Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ring Out the Old

I’ve already failed the first test of a long distance relationship. I had a little, almost tearful, freak-out. United had a bit of a problem, so I was late landing in Chicago and missed my connecting flight to Seattle. As did, apparently, everyone else in a 500 mile radius. I had been assured that United really takes good care of their people and that they’d have it all sorted for me and have me on the next flight by the time we landed at O’Hare.

Hardy har har.

Once in O’Hare, I stood in line for a half hour and then gave up because it was clear that if I continued to wait, all flights to Seattle would have departed. Then I waited on the customer service line for 40 minutes, and the situation got more and more desperate. Finally, the customer service representative told me that she could get me out in TWO DAYS. She said this cheerfully, as if this is all just part of their friendly service. As if I would like the whole Tom Hanks “The Terminal” experience for myself. Because it was weather related (rumor has it that it wasn’t technically weather but that United had run out of de-icer), there would be no compensation, no nice hotel. Just me, wandering around O’Hare for two days, buying travel pillows at Brookstone and covering myself with McDonald’s sacks.

So I did what any normal girl does. I called my boyfriend and almost, but not quite, cried. You would have thought I’d just missed the last helicopter out of Saigon. It was as if this meant I would NEVER see him again. The end.

He is a world traveler and thus was not as disturbed and had a variety of suggestions, all of which meant me standing in long lines, talking on a crappy cell connection to strangers, and, as he put it, “being firm.” What I could see that he could not was that this was hopeless. There were 60 people ahead of me for a flight out the next day.

“You must be firm,” he said. “That’s the only way to get anything done.”

This is one of our bigger differences, Z and me. In the world of Fight and Flight, he is the Fighter and I am the Flighter. (Only today my wings were clipped by de-icer.) What I wanted to do was quick book another ticket on Alaska Air for a thousand bucks and run away to him. Do I have a thousand bucks? Uh, no. But I do have plastic and this seemed like an emergency. I told him I had to go because I feared the crying and I’d like to save tears for something really important.

I wandered around, stood in line, felt hopeless, called my cousin in South Bend to see if perhaps I could spend two days with her. (She wasn’t home.) And then Z called. He’d found a flight out of Midway if I wanted to book it. “It’s pricey,” he said. How much? Half the cost of what I secretly paid to get to him on New Year’s Eve so we could start the year right. I told him I was being punished for greed and he laughed when he found out how much I paid because of my own impatience, and that made it all okay. Z’s laugh should be made a ringtone.

I had time to kill in the Loop so I made my way downtown on the El with all the TSA workers whose shift had ended, so I felt very safe and very much like I was just one of them. Someone asked for directions, and I was pleased that I could (sort of) answer them. Chicago always comes back to me like, well, what? Riding a bicycle?

It’s still Christmassy and Chicago is a great city for Christmas. I went to the former Marshall Field and was disturbed by how Macy’s has made it, somehow, more tacky, less grand, and just like every other store at the holiday. The Christmas windows were still good with animatronic Mary Poppinses, but the inside decorations could have been JC Penny. Carson, Pirie, Scott, the other former staple of downtown Chicago shopping,it turns out is going out of business. In the past, their window displays have rivaled (and frequently surpassed) Marshall Field's, but this year the displays were just of things you could get inside for 40% off. I decided to run over to the Midwestern-Sized Woman Store on Wabash to buy something to sleep in in case my suitcase doesn’t catch up with me tonight. (It supposedly caught the next flight to Seattle—the one I wasn’t allowed to catch!) Only there is just a shell of a building where it used to be, and next to it at the Champlaign Building where I spent many hours lurking in the lounges of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also a shell. The sign proclaimed that a new skyscraper will be built there that will change the skyline.

I can hardly wait. Don’t people know the world as I knew and loved it is meant to be laminated?

So I bought some haircare products (Meredith Grey hair has begun in anticipation of Seattle, it would seem), gave money to some homeless people because they were full of New Year spirit, and I marveled at how I must have lost a lot of weight in the last two months with all of my difficult gym work because my pants were really bagging in the seat. Some more people asked for directions. I cruised around my favorite streets. Then I hopped the Orange Line to Midway, checked in, bought an oversized Chicago T-shirt just in case, and then went thru security. The TSA officers suggested I should have a happy new year, but also, perhaps I should zip my fly. My pants felt huge because they were unzipped and my giant cotton turquoise underwear was greeting tourist and native a like.

Now I am at the gate, waiting for the plane to get here to whisk me off (please God) and as I look around at my fellow travelers I wonder how many of them saw my underwear earlier.

To recap, 2006 has ended with flight woes, flat hair, and underpants flashing. Here’s hoping for a brighter, “fuller bodied," well-zipped new year.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Horse Latitudes

I’ve been stuck. How to write a blog about being an almost 40-something (ten days and counting) spinster when you suddenly have a Man of Some Significance in your life? Also, how to write a blog about your own life when suddenly your own life intertwines more tightly with another someone’s, a someone who does not suffer from exhibitionist tendencies? The answer is you just stew around for two months while you try to figure it out and wonder if you should rename your blog Spinster No More, which then leads you to thoughts of developing some sort of spray or gel that could be liberally applied to spinsters and then hawked on late night TV by that loud, OxyClean guy. And then you lose the urge to write because you start wondering why that guy’s voice is so loud and if he really believes in those products.

Right now I’m in the Horse Latitudes of the calendar year…that week between Christmas and New Year when nothing feels quite normal because there are still calorie-laden treats on trays and the decorations are still up and the ball in Times Square has not yet dropped signaling the return to regular programming. Also, I’m in lover limbo. The distance between Z and me has shifted hemispheres since he went home to Africa for the holiday. Add to this that he has slipped even further into the void by going camping for a few days with his family in a place where there is no phone service, no email access, and, it turns out, a rogue elephant who is stealing food from campers. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a scenario for myself in which I would say to a man, “Honey, while you are gone be careful not to get trampled by elephants.”

So he is there and I am here. I leave New Year’s Eve to go be with him in Seattle for two weeks before classes start, but I don’t want to wish my days away, my thirties away, my holiday with my own family away. It’s a curious place to be, this no man’s land. I’ve been spending my time making lists of potential resolutions, reading the new “Not What to Wear” book I got for Christmas in hopes of being more visually appealing, scouring a new Lou Paget book in hopes of being a sex goddess by Sunday, listening to Gwen Stefani at the gym in hopes of tightening something and looking at all of my excess and wondering how to scale it back for more frugality and a healthier bank account in 2007.

In all likelihood, I’m setting my sights too high. My resolutions should be less lofty, in the manner of organize sock drawer, get photos put into photo boxes, and moisturize daily.

Or maybe just blog thrice weekly.

I’ll get myself sorted by January 1st. There should be wind under my sails by then.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bridget Jones in Middle Earth

On the way home from Seattle, I started channeling Bridget Jones. It was the only way I could process what had taken place in the previous 24 hours. My Bridget Jones voice went something like this:
Hooray! Am walking thru airport, talking on cell phone to actual boyfriend in manner of normal person. Have become person typically despised by solo, singleton travelers—standing still on moveable sidewalk thingy blocking passage to others because so busy talking to boyfriend about important boyfriend things like where his pictures have been hung and what he had for lunch and how my flight was. Hooray. Am part of couple. No longer destined to be spinster, eaten by own dogs. Joy!

Boyfriend? you ask. Yes. It sounds strange to me as well.

In light of my previous post, I don’t really expect you to believe me when I say I wasn’t looking for love. It’s true, but if I were you, I wouldn’t believe me. I’d given up on this man. When I met him five years ago I drove straight to my oldest friend’s house and said, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” I meant it, sincerely, though it was a statement I knew I could revoke later when I found out he was gay or an axe murderer. But for the record, those words did come out of my mouth the night I met him at a faculty party and thus began a five year journey of love and heartache, 99% of which took place only in my own head and in late night phone calls to friends who care about me and didn’t want to see me miserable. If I’d taken the advice in that awful He’s Just Not That Into You book, I wouldn’t have been walking thru the airport, talking on the cell. To my boyfriend.

It is true I shaved my legs and moisturized before I went to visit him. I bought new underwear. So an argument could be made that I knew, but I did not. I told people at home I was going to Seattle to seduce him, but there was no chance of it happening and my friends knew it. I have the seduction skills of an otter, and I have been making the same claims for the five years I’ve known him with no headway. He was a fortress; my love crashed against his foundations without making so much as a chink. He would remain on his egg crate mattress in the living room. The end.

Only, maybe not. It turns out my love was wearing away his resolve. It turns out I’m now in a relationship. It turns out I have everything I’ve wanted.

I am happy. I couldn’t be happier. I had, however, forgotten about how approximately three minutes after a man confesses his feelings for you, girl brain kicks in. Girl brain has made it impossible for me to really enjoy my happiness. I can’t concentrate on teaching or grading or committee work. My mother tells me stories and I hear the capital letter at the beginning of the opening sentence and the period at the end of the final one, and that’s it. Meanwhile, Z is in his office, plugging away at work, functioning like a grown-up person, and I have become Sibyl, with at least five distinct personalities, two of whom are normal, functioning adult women and three of whom are different variations on the most anxiety-ridden girlies in all of Christendom.

One minute I am Realistic Feminist Woman (“This is good. Let’s see what happens!”). The next minute I am High School Chick who, in lieu of planning her prom, has turned to thinking about what dishes she and the object of her desire might eat off of one day in some shared living space. Three minutes in I am Anxious Lady (“Why hasn’t he called? Has he been hit by a car or mugged?”), and then from there it is an easy slide into Catastrophe Girl (“That’s it! He’s changed his mind! He’s decided he made a horrible mistake,”), and with a little luck, I waft into my Faithful self, who sings two or three choruses of "It is Well with My Soul" and who, for fifteen minute increments, can actually think about other things like the war and whether she should worry about the trans fat in crackers because she believes so completely in this new thing.

But it is hard. There are grooves of disappointment etched so deeply in my brain from previous experience that I am waiting to hear the thud of the other shoe dropping. The long distance nature of this relationship contributes to this. Is he coming here for Thanksgiving? Is he annoyed that I left two personal item thingies in his very orderly, minimalist apartment? Did he wake up Monday and see all the other, hotter women who might have been available to him if only he weren’t tied to me, the Old Ball and Chain? When I suggested a January visit was he just being polite when he said it sounded like a good idea?

