Thursday, December 04, 2008

What Happens in Vegas . . . Pretty Much Goes in My Blog

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m bad. I haven’t posted. I’ve forsaken my three loyal readers. So to get you up to speed, here is what I’ve done since last we spoke:

• Started the teaching semester (5 classes).
• Submitted five packets of writing to my mentor for the MFA program I’m enrolled in.
• Put on a student reading at work.
• Attended two family funerals.
• Took my mother to Seattle.
• Went to the Washington coast.
• Baked Z a 40th Birthday Cake accidentally shaped like a flying saucer.
• Did countless loads of laundry.
• Loved up Z.
• Went to Seattle for Thanksgiving
• And, oh, yeah, I got engaged. I’m going to be Mrs. Dr. Z.

The week before Thanksgiving, I flew out to Seattle with a suitcase full of winter-wear, and when I got there Z had a package wrapped up in his recycled birthday paper waiting for me on the bed. It looked like maybe it held a sheet of notebook paper and when I asked him what it was, he said, “Maybe nothing.” It wasn’t nothing. It was an itinerary for a surprise trip to Las Vegas that started the next morning at something like 4:00 a.m. For a while we’ve wanted to go there for the fun of it, but after a few minutes of squealing with surprise, I started stressing about what I would wear. I had wool sweaters, fleecy jackets, silk long johns, blue jeans, a few sweatshirts, and, of course, a rain coat. None of it is what I might have packed if I’d known we were going to Las Vegas. My rhinestones, push-up bra, and heels were all back in Indiana. (I don’t actually own any of those three things, by the way.)

It turns out Las Vegas is in a desert. Fortunately, it was balmy during the day and cool at night, so I could justify my Notre Dame sweatshirt, though I’m not certain the Mickey Mouse Crocs were regulation Caesar’s Palace. As it turned out, none of it mattered. About five minutes after we checked into the Luxor, Z could contain himself no longer, got down on one knee, and asked me to marry him. (I said yes, in case you were wondering.) I think I was in shock for a good long while, and even more so when I discovered he had called my mother, his family, and his friends to alert them as to his intentions. I did not burst into sobs or screech, the way the women do on television, but it was perfect and lovely. Z had thought it through carefully and knew I would not want skywriting or even a restaurant proposal because, despite a blog to the contrary, I am a private person.

The man surprised me. People have said, “Oh, but you must have been expecting it. You’ve been together for awhile,” and I kind of want to smack them with my green suede Dansko. No. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t expecting anything. Nothing about this relationship has been expected, starting with how a person from Indiana and a person from Zimbabwe would ever even meet in the first place, let alone fall in love, and ending with how if I’d paid any attention to that stupid He’s Just Not that into You book (or my shrink or several of my well-meaning friends and family) instead of a feeling in my gut and a vision, this relationship would have had zero chance of happening. So no—there weren’t expectations. Just getting to love him and being loved by him on any given day feels like . . . well, I’ve got no metaphor. It’s so damn good that I hadn’t really been thinking too hard about ways that goodness could be multiplied because that would have just made me greedy.

Of course, I have spoken at times of a point in the future when we might share a living space, and, I confess, because he has been SO adamant about not going up in the Space Needle I had thought once that if ever he DID ask me to marry him, it would probably be there with Mt. Rainier looking on approvingly in the distance, but I was not tapping my foot impatiently. (It turns out that Z just really, REALLY does not want to go to the top of the Space Needle.)

While it was still fresh in my mind, I wanted to make sure I would remember the moment forever, so a few times throughout the weekend, I asked Z to re-enact it for me, there in our Egyptian-style Luxor room with the sarcophagus armoire and flat-screen TV stand. The minute he asked me, it was as if one of those Glenda the Good Witch of the North bubbles surrounded us and we were pretty much completely unaware of everything around us (except for the drunk girl on the Luxor-Mandalay Bay-Excalibur tram who kept telling us how drunk she was and we feared she’d throw up on my Crocs with the holes in them). It was that kind of magical. Even the guys handing out the cards for “live girls now” didn’t bother me because I kept thinking, I’m not threatened by the hot, naked whores with the perfect plastic boobs because Z and I are going to get married. If he wanted, he could have a hot naked whore, but instead, he wants me.

