Expose: How Babies Get Born

Contractions are like cramps. And cramps, I’ve always thought, feel like a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge. Being swabbed dry with a cotton ball. The dull ache in my lower abdomen starts at 3 a.m. after a night that included a backyard fire, hobo dinner, a few s’mores and a bunch of episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.” The pain eases in, it’s tidal, and I start the stopwatch on my phone but fall asleep before it ends. This pattern suggests a lack of urgency.

At some point Chuck wakes and I tell him he probably isn’t going to work today. It’s like someone hit the eject button on the bed. He’s upright and wearing pants before his second blink. He’s downloading a contractions app. I’m throwing various chargers into a duffel bag.

“We should have gone to bed early,” Chuck had said when we crawled in at about 1 a.m. “Since we’re going to be going to the hospital at 5 a.m.”

Actually it was 6 a.m.

HERE SHE COMES. SHE’S AN ANTEATER

Sometimes I suspect I’m a pussy. That the urinary tract infections and the recent migraines really would be damn near pleasant for the majority of women and that my default setting is jammed in the “ouch” position. Is there really a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge, or is it the downiest of feathers giving my uterus a cartoonish tickle. I have to stop a few times during the walk from the parking ramp to the birthing center.

In the latter half of my pregnancy I took on the look of an anteater. It has to do with my posture, my slightly pained expression and the shape of my glasses. No one here pays attention to my walking zoo exhibition. I might be having the most extraordinary experience of my life, but to these hospital employees I’m just another round-shouldered woman mooing into a window ledge.

My fear is that the inner mechanics of my body won’t be able to keep up with my level of discomfort. The contractions will pulse, but the crypt won’t budge. The professionals will say, “Nice try. Come back when you’ve got something real to show us.” That would be a nightmare. Back in the car, across town, into our living room where I would continue to moan through ebb and flow while Chuck squeezes my hips in comfort. His eyebrows clenched into two points.

VINCENT PRICE AND THE GREGORIAN CHANTS
The common rubber exercise ball is rebranded as a “birthing ball” on this floor of the hospital. And this is my happy place. I spend hours rocking through the contractions. Sometimes they roll in while my own personal nurse is in the middle of a story and I have to say: “I want to hear more about your son’s baseball tournament, I do, but I need to drop my head, rock my hips and perform a Gregorian chant for the next 45 seconds.” She watches the monitor I’m plugged into and lets me know when the pain is at its apex. She uses a soft, meditative voice to coax me over the hump. This is both awesome and infuriating. It’s allows me to follow my pain like a dot on a map, but wish it would hurry its way to Point B.

We have movement in the crypt and the doctors seems surprised. It’s opening at an acceptable rate. I imagine a sort of Vincent Price creak and groan. Bats, cobwebs, condensation.

“I really hate this,” I say to Chuck or my mom or the nurse. Anyone who happens to be sitting across from me and might be wondering how I’m feeling. “This is like … being tortured.”

CLENCH AND PRICK

There is a new worst-feeling-in-the-world: Having a contraction while getting stuck in the spine with the epidural. I’m knocked breathless. The progressive squeeze in the front, the pinch in the vulnerable part of the back. It’s a double assault. The epidural guy yields to the whims of my uterus, then continues his numb job. The only thing standing between me and a huge HOLY FUCK THAT HURTS is the promise that I’ll soon go dead legged.

THE GUSH
Pregnancy seemed to drag on forever and ever. I’m neither patient, nor do I have much stick-to-it-ness. If it was anything else at all — growing a plant, writing a novel, learning French — I’m sure it would have been abandoned. A project lost in storage next to my old easel, a pair of hockey skates and a set of free weights. Still, when the doctor tells me that they are going to break my amniotic sac I get panicky and start to cry. It feels too soon, too fast, too real. Later Chuck tells me that this cloud burst was recorded on my chart, along with the information that “Patient says she has been emotional during pregnancy” — which makes me feel like I’m in the fast lane toward electro shock therapy.

