (or might be in the future). Yet I am still boggled by the circus act it must be to have one’s whole life in order, and I am impressed by the whole adult world that finds it easy enough that they didn’t even need to warn me about it. How does anyone find enough space in the day for both little and big decisions, for both the news and HGTV, for both world-altering legislation and a skinny vanilla latte? I never appreciated what a delicate art it is to be able to enjoy the little things, the small stepping-stone days, the tiny joys where nothing explodes anywhere. I am still working on the contrast between living a whole big life and living each day. The important people in the world that affect even the teensiest life still get up every morning and go to bed every night. They still struggle with the treadmill and deal with their kids’ anger issues and enjoy a nice sunny day. They can’t all have personal assistants, and even that wouldn’t help them organize their minds. It’s hard for me to see that they know something I don’t, those ‘old’ people, and dropping it all is the only way I’m going to be able to learn to juggle it right.

I see people who only live for each day, not in a RENT type of way, but in a modest keep-my-high-school-job-forever way. Maybe some people never swim across that huge deep gap between living a good day and living a good life. I see people who don’t seem to notice it, who are just so well-adjusted that the small things are all they need (or maybe someone warned them, lucky sods). But I’m not either of those. I want to be able to love every day, to live it deliberately, but also to love all the days together. I want to love every chapter and love the whole book. I want to be able to write a chapter and still end up with a whole book. Where do the adults find the cohesion? It is an adjustment of this training-wheels adult stage that I never expected: how to balance the big and the small, to ford the vast space between who I am every individual day and who I hope to be, someday.