Oh, I could go on and on. I could. But you, like the drunk tram girl, would just want to throw up when faced with our happiness and our canoodling and our need to refer to each other as fiancé whenever possible. We can’t help ourselves. The problem with 40somethings getting engaged is that they don’t realize they’re 40somethings. When I got back home and told my students the news, a few of them got this look on their faces like, Oh, please God, tell me it isn’t true that people that old think they can be in love.

Vegas, unlike Z, I cannot pretend to understand. It shouldn’t exist, but because it does, it calls to us like the sirens at Treasure Island and we must go put quarters in the slots and eat at the buffets and pay a hundred dollars to see Jay Leno or Mama Mia! even though we could see Jay for free every night at home and Mama Mia for $3.99 at Blockbuster, and for some reason, we must buy overpriced merchandise at the m&m store and $16 neon, fruity drinks out of huge bong-like glasses. I found the muchness overwhelming—all the glitter and fakeness and the neon and the brides with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths as they march through the Bellagio casino, grooms tagging behind. It’s seedy and crowded and the best example of American excess. So, I could look at this as perhaps the worst possible place to begin our future as a couple because of the inappropriate spur of the moment marriages in Elvis chapels and the live nude girls and the dashed dreams at the Black Jack table. But instead, I will focus on the optimistic. No matter how unlikely, Las Vegas is a city of hopefulness and the belief in something better: whether it is the big win, the 'til death do us part, or even that the Hoover Dam will keep holding back all that water and making Las Vegas possible.

When we arrived, Z had brought with us all of the change he had collected in the last two years, and this was our gambling fund. We played penny slots for three days on it and when the $95 in change whittled down to nothing, we each chipped some of our own cash in, so when we left the Luxor, we were a total of $130 in the hole. We had fun and this didn’t seem too horrible a loss since it was change from a jar mostly. Then, while we were at the airport waiting to board our flight, Z put his last dollar into a quarter slot machine and won $150, so we left $20 in the black.

I take it as a good omen.

Friday, August 15, 2008


I may be going to some sort of hell where feminists send other feminists when they misbehave. Yesterday, for a belated birthday present, I took Leibovitz’s eleven-year-old daughter to the Clinique counter for a make-over. While she looks older than your average Chinese Olympic gymnast, she is, after all, still a girl. Eleven is not a milestone birthday and so did not deserve this premature ushering into womanhood, and even if it were a milestone birthday, I should have done something more empowering like rock-climbing or chemistry experiments or volunteering the two of us for a day of nail hammering for Habitat for Humanity. But I didn’t do these better things. Instead, I led a fresh-faced lamb of a child to the slaughter-house so she could start obsessing now about flaws she does not have. This is the legacy of womanhood I have willingly chosen to pass down.

And the reasons I did it are more shameful than the act itself. The reasons I did it were because I was too lazy to think of something substantive and, more importantly, because I wanted to be cool.

To a ‘tween.

In my defense, it wasn’t even my idea. It was her mother’s. And in my further defense—in case Leibovitz had gone momentarily off the rails because it is the end of summer and she’s ready for the kids to go back to school—I called the Clinique counter to make sure this was an accepted practice. The Clinique woman assured me it was done often and she scheduled an appointment with Amanda, the Clinique Make-over Expert. So my conscience was clear. For awhile.