And then a massive gush leaves my body, a creek after a rainstorm, and the bed is warm and my legs are wet. Every time I laugh or cough or shift I get another burst of flow. It’s a new level of gross. A glimpse of life with incontinence.

Chuck is standing next to the bed when the nurse points to something on the sheet.
“That’s the mucus plug,” she says. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen one that is perfectly intact.”
I grimace. This is a bit of science that terrified me from the beginning. I’d never heard the words “mucus plug” before I got pregnant. Truly, it is among the most visual of two-word combos. In my head it would look like a baby rat: pink and wet with a tail. Chuck tells me it looks like something that would come into play during cold-and-flu season.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” I say to him.
My plan had been to keep as much of this gushing, squirting, bleeding, tearing away from him as possible. I’d like for him to be able to look at me after I sneeze without forever thinking of this slug-like thing that oozed out of my body.
“I’m glad she explained what it was,” he says. “because that was horrific.”

DEAD LEGS
I spend much of the day with no feeling below the waist. I’m assured that I will still feel contractions, but they will be in the form of a blooming pressure. That will prove true. And that pressure feels like the sort of urgent lower abdominal, slash bowel weight that accompanies a night of binge drinking and terrible dietary decisions followed by one too many cups of black coffee.

I touch my right leg and nothing happens. It’s like a slab of dead animal. Something to stuff an apple into and roast over a spit. There is an impulse to see what all I can do to my leg without feeling pain. Pass the fork. Every time I shift positions, I have to physically lift my leg, which has suddenly become the heaviest part of my body — though I’m not convinced it’s even still attached to me.

GETTING BOURNE
In my head I refer to her as The Fluffer. There is a new nurse on my case, a woman who has been doing this since the white paper hats were en vogue. She reminds me of my mom, even moreso when the two collapse into lengthy conversations and the nurse later tells me that my mom is such a fashionable dresser.

The Fluffer’s role, it seems, is to prime me. Get me close to delivery. Do the dirty work so that the doctors can scoot in, suit up, and dislodge a set of baby-sized shoulders. The Fluffer is holding one leg, poking at me, circling the exit with her finger and directing my pushes through the contractions. They don’t tell you that there is nothing vaginal about pushing. This feels closer to constipation.

Meanwhile, one rubber-gloved hand seems clenched around … something. She makes repeated trips to the garbage can and returns to the bed wearing a new glove. Later Chuck reveals that she was carrying fistfuls of yuck. He is on the other leg and tells me that during these 10 second push intervals I look like a power lifter.

The Fluffer encourages me to think of the baby as a car that is stuck in the snow. With each 10-second push cycle, I’m rocking the baby under the pubic bone and toward freedom. I struggle with this imagery. I think we can all do better. The Fluffer asks if I want to watch TV or listen to music. I hadn’t noticed that the room had been media free all day.

I could use the distraction. I rock the snow-stuck car free while watching “Bourne Identity.” Only later will I realize that the Powerful Baby Girl was born into a pun.

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT
The Fluffer has done the staging between contractions: Tools here, wardrobe supplies over there. She asks if the sight of the tool table is going to freak me out. No. It’s not like there is a power saw visible.

Once there is a visual on the baby’s head, the team of doctors are introduced. All the efficient donning and tying and scurrying feels like being backstage at a play. Within minutes I’ve rocked the baby loose and a few squawks later I’ve got a little hairless squirrel mewing on my chest. I can barely breathe. She looks exactly like I imagined: Her forehead creased like Yoda, slits for eyes, dark hair wet against her head. Her limbs flail, her back arches and I recognize all of her movements from when she was in utero. That leg kick would have popped out of the right side of my body; The tiny fingers that clawed at the walls of my uterus; That’s the familiar round of her back. I’d recognize that bony little tush in a crowd of bony tushes.

Later Pa Pista will watch her squirm and say: “I can’t imagine what it was like to have her moving around that much inside you” and I’ll feel validated.