On at least six separate occasions I have nearly called him and told him I need more feedback, more reassurance, more love. Despite the fact that a week and a half ago I was a semi-confident creature who was not dependent on anyone else for happiness or sense of self, I now feel like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. I feel greedy and like a bottomless pit of need. I have no doubt that Z can sense me, standing in the dark, rubbing my slimy hands together, and saying, “Precious...”

How sexy is that? I suppose if Z were one of those Lord of the Rings nuts, it might be kind of a turn on, and if the other shoe does drop (please God, no), then perhaps I can find a Middle Earth dating service and search for a man who finds Gollum dead sexy.

This is a sad state of affairs when you begin your blog with Bridget Jones and end it with Gollum . I need to re-channel Bridget. She’s surely not too far out of reach.

Am happy in manner of happy, confident person. Have found perfect love with handsome, international man of mystery. Will be ravished by him soon.

Yes, that’s better.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Secret World

There’s a reason why Meredith Grey’s hair is so flat and lifeless on Grey’s Anatomy. It turns out, everyone’s hair, especially mine, is flat and lifeless here. I assume it is the weather (rainy with a chance of rain), yet it seems like that would lend itself to frizz.

I’m here visiting my Zimbabwean. I like saying that. It makes me feel like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa when she refers to the people she makes work on her farm as my Kikuyu. He’s teaching here, and I am in his bed. Before you get notions of me, spent from a night of international passion, you should know that while I was in his bed, he was on the an egg-crate mattress on the floor of his living room.

I ruin all the best romantic scenarios I create for you by telling the truth.

My best friend emailed that her eleven year old son came home from school yesterday and said, “"I'm just starting to realize that girls have their own secret world, and it's FREAKY!" The Zimbabwean and I laughed and laughed over that last night when I read it aloud, but I could tell he has no idea. No idea despite advanced academic degrees that we women have secret communication-interpretation skills no Navajo code-breaker could ever crack. So when you open his refrigerator and see he has two Cokes and a package of Dubliner cheese, just for you, you swoon a little even though you’ve sworn off swooning over this particular man. When you lament how awful and Meredith Grey-y your hair looks and he says, “I don’t think so” it is, after several mental contortions, the equivalent of his saying, “Your hair is as the sun shining on the Zambezi, and I wish to spend my days basking in both the glow and beauty of it.” When he refers to his apartment as “our apartment” it is as if he has said, “I want to share my living space for the rest of my days with no one but you.” When he says, “I took off the roll of scratchy toilet paper and bought you the kind that those bears use” it’s as if he said, “I love you so profoundly that I want only the very best—softness, absorbency, and four-ply bathroom experiences—for you.” In this sick, sad world, even his choosing to sleep on egg crates instead of in his own bed with you seems like a declaration of love.

Poor eleven year old boy. How can he ever learn to cope in a world where half the population is this indirect, this given to fancy. . . this freaky?

So, Seattle. We walked over half the city last night and so I’m reserving judgment until we rent a car tomorrow and investigate it when my feet don’t hurt. It’s nice. Lots of coffee. The people are friendly. Somehow I had in my head that it would look and feel like Vancouver, but it turns out it’s a whole different place. Yesterday, my Zimbabwean took me to Pike Place Market. While I don’t like fish and do not like to smell them, eat them, watch them, or see them manhandled by the stall vendors, it was a unique experience. Also, there is a lot there that is not fish. Like huge bundles of fresh flowers for $4, and hippies selling art, and little dogs in plaid raincoats and jam sampling and fudge sampling and street musicians singing protest songs (just protesting in general, with an undertone of “This war is unconscionable” and “George Bush sucks” thrown in for good measure.), and all sorts of useless crap you don’t need like Oscar Wilde action figures, “Aunt Flo’s Tampon Case,” and cardboard cutouts of William Shatner. From there, we went to Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where you can buy other useless things and see oddities like mummified human remains and a stuffed two-headed calf. We took a bus to the Space Needle but opted not to go up because it cost $14 and was cloudy. My cousin G suggested I go up not because the views are spectacular or because it is a piece of post-Populuxe history, but because she didn’t go up and apparently that is the only thing people ask you when they hear you visited Seattle. I will wait for a sunny day. Or at least a day when there is a chance of sun.

Last night we walked up a San Francisco style hill to see his university. He wanted decorating suggestions for his office as some big wigs are coming in today, but it is a hopeless cause. I suggested he buy a plant and an Edgar Allen Poe action figure from Pike Market, but other than adding some doo-dads like that, it is a hopeless sea of glass and giant industrial office furniture. While there, I met the man who hired him, who tried to entice me to their wine and cheese reception this afternoon. I will, instead, be buying a birthday card and maybe a cake or some gift-ish for Z’s birthday. Extroverts never seem to get that the invitation to spend three hours with total strangers whom you will never see again is like a prison sentence.

After that, we walked up Broadway in search of food and so I could see, as Z put it, “the freak show.” Sadly, the freaks were not out, either because it was too early in the evening or two middle-of-the-week. I will have to save those human oddities for another day, though clearly I’ve got my own little freakshow happening right inside my head and don’t have to walk up any hills to get a front row seat.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Rules of Engagement

The Rules of Engagement

I’ve been thinking about the rules of attracting a mate lately. You know the ones. Some are probably holdovers from the days of courtly love. I’m talking about the ones no one really teaches us, but we can quote them more quickly and accurately than we can the First Amendment or the Ten Commandments. (Pick your politics.) They are:

1) Love comes when you least expect it.
2) Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
3) You must love yourself before love will find you.
4) Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.

There are variations of the above but all fit comfortably in one of the four above groups. For instance, if you’ve read enough self-help books or watched movies like Runaway Bride, you’ll recognize a combination of 1 and 3. That is, you might love someone, but until you quit being devoted to your love of them and learn to make hideous lampshade art on your own like Julia Roberts almost always does in whatever movie she is in, you will not find true love. A variation of 4 that I prefer because I am mildly lactose intolerant is that you must withhold your love if you expect the object of your affection to return your warm feelings.

I’ve followed most of these rules, off and on, with some regularity, and I can’t say that any of them work. For me. That’s fine. Single is okay, so don’t think this is a blog of self-pity. It is not. For instance, I had a flash last night of all the horrible d├ęcor I’d be forced to live with if some of my former loves had come to a point of cohabitation: dogs playing poker, posters of Johnny Cash, farm implements as art, eagle blankets as window treatments….

It annoys me when people explain their newly found love by relying on these platitudes, usually because they are not true. You cannot believe anyone who says they weren’t looking for or expecting love. They were. Okay. They were. We all are. If you are between the ages of 12 and dead and you spend more than 15 minutes a day watching television or listening to non-talk radio, then you are expecting at some time to be “surprised” by love. If you weren’t expecting to be surprised by love, you wouldn’t have the good underwear and you would never shave your legs. Don’t kid yourself and don’t try to kid me. You might not have been expecting it today between 12:00 and 12:15, but you were expecting it eventually.

What annoys me even more than this, though, is when someone willingly breaks one of these rules and finds true love in spite of it. For instance, I know a woman who loved a man who did not love her back, even though they had sex regularly. By all accounting with Price Waterhouse, this relationship was doomed, she was being used, he would never respect her, and thus she would never win his love, no matter what acrobatics were involved. It’s the cautionary tale every young girl hears from her mother or Sunday school teacher. Yet after a year of this FREE and FLAGRANT milk giving, the guy realized he loved her and couldn’t live without her. They are now married and have matching tattoos celebrating their eternal love. Not only this, but the power balance has shifted and his own mother refers to him as “whipped.” When you have been a rule follower your whole life, this is one of the jaggedest little pills to have to swallow: rule breakers win; rule breakers do not necessarily go straight to hell. (Though this is a young marriage, and so the verdict is still out on that one. Hell has many manifestations.)

What is the MOST annoying, however, is when someone willfully breaks the rules but presents her story of love as if she were adhering to the above. Recently, my mother befriended the wife of the first boy I loved, grades K thru 3. He was cute, smart, skilled at kickball, and was regularly awarded the title of “Good Citizen.” His wife (an excellent and good person by all accounts) tells the story of how she was not interested in dating anyone and told the friends who set her up with him that she wasn’t. She told him she wasn’t interested in him repeatedly on that first non-date, and three days later she moved in with him and they’ve been blissfully happy ever since. She followed those rules of courtly love and rejected him multiple times, but still, she went on the non-date. Still, she answered the phone after the non-date when he was calling to tell her he wanted to see her again. And when, later that same night, he drove through the country looking for her house so he could kiss her soundly and show her that there was something between them, she told him how to get to her house.

So, at cocktail parties, she can tell people that she wasn’t looking for love and in fact discouraged love, but even so, she gave it directions.

I just hate that.

My luck with absence making the heart grow founder has been no better. It can make the heart grow fonder, but only in people who weren’t into you enough in the first place to realize they should stay put. Them joining the military and then realizing they really miss you is not really a testament to how lovable you are so much as it is a testament to how miserable it is in a desert. Or Duluth. People have had good, long marriages based on this absent, fond heart mythology, so perhaps I should not judge it so harshly. But I do, primarily because I am the kind of person who feels that the separation by just a two- mile stretch of road is too great a separation. I do not need to go to Duluth to realize I am in love.

Also, statistically speaking, what absence does is make people unfaithful. They’re lonely, Van Morrison gets played on the jukebox, and they bump up against another lonely some body.

Am I too cynical? Bitter? Frustrated? A case could be built for any of these. But I don’t think so. I’m just wondering, that’s all. How is it that other people know when to follow the rules, when to break them, when to break them but pretend they didn’t? How is that whatever I do seems like exactly the wrong thing to do, but then if I switch to the exact opposite tactic, it immediately seems like the inferior one?

These are rhetorical questions, you understand. I’m beginning to suspect the truth is that no one knows anything, and the platitudes we rely on and untruths we tell are simply needed because it is an unbearable thought that our lives and loves are a crapshoot, that it is, at it’s very basest level, just an issue of timing: who was available at 12:15 on a Monday afternoon.

