Miss Constantine, if you’re nasty

Or, On Choosing My Pen Name

My given name isn’t Alysia. Well, not technically: it’s not my given first name, not the name by which most friends know me. It’s my middle name (the one trace of my Greek ethnicity given in my moniker). And Constantine isn’t my given last name, but it’s a pared-down version.

My Father-the-Greek originally had a 16-letter last name, but changed it when he immigrated to America so that American Bureaucracy could handle it. Most American forms weren’t built, at least in the 1960s, to accommodate such a ridiculously long (by American standards) family name. They expected Miller or Jackson, maybe even Kuntz, but certainly not LotsaSyllablesadopoulos. So he shortened it from 16 letters to 4 letters. A simple spelling. De-ethnicitized. Which, apparently, most Americans can’t figure out, because it gets mispronounced or misspelled on the daily.

My given first name isn’t Greek. It isn’t even Scottish, which is my mother’s heritage. It’s not “American,” either (whatever that would be). It’s German.

Which means my full given name is German NoEthnicity and, along with the fact that I’ve colored my hair lavender-on-white, means I really have little trace of either ethnic heritage–neither my mother’s muddled Scottish-American-mix nor my father’s You-WILL-Go-to-Greek-School-Twice-a-Week-Immigrant-Greek.

I feel more Greek-American than Scottish-American, in large part because, culturally, our family lived as Greek-Americans. We ate Greek home cooking. I went to Greek school (my dad actually was one of the teachers.) We spoke a Greek-English pidgen at home. Many of our family friends were called Mrs. Thea or Mr. Yannis (Greek kids respectfully call familiar adults Mr./Mrs. Firstname). There was more than one thing in our house emblazoned with the Greek flag. (That may have had something to do with the fact that the Scottish part is several generations back, but my dad immigrated in his twenties from Greece and that whole side of our family is still there. Plus, my dad is olive-brown-skinned and heavily-accented, and nobody ever discriminated against my mother for being ethnically Scottish (a concomitant discrimination based on being ethnically Greek has been happening to my dad since he immigrated in the 1960s. Although it still happens now, the treatment of my father has become less about job and social discrimination than it has about finding him delightfully “ethnic” and asking his advice about to which Lebanese restaurant one should go (I know he’s not Lebanese, but apparently, to many Americans, swarthy people are all the same.).).)

In school, we read non-white/non-American stuff for “color,” as a kind of sauce-on-the-side addition to the Real Stuff. (I know even including the “color” was progressive back then.) But the Real Stuff, the stuff the SAT and the GRE covered, was written largely by white American and British men. Though it sometimes involved a character who was, like my dad, “ethnic,” that character usually Meant Something. (And although this condition was common for “swarthy” folk, it was far more common for ethnically-more-othered people who did not pass as white. (I was, depending on the occasion, sometimes treated as “ethnic” and sometimes as white, and usually had the option to pass, especially if I could avoid giving my name or introducing my dad.) It was a problem which was more pervasive and more insidious for my friends who were racially marked in a way I was not. How tiring, always to have to be Significant or else be invisible.) My education, and the subsequent testing thereof, in large part, was entirely “Call Me Ishmael.”

Before you ask, since you’ve probably seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, no, we did not have a thing about Windex. Except for cleaning glass. (I have been asked that at least once a month since that movie came out, and just found out the joke, having finally watched it just two weeks ago.)

All this is to say that, while I identify as first-gen and grew up very “ethnic” (please hear me laughing as I use that Whitebread Nose-Wrinkling Euphemism for “Not Us”), you wouldn’t know it now. Not by my name, not by my appearance. Maybe by my cooking. Maybe by the tiny Greek-New Yorker inflection that happens to my speech when I talk fast. But not by my name.

I know they say that a rose by any other name would smell as Greek, but that’s not true in my case. So I decided to take the pen name I did because I wanted to re-Greek myself, to undo in a small way the efforts of my father to fit in as an American which, in the 1960s, meant erasing a large part of his identity. Since I’m not having children to carry forth the Greek bloodline (for shame, this is a horrible thing for a Greek-American girl to do), I wanted, at least, to do this.