Meanwhile, things are happening around me. Chuck cuts the cord, despite early reluctance. She’s cleaned. Photographs are taken. I am asked to push out the placenta. I receive stitches. People congratulate us and doctors say things but all I see were moving mouths and whooshing noises. None of it penetrates the baby bubble I’m in.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHILD BIRTH
Here is the truth: Giving birth didn’t hurt a lick. It wasn’t hard to do.  At all. It’s just pushing and resting and pushing some more. But there, in the back of your mind, is the inkling of knowledge: This doesn’t hurt a lick … now. But tomorrow. Tomorrow it will feel like you made love to an aggressive bowling ball.

THE END OF INNOCENCE

Before I could use the bathroom, the nurse told me, I had to call her. They would need to make sure I was steady on my feet after the epidural. She didn’t tell me that I was going to be spilling liquids like an overflowing rain bucket. That I would leave a trail of blood and urine that started on my legs and ran the length of the floor to the bathroom. Adding to the insult: Two nurses holding a size XXXL maxi pad/diaper — one in front, one in back — as I walk.

When I’d first held the baby, I’d caught a whiff of pee and assumed it was from her. She had been swimming of a stew of her own for months. But now, on the toilet, with nurses scrubbing my route, I realized it was me. It was me that smelled like pee.

“I could tell your bladder was full when I felt your uterus,” one tells me.

I’ve never been more glad I’m not a nurse.

PRESENT DAY
The Powerful Baby Girls is 11 days old today, in what continues to be the most surreal science experiment of our lives. She looks exactly like Chuck, it’s even in her expressions, so when I look at him I see her little face.

We’ve both succumbed to a new disease called “Where’s the Baby.” On our second night home, I was frantically searching for her in the blankets on the bed and Chuck woke me to tell me she was in the cradle. I was dreaming. He had “Where’s the Baby” the next night. I had it the night after that.

She peed on me during a doctor’s appointment and peed on Chuck, her changing table and her rug just a few minutes ago. I’ve witnessed projectile poop. It shot out as she screamed. I accidentally pinched her chest in her car seat and dropped Fig Newton into her ear. She spent 80 percent of yesterday crying and today I breast fed her in a high traffic area of a public park.

Chuck’s convinced that she is freakishly strong. She’s becoming exponentially more alert. Sometimes she makes faces that smack of incredulous teen. She smells good and has hilarious feet.

And every single day I wake up happy.

This post was originally published on my blog Blah Blah Blahler

Book Review: ‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

Dear Shevaun,

You left a self-addressed envelope, the size of a note card, in the Duluth Public Library’s copy of The White Album, a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Your name as both the sender and receiver. Both address labels indicate an association with the University of Florida. One is decorated with a UF, the other a cartoonish profile of a cartoon gator, its snout hanging out of a decorative oval. Neither label is very artistic minded, not the finest work of a graphic designer. I doubt this is your fault, that you are the graphic designer in question, though you might have selected these two designs from eight other versions and you most certainly were the one to decide they were at least good enough to stick to this envelope.

I assumed, Shevaun, that you were older. Perhaps of the same generation as Didion. That you had checked out The White Album for the same reason I might revisit the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” or Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” A nostalgia for the late 1960s in California. The Manson era. Black Panthers. The Doors, sans Morrison, trying to record an album without the vocalist known for wearing black leather pants without underwear. I imagined you looked like Didion, whom Michiko Kakutani ofThe New York Times once described — using Didion’s own words from A Book of Common Prayer — as possessing “an extreme and volatile thinness. . . she was a woman. . . with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.” I imagined you as widowed and crafty. A woman keeping the same strict schedule for almost half a century. A woman who could write a recipe book filled with meals starring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. A woman with things that went in certain places.

I was wrong. I Googled you. You are maybe in your mid-30s or en route. And your education is of a certain level that damn-near paralyzes me when I consider the quagmire of student loan debt you must be seeped in. My wallet weeps for you, Shevaun, and it’s weeping louder than my admiration for your commitment to furthering your education.

Did you finish The White Album? Or did the envelope mark the spot where you said: “I’m feeling you, Joan. But I just can’t, right now, give a shit about water treatment and highway systems. I was with you through the piece on the end of the 1960s. And if I’d gotten there, I might have enjoyed the one about your migraines and how you’ve learned that suffering through them is like a form of yoga.” Then the book was due and you just didn’t renew it?

