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.