No, this version is even less satisfying than the lies. I find myself once again in the precarious position of needing to quote Fleetwood Mac: Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Sometimes when you’ve been dizzy for a week and when you get so dizzy you think you might pass out and when you mention it to a wise friend who had a similar experience and discovered when she went to the hospital that she needed potassium STAT, well, sometimes you end up in the E.R. at midnight.

If you can help it, avoid this.

I miss the days of nurses in starched white uniforms with hats balanced on their heads. I only just barely remember it from my childhood, but there’s something about the current nurse style of smocks with puppy dogs on them and big white athletic shoes that always makes me think perhaps they should be grooming dogs instead of taking my blood pressure. I don’t trust their authority or their expertise. It’s judgmental of me. I’ve taught many fine nursing students who no doubt have a variety of scrubs covered in woodland creatures and cartoon characters, and I’d trust them to take care of me. But still, there was something comforting about those days when people dressed in the uniform of their profession. The reason UPS men look kind of hot now is because uniform wearing is really down to them and the “crew” at McDonald’s.

Also, on the list of things you shouldn’t have to see in a hospital ER: a doctor who appears to be a 12 year old paper boy and who wears, as God as my witness, a shark tooth surrounded by shell beads on a leather cord. I seriously felt as if I’d fallen out of the Midwestern ER waiting room full of Hoosiers with reflux and tattoos and into an examining room in the O.C. If this hospital wasn’t situated at one of the furthest points inland you can be from either coast, I would assume he was going to go surfing as soon as his shift ended.

I’m not ready to be a woman who talks about how young the doctors and cops look. I don’t want to have a prejudice against youth. And yet. And yet. I want a doctor, male or female, with understated jewelry and no beach ware.

Things you should know about your ER visit:
1) Do not tell the doctor what you think your problem might be. Doctors do not like this. Doctors will order the test you think you need but will tell you they are certain you don’t need it and when the results come back negative, they gloat. In this respect, I think doctors also long for a simpler time before their patients had access to WebMD.

2) When the technician comes in to administer an EKG and he is reading the manual, it won’t be done right. He will be pleasant (and mildly cute, so you won’t mind exposing your chest to him so much), but eventually, a woman in a puppy dog smock is going to come in with the same piece of equipment and do the whole thing over again, only more quickly and with more authority. In all likelihood, your results will be normal.

3) Do not assume that you will leave with any sort of sense of what is wrong with you. If you are not having a heart attack or stroke, you will not be admitted. If you are not a baby with pink eye, you will not be given drugs.

4) Do be prepared for looks from the doctor and nurses that indicate you DO NOT BELONG in the ER and that you are WASTING THEIR TIME.

I have sense seen my “regular hours” doctor and he doesn’t know what’s wrong with me either. He said he “prefers to think it’s an inner ear thing” and that my body is overreacting to the dizziness. He has a look in his eye that indicates he thinks, perhaps, I am having an anxiety attack. Any maybe I am. Because, honestly, I’m pretty anxious about becoming 40 in five months and having health care professionals treat me as if I am an over-reacting, hypochondriac middle-aged woman. It’s a downward slide from here.

Youth is wasted on the young. Middle-aged people are wise enough to know that shark teeth make for bad jewelry.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lost and Found

Okay. Okay. Summer is over. I'm back to work.

In the remaining fifteen minutes before classes start for Fall, I've been trying to clean up my "home office" (a Tom Seely Shaker farm table covered in paper, Post-Its, and small plastic gods, goddesses, and a Zimbabwean bottle cap basket), and in so doing, I have re-discovered some salvage from my library days.

For three depressing years after college when I was pretty sure my life was over, I worked in a public library. It wasn't a bad job in that it was clean and there was electricity and there was very little chance I'd be trapped in a cave-in or develop Black Lung from my work there, but it was soul deadening in a way most book lovers can't imagine. Anyone who reads always says, "Oh, you worked in a library! How wonderful." If by wonderful they meant how wonderful for a sugar addict to work in a candy factory where she is not allowed to sample the wares, then yes, I guess it was wonderful. Mostly, my time was spent trying to soothe patrons who were sure they had been overcharged fifteen cents on their fines, keep the odd pervert from masturbating in the 600s, and trying to fly beneath the radar of a mentally ill boss.

One of my few joys, aside from ordering fiction and quittin' time on Friday, was cleaning out the lost and found. Frequently, there were items in there I wouldn't have touched if I'd had on a haz-mat suit, but other times, there would be Aignier change purses (now used for toll money) or interesting bookmarks or photos of strangers. Twice, there were Cross pens, one pink one with PJB etched on the barrell and another, more distinguished navy blue one with "Jeff Aluotto" engraved on it.

When I worked at the library, Al Gore hadn't yet invented the internet, and there was no "Aluotto" listed in our databases nor in the phone book. PJB was similarlily elusive, so I became the proud owner of two slightly used Cross pens.

Fast forward 16 years. I still have both pens, though I rarely use either. I am a pen whore, and there are too many pens in my possession for any of them to get used more than a few times a year. So in my cleaning frenzy and my desire to "simplify" as the magazines all tell me I must do if I wish to find inner peace, I re-discovered Jeff Aluotto's pen and decided to see if I could find him. After 20 seconds of googling, I located a likely candidate, living about an hour and a half from my own fair city. He seems to be doing well for himself and in all likelihood, he has many other Cross pens in his possession, but I've been enjoying the idea of reuniting him with this pen. He appears to be roughly my age, and I'm speculating that his pen was a graduation present. Possibly from an auntie of whom he was fond.

So I decided to send it to him semi-anonymously. I shoved it into a padded envelope with a note wrapped around the barrell that said, "Did you lose this sixteen years ago?" And then, because my professional interest in "story" got the best of me, I signed the note with my email address, hoping that he would write me back to say either, "Thank you so much. My auntie died shortly after she gave me this pen" or, possibly, "Who the hell are you and why did you send me a pen with my name on it? Are you trying to sell me something?"

I had a brief fantasy in which he writes me back and we strike up a conversation and discover we both had a great love of Ireland and jig punk and the novels of Thomas Hardy and Nick Hornby and Italian food and voila, we decide to meet and fall in love and Plan B pays big bucks to make the movie of our romance since the James Frey thing isn't working out so well for poor Jen's production company.

But then I did an additional search and discovered a woman, roughly my age, living in the same house with my fantasy man, so now I've begun worrying that perhaps the arrival of this pen will break up his happy marriage. For instance, I suspect perhaps they were high school sweethearts and she gave him the pen and is now going to ask him uncomfortable questions about who I am and why he was with me sixteen years ago. And the fighting will escalate and then they will divorce and their three beautiful children (who may or may not exist) will be statistically damanged by being raised in a broken home. And it will be all my fault for reuninting a man with his pen.

The most likely scenario, I realize, is that the man I selected as the most likely candidate isn't the original owner of the pen. But it really is the least fun of the possibilities.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Little Brownstone on the Prairie

Last night I was feeling "troubled" about my silly life as I went to sleep, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. Usually the troubledness has to do with my age, my living situation, my marriage/partner/dating and motherhood status. Other things get factored in based on the latest magazine article I've read or Dateline exclusive I've watched. Last night, after messing with a picture shelf my mother and I were hanging above my desk and trying to figure out which of my 20 works of art I was going to hang on the little hunk of wall that is left in my room, I was feeling particularly freaky. I have friends who are bitter because their houses aren't brand new and don't have granite countertops or swimming pools or room for a home office, but all of them have managed to get more than four walls to hang things on. This isn't about some people being luckier or having more than me. I know if I wanted to make it a priority I could maybe get myself eight walls, so I'm not talking about jealousy here. If I wanted to give up the frequent flying and the handmade furniture and the Sundance catalog jewelry, I could buy a little house and hopefully have enough money left over to pay a boy (preferably a shirtless one) to come and do things for me like hang picture shelves. I could.

Anyhow, I woke up this morning, looked at all my stuffed-full bookshelves and realized, I'm living in a brownstone circa 1945. I always imagined living a writer's life in a big city where I couldn't afford anything but a bedsit so all of my worldly possessions would be in the one room, and for reasons that are unclear, I always imagined doing this in the post war era. And now I realize that's what I've got. Only without the city, without radiators (thank you, Jesus), without loud neighbors, and without a book contract. I AM Helene Hanff. I am whatever the bookish sister's name was in My Sister Eileen. I just can't go walk my dog in Central Park (partly because I don't have my own dog), and I still have not developed a taste for coffee and cigarettes, both of which figure prominently into my 1945 brownstone fantasy.

Also, in this fantasy, I have a throaty laugh and I know how to dance.

I really am amazed by people who figure out how to settle into a place. At almost 40, I'm still trying on locations for size. For instance, I now know I do not want to live in Aspen, even if I do become a billionaire. In fact, you can scratch 'anywhere in Colorado' and 'the Rockies' right off the list of possibilities. It's gorgeous there. The quality of life is good. I understand the fervor of John Denver's Rocky Mountain High, but it is not my place in this world. There is too much sun and too many people happy to be outdoors, risking their lives on guardrail-less roads, in treacherous rapids, and while battling wildfires.

While I was at Aspen Summer Words, my friend H. drove me up Independence Pass so I could see the Continental Divide. On the way up I told her how beautiful the landscape was and she said, "I know. When I see these mountains my heart just opens right up." My heart wasn't opening--not for those mountains--but I liked the emotion with which she spoke. It's how I feel about the West of Ireland, Chicago, East Tennessee, London. There are places you belong and places you don't belong and I live in fear that I'll accidentally end up in a place where I don't belong, where my heart not only won't open up but instead will seize because of the ugliness or inhospitably of the people or landscape. For instance, the two hours I was waiting for my return flight from Phoenix, I kept thinking, "This is a dead place. People aren't supposed to live here." Yet people do. And some people love it. My grandparents loved it. But they sure didn't pass those genes down to me. (Nor the genes that would make camping seem like a good idea, for that matter. Nor the ones that would make me good with money or able to cook.)

When I figure out how to get myself to 1940s Manhattan, I'll let you know.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Ellie Mae Clampett Goes to Aspen

Blogging is a type of writing, right? I don’t need to feel guilty about sitting in an Aspen Starbucks blogging instead of working on a novel or studying craft, right?