Or maybe that envelope marks the point where you said: “Screw this rental. I’m buying!” I don’t remember where you parked your envelope, but if this is the case I bet it is where Didion says:

“I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.”

That’s the sentence I read over and over again while sitting at a tall top table at Subway, unsure of why it snagged my attention. It’s an easy sentence. A descriptive sentence. The sentences around it provide perspective: her marriage is on a precipice. There have been tidal wave warnings. Literally. They are in Hawaii. Her daughter wanted to go for a swim. Maybe it’s just the idea of picturing Didion as a thirty-four-year-old when for all of my life she has been post-thirty-four. And maybe it’s because I have a fortune teller’s view of her future.

Many decades later the tidal wave will come and that tidal wave is The Year of Magical Thinking. Writing, Shevaun, is a weird thing. I’m cooking up a theory on Didion as the OG blogger.

I can give or take Joan Didion. Her curiosities aren’t necessarily mine — the essays on water treatment and the the highway system. But when she turns an eye on herself, buying a dress for Linda Kasabian, witness in the prosecution of Charles Manson or on her first book tour and ordering a Shirley Temple from room service for her daughter, I take her. I take her like the Lothario on the cover of a bodice ripper, chest like fine leather upholstery and hair like a windsock.

Best Wishes,
Christa

This review was originally posted on October 17, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

In my 1980s, video games did not even play a supporting role. We didn’t own Atari. My parent’s loathed fads, ‘it’ items. Things advertised between cartoons and things that made moms trample moms in the Toys R Us parking lot. Plus it was expensive. Addictive. An indoor sport. The first in a long line of begats: Atari begat Nintendo begat Marijuana begat Satanism.

Occasionally there was Pac Man. A local pizza parlour, owned by the then-mayor, had a decent game room. We would both get a single quarter to wait out our pie. First my brother ripped and jerked the joystick. Then, at the dizzy ‘Game Over’ spirals, he took my quarter and lost again. Back at home he drew me a detailed picture of a Pac Man board on loose leaf paper. Bite sized nuggets inside a maze with tiny jagged ghosts. Pac Man’s mouth open wide, paused with a look of a triumphant roar. My brother told me I could play with that. (Give me a break).

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, in all its geeky 1980s glory is a vision of 1980s pop culture — it’s not my vision of 80s pop culture and I did have to Google a few things related to Dungeons & Dragons.

The gist: All the world co-exists on OASIS a pretty realistic non-reality online world, multi-purposed as fun and educational. When the creator James Halliday dies, a contest is announced in which savvy gamers vie for his fortune. Finding Easter eggs he has hidden within OASIS. This hunt requires plenty of 1980s pop culture knowledge — for instance, being able to quote verbatim a character’s lines from an entire movie and being able to get a perfect score on Pac Man. Our hero is Wade Watts, who has little money and less family, but has spent his whole young life studying Halliday’s interests. He and his posse, including a bestie he’s never met IRL and a girl whose blog he has stalked, take on the evil corporate America to win the prize.

This story is a heckuva lot of fun, even without Jelly Shoes and Madonna. It’s boundary-less and inventive and the brain graphics are amazing.

Cline’s debut novel had me thinking a lot about my 1980s.

My 1980s had two rubber bracelets, linked connected ovals on my right wrist. Plain barrettes woven with alternate-colored ribbons that hung so long they hit my shoulders. White Keds, followed by red Keds, and denim Keds. Jeans decorated with thin white pinstripes.

‘I’ll never in my life not wear pinstripe jeans,’ I told my mom.
‘I don’t believe that’s true,’ she said.

In my 1980s I bought florescent pink Wet & Wild lipstick at Woolworth. I wore homemade shorts that hung to my knees, a starchy collage of busy designs. My hair was too fine to hold a perm or a plume of bang so I went hay-straight the ends turned under, bangs hard with spray yet barely made a fan.