When I handed my protégée over, a look of horror swept across Amanda’s face. “A makeover? On her?!” she asked. I told her I’d been assured by the voice on the phone that they do this all of the time, and Amanda said in a near wail, “I’ve never done one on an eleven-year-old.” I looked at Little Leib, who looked back at me as if to say, Are you going to make her give me my birthday present or what? I set my mouth and raised an eyebrow. Amanda straightened her faux lab coat and directed us to the make-over station while she fussed with cotton balls, Q-tips and her composure. Still, she questioned me. Was I sure we wanted to do this? It was only just that the child’s skin was so beautiful, and what if she had a reaction (even though Clinique products are hypo-allergenic, she was quick to add). I questioned Little Leib about what make-up of her mother’s she had played with.
“Pretty much all of it,” she said.
I nodded at Amanda and said, “She’ll be fine.”
Amanda set her mouth, as if I’d asked her to pierce the child’s eyebrow, and opened some powder.
“Well go with a natural look,” she said. And the make-over began.

To Amanda’s credit, once we chatted a bit and she discovered that this was just for some fun, that I was absolutely not going to be driving the child to auditions for a remake of Pretty Baby, and I would be buying a few Clinique products for myself, she relaxed, and did the thing I did not do. That is, she did some good. Virtually everything she applied she explained to Little Leib that she really didn’t need it because she had such beautiful skin, such pretty eyes, such nice lips, and because Amanda is probably only 22, she knew exactly how to say these things without sounding like an adult trying to dissuade a girl from starting down a path that could end up looking like Joan Rivers (which is probably exactly where Leibovitz and I are going to end up because we’re a little worried about our eyes and age spots and are thinking maybe some treatment is needed).

Little Leib did look very nice when Amanda tossed her last cottonball in the waste bin. She had not been transformed into a Lindsay or a Britney, but was very tastefully highlighted. It seemed to put an extra spring in her step to be a little closer to womanhood, though I can't say if I gained any cool points. I bought her some pink translucent lip color that I’m pretty sure she’ll have smacked off before anyone notices given the veracity with which she chews gum. Amanda threw in a trial-size mascara but withheld the bag for a moment and reminded us that it was “just to play with.” Little Leib nodded solemnly and no doubt made a mental note to apply it during lunch break on the first day of sixth grade next week.

Maybe I’m gong to feminist hell. Probably not. The kid would have gotten her fingers into the bronzer pot with or without me. But I do feel a little guilty. Her naked face reminds me of her baby face that was a force to be reckoned with about six seconds after she was born, and I really don’t want her to ever feel she has to hide it behind a layer of powder and sparkle to make it more acceptable to the rest of the world. For that matter, I hope Leibovitz and I can withstand the siren song of the Botox needle for the exact same reasons.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Girls Gone Wild

Here’s a question: when you are supposed to write 25 pages + every four weeks to send off to your mentor, when exactly are you supposed to blog? Bigger question: if you blog, will you give away your good ideas and send your mentor 25 pages of crap?

I survived the ten-day residency, but not without some serious teeth gnashing. Who knew Maine in July does not look and feel like the Christmas cover of the L.L. Bean catalog? I knew there wouldn’t be snow, but I think I was expecting reindeer and the need for crewneck sweaters and wool socks. Instead, what I got was heat and humidity and a dorm room without AC that was on the first floor, so if I opened the windows the smoke from various nicotine addicts (poets, mostly) wafted into my room.

Also, it turns out when you are middle aged the cozy, good times of dorm life feel a bit more like prison, including the 1” foam mattress and communal showers. I did get compliments on making my room extra cozy with cardboard fold up iPod speakers, postcards pinned to the bulletin board for artwork, a scarf stretched across the jail house bed, and Petey, the stuffed parrot that Z won for me in Oregon last month, resting patiently on my pillow. This decorating was not because I’m a Martha Stewart wannabe, so much as it was that I was miserable for the first four days and thought making the space mine might help deal with the homesickness. It turns out, the room still looked like something from “Oz” (Unit B, not Em City) and it didn’t help much.