It’s beautiful here. The house is remarkable. But I’m left with this sense that I’ve just packed up the truck and moved to Bever-leeee.

The trip here was only mildly eventful. At the Phoenix airport, while waiting on my (late) connecting flight I looked down at a young woman who was reading a manuscript and realized it was mine. I introduced myself and thought we’d have a chatty moment or two about our hopes for the week. She said, “Oh.” Not “Hey, I liked your story” or “Funny line on page three” or even “What do you think Ron Carlson will be like as workshop leader?” I asked who she was and was not surprised to learn she was the author of the only story in the whole pile that I hated—writing that gives the impression of depth but wherein there is no there there.

The flight was delayed, the plane was tiny, and when I got on I stepped on a pair of abandoned sunglasses and broke them. I though, shamefully, “I’m so glad those were someone else’s sunglasses and not my own.” Then last night when I unpacked my own sunglasses were broken in two. I’m not sure what the message there was from the universe: be more remorseful when you break people’s things? Always keep your sunglasses in a hard shell protective case? What?

Unfriendly Writer Woman ended up being my seat mate. I tried again to engage her by commenting on her rapid-fire line editing, but she just smiled that smile that is not really a smile but more of a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign. So I turned on my iPod. Later, when the plane hit the most horrendous single-moment of turbulence I’ve ever experienced—we’re talking “Tower of Terror” style drop—my glass of water went flying and then water all over the ceiling that rained down on her for the rest of the trip, I felt like, well, maybe there is something to the whole karma deal. (But I still don’t think my sunglasses should have broken.)

D & L, my hosts, were not at the airport to greet me. The American West delay threatened to make them late to the YoYo Ma concert. A woman gave me a note from L with directions to the house and a suggestion to take a cab.

The house is indescribable, though of course I will try. Where I’m from, when people are “having a house built” what it means is that a new house is being built in a former forest or cornfield and it looks, basically, like the other houses near it. This is a house. With an architect and a lot of square footage and a view.

The entrance to the house is a curving gravel lane flanked by pines, Aspens, and wildflowers (L is a landscape architect). From the outside you can tell that it’s going to be something special inside, but it doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself—no big Tammy Wynnette-esque pillars out front. (Dark wood, lots of glass, maybe Neo Prairie style if such a thing exists??) D has a little office building in the front garden, all glass. Lots of sculpture, flowers, stepping stones, and a formidable entrance.

Hannah the Golden Retriever greeted me as soon as I opened the door. She immediately tried to crawl up onto me and started whining with joy that someone was giving her some attention.

The entry hall was so breathtaking that I had a hard time moving further into the house. Gorgeous hardwood, four giant medieval-looking figures, twice my height lined the corridor, a big vase of fresh flowers, artwork. I can’t even begin to think of how to do it justice.

I told Hannah that I needed to find my room (L had left directions to the room and instructions for how to avoid altitude sickness—drink lots of water and lie down flat for a half an hour as soon as you arrive). Hannah very regally walked me to my room and stood at the door like a bellhop, awaiting her tip.

My room is huge—cathedral ceiling with a ladder that goes up to a loft, an entire wall of windows overlooking the Rockies, a door out on to the back patio, beautiful, unique antique furnishings, literary readings placed out on the desk for my perusal, a bar of lemon verbena soap awaiting me in the shower, fluffy duvet, what must be 6,000 thread count sheets, not to mention the fluffy robe, towels, and flip flops. Also, in the closet—a hanging metal skeleton!

A river rushes down the incline off the patio. I went out to hear it and locked myself out of my room, so had to traipse through the yard (more wildflowers! More view!) back to the front door, where Hannah greeted me again and insisted I look at the living room and kitchen. Wow. One huge room, huge cathedral-sized windows, lots of exposed wood, big firepace, books, artwork. Every where there are little wooden artists dummies, sitting in windows, hanging on picture frames, doing acrobatics across a bulkhead.

Hannah insisted I play tug of war with her, which I’m used to with my Scottie, though it turns out Golden Retrievers can do a LOT more tugging. I finally had to cry uncle.

After my altitude treatment, I decided I’d walk to The Gant where Summer Words is being held this year. D had told me it was a 15 minute walk. Sure. For someone who is fit, athletic, and used to this altitude. Forty minutes later I lumbered into the reception area, just in time to meet Ron Carlson, get my name tag, say hello to the Countess who was on the Ireland trip with me in November. Then I found my friend H who was looking for me, so we went off to have dinner, talk about writing, and catch up. She very graciously drove me back to The House and went off to set up her camper. (People who can do grown-up things like set up campers amaze me.)

I sat on the patio watching the sun set behind the Rockies and waited for my hosts to return. When they did, we talked a little and then I tumbled in my Princess and the Pea bed. I can’t believe I had doubts that this house would be less exciting than the Hotel Jerome.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fruitless Sneaks

I hate snakes. Call it irrational, girly, predictable, whatever you want, but I seriously think all snake should die. I don't feel this way about spiders or mice--in fact, I regularly spring the traps set at the Dog House because it seems like bad, bad karma to eighty-six something so cute who is just out there trying to make a living like the rest of us. But snakes are a different story & I'm not even from a part of the world where they are poisonous.

Today, I let the dog out and two seconds later heard this awful caterwauling on the kitchen deck. I looked out in time to see a giant snake coiled up and ready to lunge at my sweet Scottie, who has a ferocious bark that should have scared the snake off. I called the dog in but the snake then glared at us, still coiled, through the window. He opened his mouth, wide, to show us what he was made of (though possibly he was just yawning and completely bored by us). The Scottie whimpered, desperate to give the snake what for. I poked at the glass and made noises meant to scare it off, but the snake just stared at me, sitting on its snake-haunches, ready to attack. He didn't leave until we walked away from the window and let him "win." I haven't let the dog out since.

There are a lot of fantastical things in the Bible--people turning to pillars of salt, burning bushes, walking on water--but I've never had a problem with believing any of it. Today, though, I'm thinking the whole Garden of Eden story is a real crock. What self-respecting woman would talk to a snake? I just don't think it would happen. They are all side-windy and slithery and awful.

At school, I regularly have female students--usually those with tattoos of pentagrams who smell of patchouli--who insist that snakes are wonderful, loving pets, but I never believe them. I think its for affect. I'm sorry--you can't curl up with a snake and watch old "Frasier" reruns, like the Scottie Dog and I did last night. What you can do with a pet snake is take it out of its aquarium in an attempt to make guests uncomfortable. That's about it. I've always thought how awful it was that cats were regularly murdered in medieval times (and beyond) because they were associated with witchcraft. How ignorant and heartless, I'd think. But snakes? It just seems like the truth--they are evil and must die.

Several years ago I had a student who was not a native speaker of English who wrote a paper in which she talked frequently about "sneaks." At the time, I pictured people who were out to get her, sneaking around her neighborhood, maybe painting racial epithets on her garage door or rifling through her garbage. After the third read-thru, it dawned on me that "sneaks" were really SNAKES. The paper was about how much she hated sneaks. Here, here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Summer of a Dormouse

Yesterday, my BABY half-brother graduated from high school. Technically, I’m old enough to be his mother (my father and step-mother didn’t adopt him until I was 21), but normally, I feel like I’m just a few years older than he is, possibly because I never learned to be a grown-up. I can still remember the joy I had when I was in graduate school and listening to little five year old him espouse the joys of “Beavis and Butthead” not because he “got” it but because he wanted to emulate anything his cool older brother did. All three of us were the same age in that moment, liking something irreverent and silly, no matter how inappropriate the show was for a five year old. Or a ten year old, for that matter. Or somebody working on her master’s degree. I was raised as an only child and was basically adult when both boys were born, so these moments of sibling camaraderie are few and far between.

But then on a milestone like graduation, I’m forced to admit how old I am and reflect on his childhood and how quickly it went and how mostly I didn’t witness it because we lived in two different cities and I was busy. It seems like two years ago that I met him for the first time, played with his chubby toes, and looked into his little almond old man eyes and felt a sorry for him, that he’d just been hanging out in a Korean orphanage, minding his own baby business when he was plucked from his crib, flown around the world and deposited into the loving arms of a family that is not bad, but at the very best, is pathologically dysfunctional.

And now he is a grown-up, who doesn’t have to have the time for me if he doesn’t want to. How quickly the tables do shift.

I rode the 40 minutes to the graduation with my step-mother and her new husband, Not My Dad. I never miss Dad so much as I do when I am around NMD, and he is telling his silly jokes, spouting off his rigid religious views, or implying that my whole family is screwed up because we’re introverts and not extroverts like his family. He’s not a bad man, makes the step-mother happy, and seems to care about my brothers. But when he speaks, what I want to hear is my dad’s voice, having a discussion, cracking off some line & then laughing. What a good laugh my dad had. Also, Dad would never have told a joke about knowing my step-mother ‘biblically’ and expected laughs for it. His wit was cleverer and slightly more tasteful in mixed company. (Also, Dad would have been aware of the frightening images he was scarring the listener with!) But, there you go. Not only do you not get to pick your family (biological or adoptive), but you also don’t get to pick your second round step-families. So you laugh when it is expected and you are appreciative when NMD buys you a sundae at Friendly’s.

In other news, I have sent off five chapters to Aspen to be considered by fellow workshoppers and two agents I’m paying $35 a pop to “consult” with. The manuscript was due—in Aspen—on Wednesday, to be considered for the agent lottery, so of course I was still writing it all on Tuesday and mailing it out for $36 via Fed Ex at 4:30 in the afternoon. One day I hope to discover why my writing is better when I put myself into fit of terror and self-loathing at the eleventh hour. I don’t know that the chapters are “good” but certainly they are better than the swill I’d written a few weeks earlier when I wasn’t under the gun. I think in the perfect world (for me), I would have an agent/editor/publisher who would, at least once a week, call and say, “Look. Your stuff is due tomorrow or your career is over and, what’s more, we’re going to take out commercial time on major networks to tell the world what a horrible, lazy person you are if you don’t meet this deadline.” Then I’d write. I’d write regularly and well.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bridget Jones Has a Baby

It's Memorial Day and I'm tired of thinking about the war dead, the high cost of crappy plastic cemetery flowers, and why it is everyone else I know has cookouts but I mostly have bowls of Fruit Loops.