In my 1980s, I listened to Madonna — but not ‘Like a Virgin,’ only her self-titled debut. My mom knew what ‘virgin’ meant, though I did not, and didn’t think it was appropriate. I listened to Tears for Fears, Wham!, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Debbie Gibson.

Some songs from the 1980s remind me of roller skating at Skate Country, where it was always dark and the lights made neon patterns on the smooth oval floor. Perfect for holding hands with a boy while listening to Journey, then skating to the snack bar for Laffy Taffy. Some songs remind me of roller skating in my basement, grey boom box plugged into the wall, skating in circles while Casey Kasem counted back the Top 40 hits of the week. Some songs remind me of rainy days on a school bus, the smell of rubber seats. And some rainy days remind me of kindergarten and the embarrassment of wearing a yellow slicker in public.

The ‘Footloose’ soundtrack, the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack. Loverboy, Guns ‘n’ Roses, LL Cool J. In my 1980s, I took a short piece of historical fiction called ‘Paul Revere,’ plopped myself on a stool, and held it open for my classmates to see. I eschewed the actual words of the story in favor of ones written by the Beastie Boys:

‘Now. Here’s a little story, I’d like to tell,’ turned the page, ‘About three bad brothers, you know so well.’ Flip. ‘It started way back, in history, with Ad-Rock, MCA and me, MIKE D!’

In my 1980s I liked ‘Goonies.’ We watched ‘Stand By Me,’ rewinding and rewinding a part where an old man says ‘Loony, loony, loony’ and then we would cackle. I liked Wil Wheaton best. (Still do). I thought ‘Dirty Dancing’ was stupid, but watched it anyway at every slumber party I went to. Later we would crawl across the floor singing, ‘Sylvia? Yes, Mickey? How do you call your loverboy? Oh, loverboy. And if he doesn’t answer? C’MERE LOVERBOY.’ I liked both Coreys in ‘License to Drive,’ and thought Mercedes, with her thick chunks of blonde spiral, had the best hair in the world. The volleyball scene from ‘Top Gun’ set puberty in motion and ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ would become a song I would never not know.

The only poem I’ve ever memorized, I memorized watching ‘The Outsiders.’

In my 1980s I most related to Mary Stuart Masterson. Denim shorts to her knees, drum sticks in hand. It was the unrequited-ness of her crush on Eric Stoltz’s character in ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ That moment when he practices kissing her.

‘Pretend I’m her, Amanda,’ she goads him. ‘I know it’s a stretch. But try it.’

His hands on her hips, morphing into claws as they turn up the heat. She realizes she’s a little too into it and pulls away.

‘You’re cool,’ she says.

In the 1980s I loved ‘Fame.’ Leroy, with his perky buns wrapped in tight grey sweatpants. I loved ‘The Young and the Restless.’ When it was over for the day, it was time to walk to kindergarten. This only became an issue when the storyline involved Nikki as a stripper. My favorite show became more real when Michael Damian, who played the rock star Danny Romalotti, had a real song on the real radio. ‘Rock On.’

I loved ‘Scooby Doo’ and its antithesis ‘Three’s Company.’ ‘Facts of Life,’ and ‘Silver Spoons.’ ‘Punky Brewster,’ the real-live show but not the cartoon. ‘Smurfs,” though.

Alex P. Keaton has always reminded me of my brother.

In my 1980s, I could moonwalk and do the worm, kind of, in a spastic seizing way. I had choreography for ‘Eye of the Tiger’ that I performed in the front yard and loved to scream ‘GHOSTBUSTERS!’ ‘I could do a back handspring, but not the splits. I could take a soccer ball and kick it in a way that it went over my head and landed in front of me. I had a T-shirt that said Orange Crush, I had a sweatsuit that said “Let’s Get Physical.” I had a two-toned baseball-style shirt that said “Totally Awesome” in glittery balloon letters.

I took the Pepsi Challenge, and picked Coke every time. I bought a copy of ‘The Get Him System,’ a self-published book about winning boys advertised in the back of a magazine. It didn’t work; I didn’t even try for the money-back guarantee.