See, by attempting to Americanize himself, my dad, who is by American standards “swarthy” in sunless winter and nut-brown in summer, only called attention to our difference. The kids at school, the neighbors, storekeepers at the mall, everyone looked at us as the “No Cigar” family (as in “close, but no cigar”), a mild version of Homi Bhabha’s “not quite/not white” (I say “mild” because, while our ethnicity made us “not white” in most neighbors’ eyes, we were still considered–and treated as–“more white” than my ethnically Asian or South-Indian or Black friends). We were the Mockolate of American families.

I grew up, as a result, with a “thing” about authenticity. I received daily messages that I and my family were not “real” Americans (read: white), and yet many of the Greek kids didn’t consider me “Greek enough” because of my white American-born mother. I was constantly trying to prove myself authentic to both camps, shuttling between them, trying to be both Greek enough and American enough to get by. (It may be why, in part, I resisted coming out as a lesbian until I was out of that awful midwestern whitebread neighborhood, because that would have been just one more strike against me, and to boot, would have fulfilled the Amazon/Lesbos stereotype.)

Now, older, settled into both my ethnic mixedness and my queerness (and most every other -ness I’ve got going on), I’m pretty sure I could handle those whitebread ninnies. They don’t hold power over me any more. And I’m less worried about critics trouncing my work as a novelist. Plus, most people know both my given and pen names anyway (I guess I still shuttle between identities). People often use the metaphor of “embracing” to describe that process of accepting (and even celebrating, promoting) something, but I feel like that doesn’t quite do the trick. I don’t want to say I’ve “embraced” my ethnicity or my queerness like it’s some homeless guy one charitably agrees to hug or some smelly leper-cat one loves anyway. I’ve come to love myself because of my Greekness and queerness, rather than despite it.

So come correct. Don’t be the American asshat who, upon hearing I’m Greek-American, asks me about that movie, or wants to know about whether we had a thing for Windex. We used a K-mart off-brand, and it wouldn’t really live up to the hilarious “ethnic” stereotype.

And call me Alysia.

 

What Do You Do If You Swallow Poison?

When I was 15, I was, like many a teen girl in the ‘80s, a babysitter. My regulars included a family who lived down the street, the D— family, whose children were John, Stevie and Diana, ranging from 8 to 3 years old. This essay is about the night John, the older boy, almost died.

They were good kids: nice, friendly, smart, and generally pretty well-behaved. Generally. Because watching three kids at once is… a tougher job than most 15-year-olds should handle. On the night in question, I’d shoveled them all into footie pajamas, gotten teeth brushed, and herded them into bed on schedule, then settled myself on the living room couch to do homework and wait for their parents to come home. I was probably struggling over some math or other, probably something with triangles or exponents, though I have no memory of it. I had probably poured myself a glass of contraband Diet Coke or Tab and curled my socked feet underneath me and snuggled back into the cushions. Not twenty minutes passed, however, before the night collapsed into chaos.

John came thundering down the stairs and asked me, clearly trying to sound casual, what you do if you swallow poison.

Now, let me tell you, no babysitter wants to hear that question (it’s right up there with where do babies come from?). Though the kid insisted he had simply had a bad dream, it was immediately clear that it was a question motivated by some poison-swallowing event. To my credit, I only freaked out on him for a second before calling the poison control hotline (thank goodness the family had a magnet on the fridge with the phone number). While on hold, I managed to get him to admit the story: he’d had what he thought was a toothache and had snuck out of bed and gone rooting under the sink in his mother’s bathroom for a cure and had come up with her smelling salts, which were wrapped in gauze, leading him to believe they were some sort of dentist-related treatment, since the dentist seemed fond of gauze, and John had put one in his mouth and bitten down, thinking this would treat his toothache. (In case you have never been near smelling salts, they are usually made of ammonia, the strong smell of which is designed to jolt someone back to consciousness and, in this case, were in gauze-wrapped capsules to be snapped open for use, which does NOT involve putting them in one’s mouth, but simply holding the ammonia-leaking capsule under the woozy person’s nose.) When he bit down, he cracked open the capsule and tasted something caustic (ammonia, one assumes) and panicked.

By this time, the Poison People had answered the phone, and helped me determine that the smelling salts were probably old enough that the ammonia had sufficiently weakened so as to be smelly but relatively harmless. Had they been fresher, he could have gotten chemical burns in his mouth and throat, the Poison People said seriously.