So let's talk about babies. It seems timely. The media can finally quit telling us that Baby Jolie-Pitt is about to be born, has been born, has been given the name of a Golden Retriever, has been made an honorary Namibian princess, etc. (The downside, of course, is that we'll be back on Britney-watch.)

Also, in other celebrity baby news, it seems Helen Fielding, the author of _Bridget Jones's Diary_, has just had her second child at 48. I like this story because it gives me almost a decade to still keep motherhood on the table. I keep a list of "older" mothers just in case--at some later date--I need a role model.

That said, today I visited a friend who recently had her first baby, and I'm not sure what compels rational people to procreate. A little over a year ago the two of us got together for the ballet and dinner, where she confessed that she was thinking of having a baby but she really wasn't sure she wanted to, had never wanted kids, had never seen herself as a mother, etc. (I encouraged her, for the record. It seems like a thing you are supposed to do if you can.) Then about three weeks later she wrote that she was pregnant and so she guessed the decision had been made. Before Baby, we met in bars and talked about men and what we wanted to do with our lives. Today we met at Bob Evans. On the surface, she looked as fresh and well-organized as she always has, but something was off. She seemed scattered and a little unsure of herself. She kept apologizing. She confessed that she knows nothing about babies and so still has no idea if he is exceptional or below average in what he does, though what he does mostly is chew things and smile. She said that while she used to think about climbing the corporate ladder, she now suddenly wants a job where she can work less than 40 hours a week and wear comfortable shoes. I felt both sorry for her and a little envious. There's this cocoon around a mother and a new baby that third parties just can't quite penetrate.

She's younger than I am and I (being so very old and so very jaded) have lived through several of these get-togethers in the first six months of Baby's life and it is wrist-slittingly tedious while the two of you try to re-navigate your friendship since you are no longer in the same boat...or floating on the same body of water. I'm sympathetic to how hard this transition must be for the parents. In fact, on a couple of occasions with close friends, I've enjoyed watching the transformation and hearing about the feeding schedule and quality of diaper contents and the features on the Bebecar Stroller (which costs more than my first vehicle) and how really, you just can't be a GOOD parent without a Diaper Genie. I take mental notes so I can have rational discussions about things I know nothing about with whomever has the NEXT baby. And maybe I take notes in case my ovaries are as hearty as Helen Fielding's. Maybe.

I've always wanted to be one of those cool single people who "understands" the trials and tribulations of marriage and a childless one who totally "gets" what it is to be a mother, so admitting any of this is like blowing my own cover, but here it is: when friends have babies it totally sucks. At least it does in the early days because suddenly the glow of the spotlight shining on the baby is just wide enough to shine a bit on you and expose something you've never known before about your own life, which is this: it is silly and insignificant. I want to be clear: this has nothing to do with the mothers' attitude. For instance, my friend today generously praised my writing and asked several about my life, but then when I went to tell her, the baby would coo or shake his stuffed cow and we would BOTH stop mid-sentence and grin at him like a couple of idiots. She asked what I'd been up to, and nothing I've been up to seemed noteworthy--eating Fruit Loops on Memorial Day hardly qualifies as news. I've been to Ireland. I've taught some classes. I've flirted with some men. But how can we discuss that when she so recently brought new life into the world and here it is sitting before us, filling its diaper?

We gave up after awhile. We made faces and weird sounds at the baby and assured each other regularly that he really is the most beautiful, smartest, and most cheerful baby ever (as all babies are). When I pulled away, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, his mother looked pained at the thought of the hour long drive she had in front of her, and I cranked up the Pearl Jam in my own car where there were no little eardrums to worry about, which is another kind of satisfying.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bad Book; Good Dog

I’ve been reading the same book since mid-March and when I reached page 612 today I realized the book sucks. For two months I’ve been berating myself for not reading more, for letting the internet, the TV, student papers, etc., pull me away from reading, and then today I discover it wasn’t really my fault. It was the book’s. True, I could have put the book down at anytime—I’m not one of those people who has to finish what she starts (which explains a closet full of craft projects beginning with 1970s plastercraft and ending with a sweater I’ve been knitting since 1999—but let’s not blame the victim). I was so convinced by this book’s cover, by jacket blurbs, by it’s sticker declaring it one of Richard and Judy’s choices (I assume this is the UK version of an Oprah pick—I bought the book in Ireland), and the subject matter that I just kept plugging through eight centuries of religious persecution and grail mythology to come to the conclusion—with only twenty pages to go—that this was not a good book. Perhaps it was historically accurate, but the writing and presentation was. Not. Good.

This always causes some anxiety—the bad books that get published. I could do this. I could do better than this. How does K.M. get her crap book about the Crusades published when mine just sits there, ignored by agents and editors alike? Well, here’s how: my book is invisible. It exists only in my mind and therefore is difficult to market. You can’t get bitter about someone getting all the publishing laurels when you have been busying yourself with postcard writing and season finale watching.

What I’ve been writing instead of chapters for the writing festival I’m going to in Aspen at the end of June: a journal for the Wonder Dog. I’m cracking myself up with it, putting words in his mouth, seeing things from his point of view, writing diligently every day. In yesterday’s entry he wrote about going to an Amish greenhouse where he was in awe of a horse. I’m thinking he might start a blog of his own. With my luck, he’ll get a book deal and I never will. His work ethic is stronger than mine. That’s all.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Cheerleader and the Brain

Today I was walking the Wonder Dog and listening to my iPod. It was a perfect, beautiful day after about eight days of rain. So glad was I to be at one with nature that I took the time to smell the peonies. I took three deep sniffs, mindful of not inhaling the ants, stood up, caught my earphones on the blossom, unsnagged them with a jerk, and catapulted about fifteen ants right onto my head and down my blouse.

Once a month when the bill is due, I go to the gym. I can’t say it does much for muscle tone or weight loss, but I am dedicated even though I don’t see results. Once a month. Like clock work. I go to the gym at 10:00. This is the perfect time to go because the only people who are there are usually older people who have either had strokes and are rehabilitating or older people who are healthy and trying to ward off the strokes. Nobody is there who looks like they’ll be on the next series of Real World in other words. The older people don’t really work the machines right. They do things in a lopsided fashion. I say this not to make fun of them but to point out that for me to feel good about the hour I sometimes spend in a gym requires me to be surrounded by people bent over with osteoporosis and propping themselves up with canes. I am not what you would call a natural.

When I was in high school, I was one of those girls who always had her nose stuck in a book and who was always the last one in from the mile run around the track in gym class. Because there were no books involved with gym, I considered it a waste of my time. I didn’t particularly like my body (though I would certainly like to have access to that version of myself again) and so tended towards maximum coverage in oversized Amy Grant sweatshirts and army jackets. Gay men loved me. Boys who read The Lord of the Rings found me a worthy enough companion.

On the other end of the mind/body spectrum was a girl, let’s call her Trixie, who wore her parachute pants so tight that little was left to the imagination. She was spoiled and cute. She had a horrible reputation as being both a bitch and a whore, though I knew her as neither. She was just someone in general math and English classes whose wardrobe and body were enviable, who had gone out with a lot of different guys, and who had a contagious laugh. Also, she was a cheerleader.

Yesterday when I got the gym, there on the steppy-uppy machine I haven’t the stamina to use, was not one of the geriatric regulars, but Trixie, chewing gum, reading a celebrity gossip magazine, and talking to a trainers. She saw me and greeted me warmly, as she always does though we were never friends, and we talked about school and old acquaintances and life. She was sheepish because the last time I saw her was at a restaurant where her eleven-year-old son announced across the aisle separating us that she’d been married and divorced twice and that he and his brother had different fathers. This announcement caused her to clam up and me to eat the rest of my deep friend dinner in uncomfortable silence.

At the gym, we were able to laugh this off. Obviously, this is her domain. She effortlessly talked to me as she climbed an invisible K-2 while I huffed and puffed on the 0% incline of the treadmill. She told me how good her boys are—how they are so much better than she is. She said she wished I had a kid that would spill MY secrets to her, and it struck me how sad it is that we humans go through our lives worrying about what other people think of us. Trixie thinks I sit in judgment on her because she’s been married twice, didn’t go to college, and knew how to have a good time. Meanwhile, I think Trixie is judging the size of my treadmilling ass, judging me for my no mate, no children, and lack of fashionable workout clothes.

Why do we torture ourselves this way? I allowed myself about 120 seconds of the masochism and then forced myself to focus on her and what she is: a thing of beauty. Not just because she is firm or tan or has long blond hair, but because she still cracks her gum and giggles and tells you she likes your shoes instead of mentioning how you look fatter or older or more single than you did in 1985.

As we were getting ready to leave, the trainer she had been talking to earlier was rubbing a kink out of her back. In six years of semi-irregular gym attendance, no trainer has bothered to smile at me let alone rub a kink out of any of my muscles, but here was Trixie, getting a post-workout backrub and telling the trainer that she thought perhaps she was so tense because she hadn’t had sex for so long. Gum crack. Gigggle. Maybe its something I should try to incorporate into my life.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Future's So Bright

The university’s graduation ceremonies were this weekend. My first as faculty because I usually skip town the minute grades are in. I don’t like ceremony and I loathe long speeches full of empty slogans and clunky metaphors. Also, normally because I teach lower level classes more frequently than upper, by the time “my” students have graduated they’ve forgotten both my name and how to document properly. So those are my reasons. My excuses. This year though it was made clear that faculty participation in graduation is mandatory. For two days I stewed. My rebelliousness turned me into an instant four year old (“You are NOT the boss of me”) but my need for approval sent me running for a last minute gown and appropriate cap and hood.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the hood color for humanities is white and with my alma mater colors of red and white, I was not nearly so colorful as my peacock-y colleagues. In fact, I looked like a nun. Also, I felt inferior in my non-velvet trim un-PhD robe. Until, that is, I discovered that my special master’s sleeves had secret pockets for lip gloss, Kleenex, and mints.