I had an Esprit bag slung over my arm and kept my pencils in a LeSporte sac. My stuffed Garfield was dressed in a jogging outfit. I ripped photos of cute celebrity boys from magazines and hung them in a fort. The smell of paper when I matched my lips to Rob Lowe’s.

Where Cline’s novel has that glowing green tint of an old-school game of Pong, my lean was more Hubba Bubba pink with a side pony.

This review was originally posted on October 10, 2011, on Minnesota Reads. 

Essay: A little something to get off my chest

A few weeks ago I became incensed with the bra industry with very little provocation. I was at Target browsing the unmentionables and could only find one boulder holder that matched my personal specifications and so I decided it was a conspiracy:

“EVERYONE HATES A 36B!” I screamed in my head.

I didn’t research this theory. I was basing it solely on what this store had in stock. Plenty of bras in the 36B tier, but only one that didn’t have cups padded to resemble hockey equipment. I don’t want that. Water bras. Gel bras. I like to be able to feel if a hard boiled egg has affixed itself to my chest as I lean over a salad bar. I want my bras unpadded, demi cup with an underwire. This appears to be a lot to ask.

As you would assume from my B-level ranking, I do not have large breasts. My rib cage, however, has a decent girth. An aesthetic comparison: The whole set up is a bit like decorating a dining room table with tea candles. Adding a padded bra just makes me feel bulky and transexual.

“BRA MAKERS WANT ME TO BE ASHAMED THAT I WOULDN’T PASS THE PENCIL TEST!” I screamed in my head. “THEY WANT TO EMBARRASS ME BECAUSE I WOULDN’T FILL A CHAMPAGNE GLASS!”

Now this has become a thing. Every time I’m at Target, I wander around looking for 36Bs, nodding self-righteously when I encounter bra after bra that could easily be mistaken for knee pads.

I remember getting my first bra. I had noticed my friend Gina’s telltale straps one day at school, and went home to tell my mom the news. “Gina is wearing a training bra,” I told her. She humored my elementary school envy and took me bra shopping that weekend, picking up three trainers that looked especially cool when I wore a Polo shirt. That line across my back like a single guitar string. Turns out Gina had been wearing a slip, so the whole thing was a little premature. I remember writing in my diary a few weeks later something like: “Dear Diary, By now I have been wearing a bra for so long that I don’t even wear it anymore.”

Last weekend I was at Target, picking through the leftover Valentine’s Day lingerie and poking through lacy displays. Once again, I found just one unpadded 36B with an underwire, in black. I bought it.

I wore it for the first time on Tuesday, and on Wednesday noticed that it looked strange, broken, laying on the bedroom floor. I picked it up, fingered a flap of material that had come loose, and gasped:

A nursing bra?!

I dug the tag out of the garbage, and sure enough in fine print:
“One-hand easy release nursing closure.”

Of all the extraneous features. Of all the bizarre things for me to own. A nursing bra! I slipped it on and showed Chuck the magic trick. “And then,” I said, “Viola!”

He covered his mouth and backed away, a giant laugh about to burst to the surface.

Everyone hates a 36B.

Review: ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis

I went to a Super Bowl party in a friend’s basement in the early 1990s and while I don’t remember who was playing or the commercial du jour, I do remember one thing: Salsa.

We had all brought snacks and a jar of salsa had been slopped into a ceramic bowl. I probably said something like: “I love salsa salsa is so good I could eat salsa like all the time forever because yum salsa,” to which my friend Polish responded something like: “Oh yeah? I’ll give you $5 if you drink that entire bowl of your precious salsa.”

The first sip went down okay. It was salsa. Tomatoes, onions, cilantro. Not a dud in the bunch. The second sip was fine, too. But when I went in for a gigantic gulp, this bowl pressed against my face, I realized that the tomatoes were chunky and not in a pleasing way. And the onions and cilantro weren’t doing much to grease the gullet. With about one-fourth of the bowl of salsa to go, I cried “Uncle.” I couldn’t finish it for all the five dollars in the world.