So, the aftermath: I told the parents everything when they got home, and they continued to hire me for babysitting even after this. Not much, in other words, changed. I remained the industrious teen with a paltry social life, a high GPA and a savings account of earnings earmarked for college who went to art school on the weekends and played, very seriously, classical violin in a state symphony (this is all to say: NERD). But thirty years later, I’m still remembering John and his terrifying question: what do you do if you swallow poison?

I was the daughter of an American farmgirl and an immigrant Greek man, both of whom had gone through lots of higher education and worked their butts off enough to land us in a middle-class neighborhood with two malls and a conspiracy of racially-gerrymandering real estate agents past which my swarthy and heavily-accented father managed somehow to slip. This was probably not the best place for anyone, but surely not a fat, only-half-white-American, not-so-rich, smart queer girl. There was nobody, in the early 80s in gerrymandered middle-class Ohio, with whom I could commiserate. Or, at least, nobody who wanted to commiserate with me. (Oh, dear, the day I wore the skirt my dad’s sister sent from Greece, the one with the traditional embroidery and fringe, I endured SO MUCH fun-making from the Whitebread Racist Dicklords of that school… how did I not see that coming? How was I such a persistent nerd with an allergy to fitting in?)

My solution was to be a Good Girl: favorite student of every teacher, the Good Listener among my friends, and a parents’ well-behaved and well-closeted dream. It was the 80s, and it was Ohio. I really didn’t know there were other choices. I just wanted to survive high school and go somewhere better if I could find it.

Now, sitting happily in my own sunny little farmhouse home just north of NYC, still fat, still bookish, still queer (ish… I mean, I married my wife when it got legal, and that seems less queer, but still lesbian, I guess), still an immigrant’s daughter. Still, for all intents and purposes, a nerd, but proud, now, of the ways in which I’d not fit easily into that Whitebread middle-class Ohio Jerk-Factory neighborhood (I can boast the same great taste, now with 100% more walking cane). Still, I don’t have that fantasy some people have of going back, knowing what I know now, and showing them all (though Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion remains one of my all-time favorite films). I’m just glad I got out of there before the cruelty and ugliness of that place overwhelmed me.

It took me many, many years to understand myself outside the context in which I was raised, to be proud of my family’s ethnic difference, to call myself queer, to be brave enough not to need the validation of a husband and 2.5 kids and an SUV and a middle management job at Borden if I didn’t want it, to be okay with eating food in public instead of skipping meals (because that’s what Good Fat Girls do). I tried super-achieving, tried bulemia, tried therapy, tried activism, tried self-medicating, tried legally-prescribed medication. In the end, I think it was just a matter of time.

(It was a matter of aging into a phase in which nobody pays me much mind at all. This is the paradoxical freedom of being an American woman over 40: you’re no longer sexually objectifiable to the majority of straight culture, so almost nobody even sees you anymore and you gain the kind of freedom from surveillance that some people enjoy from birth. Of course, once almost nobody sees you anymore, then people look past you as if you’re not even there. It’s a choice, for many of us, between being too constantly visible or invisible.*)

(* This is the paradox with which I struggled a bit in Olympia Knife, my second novel. The two queer women at its center face this problem: Olympia, whenever she feels strong emotion, has bouts of invisibility, and Diamond, once she ages into love with a woman, loses gravity and starts floating away. Still, their relationship can happen in nearly total freedom because nobody really sees them when they are together.)

It took a lot of years, in other words, to detox from the American Dream in which I was raised and all the hateful messages I swallowed as a young, fat, queer, first-gen smart girl as a consequence. It took a lot of thought, therapy, distance, and work.

I know all of this storytelling fits together somehow, but I’m not sure how, exactly. I’m torn between thinking of little John’s smelling salts as a metaphor for something to wake me up, or the caustic thing that could have killed me. Either way, I think it’s his panicked question that rings relevant for me: What do you do if you swallow poison?