There is always a little too much optimism at graduations. When I graduated from high school, someone had cut out Old English letters that spelled out our class motto: The Future Is Ours: Therefore, the Best is Yet to Come. Though I was no good at math, this equation didn’t add up for me. Why would the future be better simply because it was ours? Who were we? After the masking tape letters started to unstick, the art teacher saw it and thought it was an apathetic motto for an apathetic generation. The “b” had fallen and she thought it read: The future is ours; therefore the REST is yet to come.

This is a better motto, in my opinion. The pressure is off. There will be no let down when the best doesn’t happen because it’s really just the rest. Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.

Back to this more recent graduation. The speeches were long and the metaphors were clunky. But I liked the medieval-ness. The tradition. Seeing the biggest class my division has ever graduated marching through the tunnel of us. Who knew that would be such a good feeling? So, yeah, I’ll go next year. I won’t feel the need to rebel. But I’m hoping to use those sleeves to smuggle in some Oreos and maybe my iPod.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

White City

It's 6 a.m. and I am in my 26th floor room staring out across Lake Michigan, up Lake Shore Drive, and into the apartments of the rich and possibly famous who live across from Doubletree Suites. If Oprah still kept her guests at the Drake, I'd probably be staring into their rooms too.

Chicago really is my kind of town. It has water. It has great architecture. It has green space designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (see Park, Central). It has Pearl and Papersource--two excellent art stores. It has the 'L.' It has great food, great entertainment, and this big city Midwestern sensibility that agrees with me more than New York or L.A. or any of the other cities we are meant to think are 'best.' (I've always been partial to second best.) I like a town where you can dress up if you want to or commit to a life in sweatpants.

My mother and I came up to see the wife and children of Gerry, my second cousin once removed, from County Galway. (Did you catch that?) His Mary was here visiting her family, so she and Catherine, 13, and Brendan, 12, and her brother and his wife met us at the Museum of Science and Industry yesterday. I've seen them more in the last six months than I've seen most of my first cousins who live five miles from me. They're lovely people and I fell a little in love with Mary's brother Michael. But don't be alarmed--there are very few Irishmen I don't fall in love with. He was shaped the way I like a man to be shaped--kind of roundy, but not fat, kind of baldy, but not bald, but most importantly, hilarious. And also, I love the way Irish men interact with children--I've seen all the movies and read all the books where the men of Ireland are abusive, alcoholic assholes, but so far, I have not met one. And the visible pleasure he expressed when I gave him a spare "Hillary in '08" button with which to torture his Republican wife was priceless.

Before they arrived, Mom and I decided that we'd rather be outside than inside the museum with the teeming throngs of children hellbent to be the first to traipse through a facsimile of a coal mine. I like this museum a lot, but not because of the Apollo lunar capsule, submarine, perpetually hatching chicks, or walk-thru human heart. It's not even Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle/dollhouse. No, I like it because it is the only remaining building from Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, the World's Fair to end all World's Fairs, when an entire white city was built in order to convince the rest of the world that Chicago had more going for it than hogs. It was the only construction built to last--the rest of the buildings just had to hold it together for the year-long run of the fair. It was an exciting time in human history and a turning point for Chicago.

So, Mom and I walked around the perimeter of the building, through the grouds which were also designed by Olmstead (and to whom Chicago owes a great debt for his understanding of the importance of and preservation of the lakefront) and I tried to imagine what it was like more than a century ago: the other gleaming buildings, the canals, like a Neoclassical Venice, the people, the excitement about a future as bright as the city itself.

Well, it's all an awful lot to take in. And that's not even mentioning flashes I had of America's first serial killer who used the Exposition as a sort of dolphin-safe tuna net to gather victims, which was written about in the National Book Award finalist _Devil in the White City_. My copy has gone missing and I'm tempted to buy another. It's that good.

Of course this isn't the only dark side of Chicago. Last night at Borders I was loaded down with a stack of books I wanted to thumb through, and when I went to sit down on one of the couches--the only available one--the handsome guy in the chair next to it who looked to be reading something terribly important, gave a wry smile and shook me off. Initially, I was ticked--clearly he was saving it for some attractive, cosmopolitain friend of his.

Then I took a whiff.

Someone had taken a dump on one of the cushions. I'm still trying to imagine the scenario in which that seemed more convenient than taking the escalator down two flights to the basement toilet. If I were a better person, I'd be filled with compassion for whoever was physically or mentally ill enough that they couldn't prevent such a thing. But instead, I was just annoyed that a perfectly good seat had been wrecked, and basically, for me, wrecked for all time. I'll never be able to sit on that couch or possibly any other without wondering if it recently has been disinfected and anti-bacterialized. Another thing I'm pondering is why the handsome guy was just sitting there, next to the stench of it. Seats are at a premium in Borders on a Friday night, but even loaded down with books on Joseph Cornell and What Not to Wear, I couldn't have made that choice. Part of me admires him for being so engrossed in his book that he could sit there concentrating on it. Part of me wonders if he wasn't the offending party.

The day is yawning and stretching in front of me. Maybe I should get dressed.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

New Ways to Be Judgmental

Today I was an interviewer for the mock interviews that are held in the Education Department. I'm not sure why I do this every semester but I suspect it has something to do with the director of the program being the mother of children I babysat for for my first babysitting job. Though we're colleagues now, she'll always be the grown-up and despite six years of therapy, I will always be the child who wants to please grown-ups. I'll watch "Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Incredible Hulk" with your children; I'll be a mock interviewer for your students. Just give me a hoop to jump thru and the promise of a pat on the head, and I'm there.

I dropped my own Ed major after six weeks in my first Education class as an undergrad. The terminology bored me and the prof talked too slowly. I had no interest in wasting precious moments learning things I didn't care about when, instead, I could be reading Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath. I had no real vision of what a non-education English major career might be, but saying goodbye to terms like "differentiation" and "rubric" was worth every time after I announced the major change that I had to hear my father say, "What? Are you going to be a professional college student?"

I have often wondered if perhaps I wasn't a bit hasty in dropping the Ed major, but today proved that I made the right choice. A fourth of the time I had no idea what my partner-interviewer or the interviewees were talking about. Learning Mandarin would be easier. Sometimes I feel annoyed by the terms because a perfectly good word like "artifact" which _should_ conjure images of the pyramid that has just been discovered in Bosnia-Herzegovina instead means, essentially, "photos of 4th grade art projects and math worksheets."

Also, the director kept referring to items on a the question sheet that were "bolded." I hate when un-poetic words get made up. Made-up poetic words I like. Today, a student shared with me her word for the desire of girls and young women to make real their Disney fairy tale fantasies. She calls it "princessing." Now that is a good made-up word. She is now getting a divorce and is thus, one assumes, in the final throes of being de-princessed.

There are other reasons I don't like participating in the mock interviews. Like I hate fake stuff. Like I hate "rating" people. Like sometimes it is difficult for me to stay focused if I'm not interested in something. So for instance, on the comment sheet I filled out after each interview, instead of commenting on their presentations and examples, I found myself wanting to write helpful tidbits like, "Honey, you are over-plucking your eyebrows. It makes you look hard" or "Your hair is overprocessed--pick a color and stick with it." This is information that I think they need--and having just watched five back-to-back episodes of "What Not to Wear" I feel qualified to give it--but in the interest of professionalism, I restrained myself and responded instead to the next bolded question.

Possibly it is a good thing I don't have children because the other thing I realized is that I am now so old that these soon-to-be teachers seem much too young to be teaching. If I were a mother I'd have to quit my job so I could home school. On the positive side, in my home school, there would be no differentiation or rubric talk. To my credit, I would limit the princessing.

To reward myself for all of my hard interviewing work, I spent a half hour on iTunes planning the music I would download after my next pay day. While there, I discovered Celebrity Playlists and a whole new way to be judgmental. I surfed through the playlists of various celebs to see who listens to what and their comments about why X is the best song ever. My assumption, initially, was that I'd learn what music is cool in Hollywood. Instead, I lost respect for people I'd previously never had an opinion about. For instance, what would possess Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick to post together and tell us their favorite sex song. I've always thought they were a cool couple, but somehow their need to post together annoyed me. Ditto Courtney Cox and David Arquette. (Who's watching Coco while they're playing around on the internet, telling us what a good road trip song "Free Bird" is?) I had high hopes for Bill Mahr but he disappointed me. What's worse, the people I admired who had playlists I would make myself? Well, suddenly they seemed less cool. Shouldn't they like things beyond the scope of what I (a mere mortal) have access to? To misquote Groucho Marx, I don't want to be a memeber of a club that will let me play my own music.

I liked Nicole Kidman's. I can't say why exactly. It might just be a need to support her in these dark days following the birth of her children's half-sibling/alien, but I appreciated that she had some Lenny Kravitz on her list and wasn't pretending he never existed for her. I also liked that Elvis Costello had himself on his own list. Because you know all the musicians were wanting to do that. They were DYING to do it. But it takes a guy in horn-rimmed glasses to pull it off with any kind of panache.

Perhaps in the next six years my shrink and I can work on me becoming the kind of person who would put her music (if she made music) on her own playlist.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta

Easter was always hard for me as a child. I'd been taught that I should be pleased about the news of the risen Christ, but what I really cared about was the basket. Eternal salvation sounded like a good thing, but with Brach's jellybeans and Marshmallow Peeps right in front of me, it was difficult to see that the less immediate thing was the important bit. I always hoped by devouring one white chocolate cross on a yearly basis, I was participating in a sort of sweet holiday communion that would guarantee a Get Out of Hell Free card later. I never liked white chocolate but ate it out of sense of religious obligation. Just in case.

I say this in the past tense, but even though I know an angioplasty and diabetes are going to be in my future if I don't cut out the Peeps and other sugary, fat-laden goodness, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around future when the present is so delicious. I'm not a stupid person, but somehow I've never gotten how heavily buttered potatoes in front of me now are going to equal too-snug jeans and shortness of breath later. I keep thinking medical science has to have it wrong--that one day they'll realize Coke cleans out your arteries, that a thick layer of subcutaneous fat around a knee is actually _protecting_ the joint, not putting its owner on the short track to knee replacement surgery.