And that, my friends, is exactly how I felt on about Page 327 of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho. Seated at Subway, 6-inch BMT on Italian Herb and Cheese in one hand, fiction in the other, I cried “Uncle.” I knew exactly where Patrick Bateman, he of the titular descriptor, was taking this scene and I just couldn’t ride along with him. I’d already read a dozen ways to torture friends and strangers, severed limbs and cannibalism, random acts of violence and handled it like a champ. But this one on the horizon, if I knew Bret Easton Ellis, was going somewhere that was well beyond even my own super flexible tolerance for the lurid.

I’m an X-Gamer of reading consumption. I can handle a lot and think a lot of really sick scenes are so well-written that they cannot be dismissed just because I personally don’t think throat-slashing is any way to spend your free time. Uncle, Bret. You hear me? UNCLE! I’ve met my match in the world of disturbing sentence configurations.

I did go on to read the part in question. And it was even more horrifying than I thought it would be, but I was better prepared for it and handled it the way a tween might handle a haunted house that is on the path home from school: One hand over my eyes and running.

Going into the book, I obviously knew the gist of it. I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. Christian Bale is a freaking genius in the movie. I’d watch it right now. About five people meet a tragic end in the movie. That’s a fraction of the tally in the book. And at no point in the movie does Patrick Bateman sever a head and then, for instance, wear it as a crotch helmet. He doesn’t gnaw on skin or paste human parts to the wall when it fails to make a decent meatloaf.

The whole thing is a story about 20-something Wall Street types in the late 1980s and the brand name-dropping, restaurant reservation-making, hardbody-chasing competitions between these interchangeable A-holes. It is probably a better Act II to Ellis’s debut Less Than Zero than the actual Act II he released in 2010, Imperial Bedrooms.

At the center of this is Patrick Bateman, an emotionless connoisseur of pop music and recording equipment, who either starts murdering people as hard as he can, or else thinks he’s murdering people as hard as he can. Either way, no one notices because everyone is too busy comparing shades of white on business cards and doing sit ups and Coke and Xanax and whatever else. And so PB loses his mind, considers faxing blood and wearing necklaces made of human vertebrae. Things get really frantic and crazed and these torture scenes are like contortionist-meets-nail gun, and then it just stops and Patrick Bateman goes on for a chapter about, for instance, Whitney Houston’s discography.

So. It’s funny. Yes, parts of American Psycho are hilarious for the over-the-top satire and juxtaposition of scenes. And parts of American Psycho are repetitious for the sake of making a point that is made until that point has dulled and then that, too, is a point. And parts of it are violence escalating into more violence which escalates into the kind of violence that it isn’t even readable. I guess that is a point, too.

My point is: I enjoyed the parts that were readable. And I finally know where my line in the macabre sand is.

This was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on February 25, 2011.

Review: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

I’ll say this for Patti Smith: Homegirl certainly knows how to write lifestyle porn.

Somewhere between the Chelsea Hotel and the insertion of a millionaire benefactor I closed her love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, bonked myself in the head and said “Knock it off.” I needed to stop being dazzled and wooed and to start seeing through clear eyes or I’d wake up in a bus stop in Detroit clutching a one-way ticket to 1971.

People do that. Chuck it all, grab a blanket, commit 100 percent to making things. Music. Pictures. Words. More than just teacher-school dropout Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethrope, a skinny kid on the lam from the Catholic church.

Every day, maybe even right this second, a kid is climbing off a bus at some junction in New York City, schlepping a dirty military backpack filled with notebooks filled with poetry filled with nature imagery, A copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles in his back pocket. He’s got two weeks worth of dinero in a two-toned teal velcro wallet and a breathlessness about doing “whatever it takes, washing dishes, cleaning toilets as long as I can write.”

He might, like Patti Smith, sleep in a doorway or two. He might, like Patti, find a street angel who will teach him about day-old bread and primo napping places in Central Park. He might get a job at a book store; move into an extended stay hotel full of eccentrics; become a regular at corner bar. He might meet someone who is first his lover, then friend, muse and soulmate.