REVIEW: Lunch with the Do-Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer

Lunch with the Do Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer (January 12, 2017); 232 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Somehow, this book slipped past me when it was released back in January, and I only came to it in the past few weeks. It was a sort of late blooming, I suppose.
Lunch… is the story of Marcus, who travels to a little (some would say “Podunk”) town when his grandmother—a grandmother he has never met, due in large part to a rootless mother who kept his life moving from town to town when he was a child—dies and leaves him her house. He comes to town, then, with the intention of quickly tying up any death-related loose ends, selling her property and getting the heck out of Dodge and back to Atlanta, where he’s got a life. (Of course, he’s leaving that life, too—his partner, Robert, is a controlling, manipulative jerk who hit Marcus hard enough to blacken his eye, so Marcus has left him behind in Atlanta and is trying to think himself into a new life.) While in town trying to settle his business, Marcus meets a gaggle of his grandmother’s friends (I think “gaggle” might not be the term for groups of people, but I’m not sure “group” really conveys the real Bodysnatchers-like conspiratory power of this bunch), who call themselves The Do-Nothings and hold regular meetings at a local diner, and who decide to sneak together to get him fixed up with a “good man” and make him stay in town. Despite their misguided efforts, Marcus finds Hank, who is, by all accounts, a “good man.” As a consequence of finding what he wants in a place he doesn’t want, Marcus is faced with questions about what to do with his life: where he will live, what he will do for a living (oh, yes, I forgot to mention the career crisis for Marcus that’s throwing a wrench in the works here), how he will be happy. (It’s another sort of late blooming, I suppose.)

There’s the kind of Southern Charm here about which all of us Northerners seem to fantasize—tough, stubborn, a bit weirdly-executed and don’t-mess-with-us-dangerous, but loving, protective and well-meaning—that reminds one a bit of those great woman-focused south-set stories like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, but without that icky schlock stories like that seem intent on doling out. (It feels like the author is not a Northern Fantasizer, but Real Life Southerner.) One is in no danger of choking on pink chintz or juleps or too much saccharine, Poor-Fragile-Diabetic-Shelby-Who-Dies-So-We-Learn-a-Lesson oversentiment (I may have an extra bug up my butt about Steel Magnolias, since I am a juvenile diabetic like Shelby, but I think my point still stands). There’s a light-touch comedy, too, that comes from taking delight in irony: tough-as-nails, ostensibly past-prime Southern belles protecting a young gay man by the means with which they’re familiar (socials, gossip, rifle-wielding).

This novel strikes the right balance between danger and quirk, serious and funny, moving speedily through the plot when it needs to, slowing down when there’s a rose to smell or a point to develop. The characters are lovable and relatable, even to a somewhat cynical Northerner like me. The humor is gentle but easy and fun; the comedy comes from strong character development and not situation (which, in my book, is the best kind of humor).

The romance that Marcus finds is, yes, with a charming and attractive man, but this is not the only romance offered—there’s also the romance of Marcus with his past, with the feeling of family and fitting in and care that the Do-Nothings offer, with the open possibilities of his future, his love of cooking (he discovers this here), even the town’s easy charm. Taken together, all these love stories add up to a person figuring out what (and whom) he loves, how he wants to live, who he is at heart. It’s actually a kind of second chance at this since, though Marcus is quite young, he’s already settled into a life in Atlanta, one which is uprooted and shaken about when he meets the Do-Nothings.

I guess you could call it a kind of late blooming.

REVIEW: Ghosts and Ashes by F. T. Lukens

REVIEW: Ghosts and Ashes by F. T. Lukens (March 9, 2017); 258 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Ghosts and Ashes is the second book in the Broken Moon series, and continues the story of Ren and Asher from the first book (The Star Host). Quick rundown: Ren is a “star host”, which essentially means he’s got powers beyond normal, but he’s sometimes at the behest of the star that occupies him and gives him those powers. (There are many different kinds of powers that people can have this way, but Ren has the ability to control and manipulate any kind of computer-based technology; he can make taser guns fall apart in the hands of their users, for instance.) Asher is a member of the Phoenix corps, a military organization which seems to be an arm of the repressive regime currently sweeping the universe. (They seem, also, to have implanted the current US with a very orange representative, too, somehow.)
In The Star Host, Ren and Asher had fallen in love, but now, in Ghosts and Ashes, they’ve fallen apart and there’s a chilly-but-desire-laden, mournful, tenuous relationship left in shreds. Ren and Asher, along with a crew of rebels aboard the Star Stream space ship, try to unravel the despotism and help Ren flee the Phoenix corps that wants to snag him for his powers.
The plot weaves nicely between the tense interpersonal relationships and the grander universal problems, between character-driven moments and action, in good balance. This isn’t speculative fiction that relies on gadgets and strangeness for its effects—certainly the gadgets and strangeness are there (I think particularly of a visit to an Earth-like overpopulated, stinking world in which everyone must live ass-to-elbow underground to avoid pollution), but they aren’t the point, and the story achieves its magnetism through good character development and plot-plotting, not through strangeness.
Readers who liked the first book will be happy to get more; those who are new to the Broken Moon series can start here without having read the first book (it does stand alone), but will enjoy it a lot more by reading The Star Host first. There’s a third and final book coming in this series, but it looks like we’ll have to wait for that one, since books don’t just pop up into existence at our demand (gosh, I wish they did).