Basically, I felt like I was in prison for the first three days because of the digs and having virtually every moment of my day structured. So to survive, I had long phone conversations with friends, my mother, and Z, who is in Zimbabwe, and was so busy whining and being miserable and giving in to crying jags in the privacy of my cell that I failed to notice a lot of first semester students were miserable too. I also didn’t take in to account the beauty that surrounded me and the excellent opportunity for learning and communion with other writers that I’d paid good money to experience. I’d like to tell you that I had an epiphany that led me to some Zen-like, be-here-now state, but what I had that made it okay is this: a lot of stout and a tequila shot.

That’s right. I graduated from college without one drunken episode to my name, which had more to do with my not really liking the taste of alcohol (when compared with, say, Coke and Pop-tarts) than it did the temperance oath I signed when entering my alma mater. And then at 41 I discovered that the secret to surviving dorm life and new-experience social anxiety is to get drunk with some people in your “major”, go to a talent show, drink some more, hug people you just met like they are long lost friends, sing Stevie Nicks songs in the women’s room with two poets, some novelists, an essayist, and an erotica writer, and then stagger off to bed.

If only I had known this in 1985.

Aside from reliving a youth I never had, the program ended up feeling like a perfect fit for me. There is warmth but nobody will be blowing sunshine up my nether regions. The faculty appears to be supportive and is focused on practical matters like publishing as much as they are “Art.” My contemporaries feel like just that—most of us are coming in on equal footing, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses.

It’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to cost a lot of money. It’s going to be the genesis for some angst-ridden blogs. But I think it will be good, and in January I’ll get to find out if Maine in winter lives up to those L.L. Bean covers when I return for my second residency as a seasoned pro.

Best of all, in January I’ll be in a hotel and not in a jail cell.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What Not to Wear

I’m on my way to Maine to begin a low-residency MFA program in nonfiction. I’m not what you would call a person who plans ahead (hence my antiquated age when finding true, excellent love and deciding I needed a more substantial degree to support my career), so it’s hard for me to fathom the next ten days here, let alone the five semesters it will take before I can add the F to my earlier M and A. Last night, however, I was planning ahead. I planned ahead for the rough, industrial sheets I’d be warned would be on the bed in the dorm I’ll be sleeping in for 9 nights. I planned ahead for the possible muggy, breezeless weather with a sexy little red mini fan. I planned ahead for a tight schedule and wrote up reading assessments on evaluations forms I’ll be expected to complete at the end of the sessions I attend.

I also planned my outfit for today. Celery cropped pants and an apple green sweater. It seemed like the right mix of I’m-not-a-total-slob and I’m-too-buys-with-my-writing-to-be-a-fashionista. I felt quite good in it until I caught a glimpse of the mirror in the airport women’s room and realized the look I’d accomplished was really just good old Midwestern Jolly Green Giant.

And so the journey begins.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


In the last six weeks this is what I have had:

--Z’s love
--a negative result on a test for lymphoma
--a trip to Alaska with Z
--a trip to the Oregon coast with Z
--five weeks in Seattle with Z
--a week in Indiana with Z at my love nest/Scottie dog house
--a stimulus check from George W. Bush

This is what I’m feeling today on the occasion of Z’s departure: greed. I’ve had everything I could want, but I want more.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Recipe from a Domestic Goddess

For years I have watched my mother cook big portions of Midwestern meals with annoyance. She is not one of those women who enjoys time spent in the kitchen or who delights in feeding the masses. I’m fairly certain when she thinks about the Adam and Eve story it is not just the pain of childbirth that Eve is cursed with for canoodling with that serpent, but also the agony of the kitchen.

Mom is a good cook but she would rather be reading. I don’t blame her. At a wedding shower several years ago, the guests were given an index card and were instructed to write down their favorite recipe to give to the bride. Mine was for the World’s Best Cheeseburger. 1. Get in car. 2. Drive to McDonald’s. 3. Order Cheeseburger. 4. Pay 5. Serve in wrapper. Seriously, why slave away in a kitchen for hours when there are fine dining establishments and a grocer’s freezer full of delectable meals?