He’ll observe and jot and wait for a Warhol-ian figure to notice him, all while experimenting with couplets, then, perhaps free verse, then, perhaps starvation. Published in a zine. A promise for publication on a friend of a friend’s website. And after all those PB&Js, after he maybe even finds a word that rhymes with orange, maybe we’ll hear about him. We probably won’t. Maybe he’ll write a book about his soulmate and win a National Book Award.

This is in progress right now and right now and even right now.

This review was originally published at Minnesota Reads on Saturday, February 19, 2011.

Review: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for the first time in 1999, and it went a little something like this: Pop rocks. Coke. Shake. Brain.

Dave Eggers’ memoir-with-benefits was this thing that totally changed my understanding of what a good book could be. So influenced was I, that it necessitated instigating a Top 5 Favorite Books list, where just having A Favorite Book, or Two Books Tied for Favorite Book, would no longer do. If I recall correctly, I ushered in Y2K with this as my answer to a question no one would ever ask me: 1. The Sun Also Rises (Hem); 2. The Great Gatsby (Fitzy); 3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers); 4. The Awakening (Chopin); and 5. The Edible Woman (Atwood).

In the past decade, I’ve never really monkeyed with that list. I could probably still defend my picks in front of a jury of my peers, although I can’t say I’d make the same list right now. But I wouldn’t make a list right now because I’ve probably read like 600-plus books since I was 24, and to sort them would be akin to having a freshly sharpened axe driven into my skull by the Strongest Human Being in All of the Land.

Every other book on that list had been subject to a re-read, and in some cases re-(to the nth power)read. But I dared not touch the Eggers again. Until now. My boyfriend listened to it recently, was chuckling over some Eggers family hilarity, then picked me up a copy from the library.

I expected this to be spiritual. Like eight hours alone in the attic of your youth, flipping pages of a yearbook and trying on the old letter jacket. If the song “Mambo No. 5″ still smells like August on a highway cutting through Durango, Colorado to me, imagine the power of the words from one of my favorite books in conjuring up some residual 20-something bullshit.

Yeah. Nada.

The reading public’s introduction to the future Mr. McSweeney’s was this: The story about how Eggers parents both died of cancer within a few months of each other when he was in his early 20s, leaving behind an elementary school-aged blank slate for Eggers, etc. to raise. Dave and young Toph Eggers make a dynamic duo, technically a father-ish kinda-son relationship, that leans more big brother buddy and little dude.

Eggers runs a tight ship: No one swears around Toph. But they also consider the slide-ability of the hard-wood floors when rating an apartment. There is wrestling. There is Frisbee. There are massive freak outs when Toph has his first non-Eggers babysitter, or isn’t at the right door when Dave picks him up after a bar mitzvah. There are tender hair tousles, and cute insults. And the whole thing makes you wish that you had a supercool older brother who had taken you into his tutelage and taught you how to be hilarious. Or that you had your own blank slate to teach the trick involving the 360 degree spin before catching the disc.

In the meantime, it’s about being a 20-something in the 1990s and having friends, ideas, dreams, world domination fantasies, and connections to Adam Rich of “Eight is Enough.” Not to mention the fun cult ref drops like Vince Vaughn (Eggers went to high school with him), Puck and Judd from “The Real World: San Francisco” (Eggers was a finalist for a part as one of the seven strangers who would learn what it’s like when people stop being polite … and start being real).

Reading this book 10 years later is like reading one of those letters you write to yourself when you are a senior in high school. “Dear Christa … By now you have probably written a trilogy of bestsellers that not only have a strong mainstream presence, but are also critically acclaimed by book snobs everywhere.”

Except this is Eggers’ measuring stick. “By now you will do exactly what you wanted to do … create a website that appeals to literary sorts, publish a handful of novels, and have a sort of celebrity that is uncommon to people who work with words.” And now Toph is in his mid-20s, and highly Google-able for his own projects. Instead of a book about big plans, it is his to-do list, and he has done a remarkable job of emptying it.

It’s like his journal of non-embarrassing things. Which is a far better thing than if this book had sent me sailing back to 1999, which would have been a headache teeming with embarrassing things.

This review originally ran on Minnesota Reads on October 21, 2010.