Last week I saw "Office Space" for the tenth time and somehow the Geto Boys song "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" got stuck in my head. All week. I don't like Rap, I don't like those lyrics, but if you could have heard inside my head, that's what would have been there. On campus on Wednesday as I drove past the one-day-only talking speed limit/radar detector sign and it told me I was four miles over the ridiculous 25 mph limit and said "SLOW DOWN!!" as if I were driving 75 thru a school zone, I curled my lip at the sign and thought, "Damn it feels good to be a gangsta." Of course part of my cockiness stemmed from my having just seen the campus police SUV parked at McDonald's.

Today, aside from being Easter, was my maternal grandmother's 85th birthday. There's no real story, but I thought I'd make note. She hasn't felt good for my entire life and now has trouble getting out of chairs and down steps and her redneck neighbors plague her with late night ATV rides, but hey, 85 is one better than 84, and gentically speaking, I'm happy to have had a couple of grandparents who made it to that age even if there is gout affliction and high blood pressure pills. Though I'm hoping I won't be as thrilled with "Deal or No Deal" as she is. Somehow that just seems like something that would be playing on the televisions that must line the walls of Purgatory.

While we were eating Easter/Birthday dinner, my cousin was revisiting his romantic past. It was a story about a girl who once beat him up for kissing someone else. A girl whose family was likely Midwest mafioso. Then we talked about other people we know who seem to work beneath the radar of the law, who make bank deposits like Carmella Soprano's $9,999 so it doesn't get reported, who drive big, expensive black cars, who always pay cash, and who live behind huge iron gates, but if you ask them how they make their living they'll say they're on disability or that they sell Hot Wheels on eBay. Just simple folk, trying to get buy.

I don't know why this intrigues me so much. Despite my four miles over the speed limit last week, I'm the kind of person who would admit to crime I didn't commit just because I feel guilty about stuff. The fact that I use non-rechargeable batteries or don't recycle peanut butter jars because they are too hard to wash causes me moments of self-loathing. I worry over much that when I make a judgment about someone or something, that perhaps I don't have all the data. It's the reason I don't believe in the Death Penalty--400 eye witnesses could see a man shoot a convenience store clerk point blank and I'd always wonder if maybe it wasn't the defendant's doppelganger. I feel guilty. I question. I fret. I would be a jury foreman's worst nightmare.

Which brings me to my uncle's latest wife. I don't have anything against her particularly. Her choice of dogs is small, fluffy, and therefore a bit suspect, but other than that she's just a person. But this afternoon she and my mother were talking about trouble in the Middle East. It was a non-religious conversation, but this woman said, "Well. It's all predicted in the Bible that this stuff will happen. The End is coming." And then, without missing a beat, she said, "Ohhh. Are those Clark's shoes you have on? Those are so cute."

My life would be so much easier if I didn't have to think so hard about stuff. Your reading it would be a lot easier too. No pondering the mysteries of the criminal mind, candy, religion, justice, my own psyche...just one stream of consciousness thought after another: "400 dead today in trainwreck. Cottonelle on sale at K-mart. Gee, my hair smells terrrific." It's another kind of gangster life...where you just live your own life and don't think too much about it...or anything else.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Help Desk

The iMac carcass is on my bedroom floor begging to be buried or turned into an aquarium, so during the computer help segment on WMUB, the local NPR station, I emailed the experts and asked if it was possible to stuff a Mac Mini into my old purple iMac case. Only the email was funny. And they laughed, which pleased me. Though perhaps my email wasn't funny. Maybe they were laughing at me because the color of my computer matters more than Gigs or USB ports or processessing speed. One of the techs said, "Why doesn't she just buy a new iMac or Mac Mini?" and Cleve Callison, the host, said, "Well, she admits here that she is emotionally attached to her computer. And she really likes purple." They didn't have any answers for me and got distracted by "invisible desktops" but I got a certain amount of pleasure out of having made three guys laugh on the air.

Though I think the PC guy was snickering if you want to know the truth.

M and I had dinner tonight and she asked what I'd heard from 'our boy.' I had no idea who 'our boy' was at first, but she meant the visiting writer with the suckable lips. Mr. Top 25. My phantom baby's daddy. I haven't heard from him because I haven't written him since I was in Ireland. I'm trying to think of some new clever line of conversation to zip off to him. I'm just not very good at being a girl. I email him and he emails me right back, but his emails lack "hooks" and so then I go silent. I wish they would have taught useful flirting skills even middle aged women could use back when I was in Home Ec or Girl Scouts. Because in all honesty, I've never had to make tea sandwiches or start a campfire. It turns out you can live a big hunk of your life without having to do either or those things. But flirting? Well, I could use those skills.

So far I have: "Hi! How are you?!" but beyond that, zip.

Today, a student asked me what anal beads were. It was an innocent question, though I'm unsure why anything with that adjective in front of it would seem like something within a writing instructor's field of expertise. Of twelve students, three are writing about sex and one is writing about comic books (which is sort of the same thing). Maybe the 'laid back & open' tenet of my teaching philosophy needs to be revisited if they are going to mistake me for Susie Bright.

Beyond that, today I have been obsessed with my own feet. It was warm enough to wear sandals. (Teva flip flops--a little piece of $17 heaven.) But the thing is, my feet didn't look like mine. All day I'd look down and feel like I'd checked my feet in for a pair of bowling shoes and then, somehow, when I went to get my feet back they had been swapped for someone else's less attractive, more worn feet. Forget the iMac. How do you rectify THAT?

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Today, a bird (I don't know kinds of birds--red breast, but not a robin) flung itself at its own reflection for a solid hour, so enfatuated with itself that he almost gave himself a concussion. It seemed fitting that while he was going through this masochistic mating dance, some friends and I were watching _Capote_. If Narcissus had had a blog instead of a pool of water, perhaps someone could have intervened.

I am With Dog this weekend, which means we've spent a lot of time on campus having squirrel chases. Spring is amazing and everything--the flowers, the trees, the smell--but college students in love are in bloom, which is just annoying. I'm glad they're young and thrilled to be with each other, but their rolling around together on the springtime grass just makes me feel old. Really, really old. And like maybe I should have studied less when I was in college and done more campus canoodling.

Yes, I hate college students in love today. And possibly tomorrow.

Thursday I tore my office apart looking for a mug to pour my can of Coke into so I'd look more appropriate at the department meeting. I felt like a heroin addict kicking telltale needles under a sofa when the doorbell rings. An Indiana-sized woman shouldn't be slurping down 12 ounces of high fructose corn syrup and I'm self-centered enough to think my co-workers would actually notice. (Never mind one of my fellow teachers is hyperactive and drinks espresso by the gallon.) Viva la insulated mug with sippy top.

Late Friday night the friends and I were at Meijer. In my mind, I'm still 20, so this is acceptable behavior. But I ran into a couple of students--twentysomethings themselves, though one has a child and divorce papers and is in a relationship with the other one, a boy who I visited in the hospital the day he was born because his aunt was my best friend in high school--and the student shrieked across the fruit bins, "WHATAREYOUDOINGHERE?IT'SMIDNIGHT!" Which I can only assume means she thinks someone of my advanced years should be home filing her corns at such a late hour on a Saturday night. And maybe I should be because I buy stupid things at midnight. Like hot pink nail polish and coin purses with Scottie dogs on them. Two items every almost forty year old needs. And when I left? Two bobble head Justice League figurines from the bubble gum machine. There's a dollar well spent. My friends with husbands and children and mortgages? They buy more practical things like 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and patio furniture.

Add to this that I discovered I was misguided when told that DHC Deep Cleansing Oil was just olive oil, so for a month I've been 'washing' my face by rubbing Bertolli's $5.99 olive oil all over it, sure that I had beaten the system, figured out a cheap way to have the gorgeous skin of a Mediterranean goddess. Well, it isn't. A moisturizer, sure, but there is no cleansing going on. So the whole 'with age comes wisdom' thing? Not true. We aren't even guaranteed that.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Last night I watched _Walk the Line_, and it occurred to me that the main reason Johnny & June Carter Cash had time to write songs and make up prison identities and get high and divorce spouses and fall in love with each other and play to an audience is because to supplement their creative inclinations they did NOT have to grade 85 papers four times a semester. They didn't have students stopping by their offices telling them stories so sad (and unfortunately true) that they had to shut the door and have a cry once the student left. They didn't have to go to faculty meetings.

I fear I've just opened up a portal in the universe wherein my job will be sucked because it sounds as if I'm ungrateful and I don't like it. Before that happens, let me say I DO like it. I really do. I'd prefer a book on the bestseller list so successful that I could buy Neverland Ranch, but barring that, my job is the best way to supplement a creative lifestyle. Of course no one is going to make a biopic of my life. Even Joaquin and Reese are now entitled to their very own E! True Hollywood Story episodes, but the life of a writing lecturer is never going to make the big OR small screen.

When I have 3 stacks of papers to grade, it seems insurmountable. It's as if I've never graded before & I can't imagine how I'll ever get through them. I think of all the things I need to do like organize my files or weed my books or put my photos in decorative boxes. I eat food I'm not hungry for. I get bitchy and want to smack a lot of different people who probably don't deserve it.

Like for instance, people who aren't concise when they speak. People who, before they will ever give you the first line of their story so you can decide how interested you are in it, will spend five minutes trying to figure out if it (whatever 'it' is) happened on Monday or Tuesday. People who talk slow and pause between words. People who talk about their neighbors that I've never met. People who think how much head lettuce costs at Kroger is a valid topic of conversation. None of these things is worthy of my wrath, but when I have stacks of papers to grade and minimal time to spend on my own thoughts, I don't want the air crowded up with stuff that doesn't matter. Just--please in the name of all that is holy--cut to the chase. You missed class because your tire went flat? Tell me that. One sentence. Thank you for sharing--now please step away from my office door. In the time it takes me to listen to the average why-my-paper-is-late excuse, I could have written a companion piece to "Burning Ring of Fire."

Other reasons I'm crabby today: my dearly beloved purple iMac died. I haven't had a technician look at it to perform last rites, but I know a death rattle when I hear it. This one, for instance, sounds like the fan purring but the hard drive not engaging. And no magical Mac chime to let me know all is well in the universe. I use it only for email and playing snood while listening on the phone to people who commit one of the conversational sins in the above paragraph, but I love it. It's so grapey. So roundy. Has been there with me thru both good and bad times.

