Monday, May 28, 2012

Light my fire

I am reading the novel Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, a LONG fictional work about the life of Marilyn Monroe. First of all, it’s interesting, because Norma Jeane Baker’s life was already tragic, so I’m not entirely sure why Oates made the changes she did. For example, Wikipedia tells me that Norma Jeane Baker’s grandmother, Della, would not take her in, so the child spent her first 7 years in foster care with one set of foster parents, until her mother, Gladys, came back to claim her. However, in the novel, Norma Jeane spends her early life with her grandmother Della, until she passes away, forcing her mother to take her back.  (I suppose the author could be building something specific. I’m still at the very beginning, so I can’t even say whether I’m liking the book yet or not. It’s taking a little while to get into it.)  But I have become more fascinated with Marilyn Monroe lately.  To be honest, I was never much interested in her, and therefore knew very little about her; it took the show Smash (please don’t judge me) to pique my curiosity.

However, there is something in the novel that got me thinking. In the book, Norma Jeane is with her mother until her mother suffers a “nervous breakdown,” sending her to a psychiatric hospital, and Norma Jeane becomes a ward of the state, sent to live in an orphanage. This nervous breakdown occurs during August in southern California when the famous Santa Ana Winds are blowing, which supposedly cause people to do crazy things. This has remarkable parallels to Janet Finch’s White Oleander – in her novel, the main character’s mother poisons her boyfriend, landing her in prison, and the main character in the foster care system. All of this occurs – you guessed it -- while the Santa Ana Winds are blowing.

What is it about these winds?

A brief google search didn’t find much that seemed to have scientific validity. Some people makes claims about the “positive ions” in the winds that make people more irritable or prone to fighting. However, I think the real issue is that these winds tend to play a major role in the wild fires that often plague southern California that time of year. Here we have this natural, recurring force, these winds that come back year after year, stirring up trouble, spreading fires during the hottest time of the year. It can’t be avoided or controlled, and the potential for great destruction is always just around the corner. As a literary device, what better way to explain the utter insanity and catastrophic destruction of a child losing her only parent, and entering a chaotic world where she doesn’t belong to anyone?

(There’s another reference that comes to mind – the final episode of season 1 of Weeds **stop reading now if you haven’t seen it**. But the winds and the fire are used in this episode, too, to show the complete desctruction of Nancy’s previous life, and how she has, essentially, gone a little bit (or a lot) cuckoo.)

Then, I have this other moment, where I think to myself…why do I need scientific proof to show that the winds cause changes in people’s behavior? Maybe they just do. There are so many things in life that are beyond our human ability to understand. I believe in a higher power. I believe we are all connected. I believe, that in the end, one way or another, in this life or the next, everything will work out.

I have no proof of any of these things.

Sometimes I’m not sure how to reconcile these two parts of myself – the one part that insists on science, data, graphs, and peer-reviewed journals, and the other part that believes in magic and ghosts and the beautiful inter-connectedness of human beings. I mean, I’ve spent quite some time working in research, and trust me, it is not perfect. Nothing is. Can it be just as foolish to believe in science as it is to believe that people do extra-crazy things during the Santa Ana Winds (or the full moon? Or when the northen lights are extra active?) Maybe it’s all just an excuse.

I guess that is the beauty of gray. I love that song by Live, and I love my friend, Dana, who first made me realize that things are not black and white. We live in a wacky world, where things are ambiguous and rarely certain. We are subject to nature, to fire, to tragedy. The Dalai Lama says pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. All we can do is try not to get burned. One thing though? If you don’t think you can care for a child, please don’t have one. There are few things I feel more strongly about than the necessity of equal access to birth control, and the horrifying nature of our foster care system - two related topics that get me fired up. 

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