The Eyes Have (Had) It

For anyone who isn’t comfortable reading about needles, go away. This is not the post for you. I wish I were lucky enough to have that kind of choice, but like many people in the world, I can’t curate a bloodless, needle-less environment for myself.

——–

 

Today, as it seems I am so much of the time (thanks to having both juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis), I am in mourning for a part of myself.

At the behest of my regular eye doctor, I visited a new opthalmologist who specializes in diabetic patients, and I got pretty crappy news. It appears that I am, like most diabetics of all ilk, especially ones who’ve been diabetic for more than 25 years like me, losing my eyes. It seems that–more than likely–I will have to have injections in both eyes every six weeks… indefinitely.

I’m not sure that was entirely clear: every six weeks, this doctor wants to PUT A NEEDLE INTO MY EYE, with no end in sight (ha ha, get it?). And I have to make separate appointments for each eye, so that’s twice every six weeks of someone sticking a NEEDLE into my EYE.

I am certainly not a wimpy kid about needles. I have been a Type I (juvenile) diabetic most of my life, which means putting a catheter in the skin of my stomach (using a needle every 2 days and pricking my finger to draw blood about 8 times a day. Before I wore the pump, I had to give myself subcutaneous injections of insulin about 5 times a day. I also have MS, which has meant giving myself an injection in the thigh muscle every week and undergoing 10 hours of an IV treatment every month.

When I got the news about having diabetes, I started getting tattoos as a way to deal with it. I figured if I had to regularly stab myself with needles, I was going to use needles to make something aesthetically-positive come out of the experience. Now both my arms and my decoletage/collar bone are covered in tattoos. I’ve stopped getting them because I’m running out of space. The tattoos also prevent me from being a complaining baby when some doctor or other inevitably wants their Nurse Feratu to draw my blood or inject dye or some other pointy-stick-related barrier violation of me–you don’t get to complain about a needle prick when you’ve got visible tattoos.

All this needling has caused some damage: my veins are small to begin with, and now they’re getting scarred up and tough to use. It usually takes a phlebotomist or the IV nurse an average of 2-3 tries to find a usable vein. (Today, for instance, my arm looks like a yellow, red and purple mess where the opthalmologic nurse injected me with contrast dye and the vein blew.) The skin of my stomach is also getting scarred up enough that I may not be able to use the insulin pump there much longer either.

All this is to say I have become, over the years, The Human Pincushion, and I’m awful tired.  Today I get the news that another person wants to start sticking needles into me–into my eyeballs, which is some of the only un-needled space left on me, and all I can think is how MORE tired I am.

I’m not using this space only to whinge, I promise. I’m just trying to figure out how to make sense of this, to make something of it that will do something in the world. I’m trying to figure out how to use this situation to make me a better person, more empathetic, stronger, braver. I remain well aware that many other folks suffer horribly much worse due to health or economics or politics or abuse or repression.  But at the moment, all I can do is cry, worry about a medical mishap that will make it impossible to do the work I do now, or more medical bills (this will be more than $1500 per injection, I’m told–that’s $3000 every 5-6 weeks, and it’s unclear how much my insurance will cover), or just more pain and fear.

I mean, they want to put a dang NEEDLE in my dang EYE on a regular basis.

Life, this is the asshole-est joke you have ever played. Seriously. Not funny.