I'm trying not to think about all the files that are on it that aren't backed up that I have likely lost. This is no one's fault but my own and it disappoints me that when I learned this lesson seven years ago it didn't stick.

When computer dies, it's like a place got sucked up into heaven that you can no longer visit. My mother has my old Mac Performa--it is, essentially, the one I bought in grad school in 1994 with a few minor modifications. Sometimes I turn it on and have memories wash over me of life from that time. Papers written. Emails shared with the two people I knew who actually HAD email. Wallpapers that decorated my life. Strange men talked to before a lot of women had clawed their way online which made me a hotter commodity than I have ever been at any other time in my life. It's like revisiting a playground from a school you used to attend. Not that I have first hand experience with this--the playground of my youth is now a parking lot. Sigh. No movies are going to be made about this kind of loss either.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Everybody Else is Doing It So Why Don't We?

I'm a Hoosier. A lot of us don't really understand complex theories like fractal geometry and Daylight Savings. With the exception of a dark year in the '70s, we've avoided participating in DST, but then Election 2004 happened and somehow we ended up with a governor who decided the most pressing issue for Indiana was to get us aligned with 47 of the 50 states. One argument he used was that Indiana looked 'backwards' not to be on DST when most of the country & a lot of the world does it. Never mind most of us learned from our mothers that just because "everybody" was doing things like jumping off bridges it didn't mean we should too. But by all means. If Rhode Island is using DST, then sign us up, otherwise we might not get to sit at the popular kids' table tomorrow in the cafeteria.

There are people who think it is a great idea, mainly because we live on the Ohio border and so for once in our lives, we won't have to do math just to watch television or make a flight. But then there are people like me who just can't see the sense of upsetting the internal clocks of humans, livestock and microwave ovens so the governor can work in an extra game of golf.

When I was a kid, my dad and his wife lived across the state line in the land of DST. Because he had me every other weekend, I was at their house when the ritual of pushing the clock hands forward on a Saturday night took place. Because they lived in a city instead of a town, a house instead of an apartment, and were Catholic instead of Protestant, I tended to see DST as yet another difference between us. At the time I somehow thought they were more progressive than we were, pushing that little wrought iron clock hand forward once a year. Maybe the governor is a child of divorce too. Maybe he was just trying to prove something to a Buckeye father. Who knows.

Tonight while re-setting my clocks, I was talking on the phone to my cousin G. She also lives in Indiana and so changed her clocks with me, while we groused about how dumb we think it is and how we can't believe next year DST will start even earlier at the President's direction (why not just set the clocks ahead an hour and leave 'em that way permanently with no switch back? If 8 months of DST is a good idea, why not go for 12!). Anyhow, five minutes after we got all of our clocks reset, G. says in a shocked voice, "My God! We've been talking for almost 2 hours!" She'd already completely forgotten she'd lost an hour. So obviously it really isn't that big of a deal. What IS a big deal is this: i cannot figure out how to spend my extra hour of daylight tomorrow. I'm considering lawn tennis.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Sea is Wide & I Cannot Swim Over

There's something about leaving Ireland that makes it imperative that you listen to all of your favorite Van Morrison songs immediately. Lucky for me, I had several on my iPod and so could begin the lament on the long train journey from Waterford to Limerick before I ever got on the plane. I started with 'Carrickfergus' where the line about Kilkenny had new meaning to me, and ended with "Won't You Stay."

The last day in Ireland was a drizzly one, so it took awhile to get moving. I have about a sixty minute tolerance for museums of any sort, so even though I'd been warned to have three hours for the Waterford Treasures museum, I had to walk around the town centre, poking my head into stores, getting dew kissed from the drizzle, and generally feeling a part of life there before trekking to the museum. The Irish coat I bought when I was there in November must make me look more like a native, because again I was asked for directions. This time, sadly, I had no answers.

The museum is nicely done and has a remarkable amount of interactive "treasures" as well as the more traditional kind. The first thing I did was go into a little theatre where a modern version of a Viking ship made up the seating area. I was the only person in there and almost got hysterical when the movie started and the ship started rocking back and forth. The movie itself was silly--about a bunch of Vikings making the journey from York back to Waterford, calling out to a horned old disembodied head who must have been Odin. But the creaking of the aluminum bleacher-seat ship was worth 12 minutes of movie boredom. I was only sorry that I was alone on it and so my laughter must have seemed a bit deranged.

Probably the most impressive piece in the whole museum is the city charter, which is, essentially, a bunch of documents about mayors and city ordinances written and illustrated on vellum and then sewn together into one big historical quilt. I liked seeing man's history presented in such a girly fashion. Which brings me to my main beef with museums and history in general. I can rarely find myself there. Sure, there might be some bowls women served food in, a beaded necklace of some ancient peoples, but mostly what you see are the stories of men. Likely, they affected the women in fringe ways, but I would prefer learning about their lives & that forgotten history. What shaped domestic life instead of how a political action shaped a nation's history, or, to borrow words from the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I am most interested in how the political shaped the personal. While I don't care which king presented the Mayor of Waterford with the Cap of Maintenance (which, by the way, looks over much like the Hogwart's Sorting Hat), I am curious about the woman who helped piece it together or the Lady Mayor who had a laugh with her husband after the presentation about how stupid he looked in it.{"Ohhhh. Don't you look divine in your cap o' maintenance, Darling.") But those aren't the stories we get in museums or history books because they aren't considered important. They aren't national or global. They aren't worthy of being recorded. In museums, it seems, the female story is predominately relegated to who wore what and which of our dishes were used to feed the men who were fighting the wars and signing the charters. This is an old, unoriginal argument I'm presenting, and it is changing in terms of recorded _modern_ history, but it does impact my level of interest in dusty relics that I pay 7 euro to see.

I cruised through the rest of the museum, paying homage to anything that seemed homage worthy, but generally reassuring myself that I am not a bad person or a bad student of life if I don't love museums, where life and stories are kept in airtight cases.

Back at the Artist's house that evening, he showed me his artwork from the period right after his wife had died. These were all chalk pastels with mythological figures and death symbols throughout. He explained each one, which I appreciated, because it helped me understand his thought process. Talking about these pieces must have been exhausting for him, both because physically it is hard for him to get breath behind his words and also because of the subject matter. I was overwhelmed by the pain that was in them & found myself having to turn away periodically. After he had shown them to me, I asked about the sketches he did while his wife was dying and he nodded toward the cabinet where they are kept and said that his children can't even look at them because they are too painful. At that point, the phone rang--two of his friends were taking M. & I out for a drink--and I felt relieved to have the spell broken and to have been spared witnessing that pain. Even so, as M. and I were driven away while he stood at the door, holding onto his wheeled-walker, waving goodbye to us, I wanted very much to hop out of the car and insist we spend the evening at home with him instead of drinking with his friends. I wanted to soften the sadness of what I'd just seen. Of course he has lived with these paintings and his grief for several years, so it is likely that I was the only one who needed the softening.

The man who picked us up was the Artist's neighbor, a retired banker who now travels and studies languages. He drove us to the house of the other man, a sort of care-taker for a Big House that was formerly owned by the Waterford Crystal people. Gates had to be opened before we could drive in. We had drinks there and then later at a 17th century pub which sits under an ancient-looking "flyover" (overpass). We talked about politics (Irish, U.S., African, E.U.) and drank, then went back for tea before heading back to our unpacked suitcases. When we got back, the Artist was already in bed, so M. and I stayed up until 1:30 talking about life, even though we knew we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the cab that would take us to our train. Though we've worked together in one form another for over ten years, we didn't know all the bits of each other's lives.

Morning came early, but we made our connections and had only an hour to kill at Shannon. There were a few U.S. service men (I'm not being sexist, I saw no women) walking around in their desert cammies. I felt self-conscious about my black shamrock, anti-U.S.-troops-at-Shannon-Airport button and was glad it was out of view. As much as I don't believe in this war and don't believe we should be involving Ireland in our nation-building, I feel none of those things about the soldiers themselves. They are my neighbors, my students, my cousins, and, if I'd been more productive on prom night, they could be my sons.

As we were in the departure hall, we could see a large line of soldiers on the other side of the glass just arriving from their trans-Atlantic flight, ready to be shipped to Iraq. As they walked by us, a few waved tentatively through the glass, and M. and I and some others felt compelled to wave back. My God did they look young. I know this is what people always say about soldiers, but seriously, these boys looked about 14. And maybe I was reading in, but they looked a little scared too. More people waved. A few clapped. I got teary, thinking of the hardwork they were about to undertake. How some of them wouldn't be coming home as they left. How some of them wouldn't be coming home at all. I had to turn away, as I had the night before looking at the Artist's study of grief, because the idea of it all was overwhelming. But then the cheers and chants of "U.S.A." started and the spell was broken. Suddenly it became not a poignant, human moment, but a sporting event. Our team is best. Our team will win. Our team will trounce your team. Gooooooo team. No doubt there is need to build the gladiators up before they go into the arena, but it rang false.

My thoughts turned to a local business owner whose marine son recently walked through that same arrivals hall on his way to be a tank gunner. She said this is what he wanted to do with his life, that this is his destiny. She told me the story of how he and a woman he'd met online tried to connect at Shannon so they could meet face-to-face before he went to Iraq. She talked about how upset the woman was when they missed each other, how touched she was that someone cared so much for her son that she would drive all the way from Dublin, just for a glimpse of him. She explained how she sent an angel statue to the woman as thanks. So anyhow, I ignored the cheers and false bravado and thought instead of these two women and this young soldier, and how though I haven't met him, I hope he comes back in one piece, because this personal story is the one I care about. Not the oil. Not the WMDs. Not even how political boundaries are drawn or how the history books later present the events.

Maybe its juvenile of me to have this attitude, but I don't think so. Several years ago a friend told me that he believed poetry would save the world. I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the concept at the time, though appreciated the validation he gave to my chosen line of work. Now, I think I understand better. It's the little moments of personal pain or joy that are recorded into the story, the song lyric, the dance, that will do the work all of our peace talks and war making cannot. It is art that will breathe life into dusty relics in those air tight museum cases, even if it is by way of an aluminum Viking ship and bad video. It is Van Morrison telling us how he longs for the ability to swim or fly or pay a boatman to carry him back to his own ones across a wide sea.