And so it happens that I am 41 and I do not know how to cook. Even macaroni is problematic. The water shows no sign of boiling, so I start reading my book, and the next thing I know the water has boiled over or if I remembered to pour the macaroni in, it has burned to the bottom of the pan. I scramble eggs at the highest possible temperature because I see no reason not to treat the stove like the microwave. It could be because I’m absent-minded, but I prefer to think of it as my own silent, feminist protest. For awhile I really wanted that T-shirt with the 1950s woman on it that said, Don’t assume I cook.

So, I have mixed emotions about the fact that I cooked my first ever pot roast for Z this week. While he was at work I marched myself down to the market with my Baggu bags like a real, environmentally conscience gourmet, and I bought a hunk of meat that was too big for two people, some carrots, some potatoes, some Lipton soup, some Kerry Gold butter (because potatoes without Irish butter are a sin), and a bottle of red “Mad Housewife” wine. I came back to the flat where I discovered that roast comes from an actual, bloody, dead animal, which was a shock to my system. Also, I discovered that Z did not have a lovely Faberware roast pan like Moms, but instead a 2 quart Pyrex baking dish meant for cheesecakes and casseroles instead of roasting. I could not find his paring knife (end table with last night’s peach), so had to peel the potatoes and carrots with a giant blade meant for chopping vegetables Benny Hana style. I imagined Z coming home at 6:00 only to find me in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor because I’d sliced open my carotid artery. (I brought the portable phone into the kitchen just in case I needed to call 911 with the stub of what might be left of my dialing finger.) I arranged the potatoes artfully and popped the thing in the oven, praying for the best, expecting the worst.

My sense of accomplishment for what my mother assures me “is not rocket science” caused me some stress. I felt good about being a ‘real’ woman, about surprising Z with an actual (hopefully edible) meal when he came in from his hard day at work. I took a shower while the pot roasted and had phrases from 1950s marriage manuals for women going through my head about always making sure when your husband arrives home that you are “fresh” and have brushed your hair and have wiped the children’s faces and instructed them to play quietly while Daddy unwinds and while you, the good housewife, listen and do not bother him with your petty frustrations of the day out of respect for the hard day he has had, working to provide for you and the children. And then I felt really annoyed with myself for falling into the cooking trap that I have so carefully avoided for over four decades. Even more annoyed that it had pleased me more than a little to have finally done something like a “normal” woman for once in my life.

But then the pot roast started smelling good and Z was coming home soon and I forgot about my feminist ideals. Despite cooking an hour longer than it needed to while Z distracted me upon his arrival, the roast came out tender and juicy and just the right amount of doneness.

It’s a slippery slope now. If he starts expecting big meals awaiting him when he comes home from work, I’ll have no one but myself to blame.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Yesterday I heard on NPR that the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain died Friday at 68 of lung cancer, and my first thought was, “Why didn’t she tell me that she was was sick?!” This was followed quickly with the realization that though I did have a very brief conversation with her in 2005 during the Aspen Summer Words Writers’ Conference, I don’t actually know her. Then I did the next logical thing, which was burst into tears.

Terri Gross played a 2001 interview with her and I cried a bit harder. I’m not sure what it is about her writing that makes readers (some readers; this reader) feel that they not only know her but are good friends, but I suspect it has to do with the honest, unvarnished way she dishes up servings from her life. Hearing her responses on Fresh Air made me feel as if I’d just gotten a phone call from a friend, and so of course that made me cry a little harder.

Other authors I have adored have died, and though I might have a moment of sadness, I generally do not feel compelled to go into a period of mourning or a desire to send the family a floral tribute. But there was something about Nuala that made this feel like MY loss.

Possibly, my reaction is simply because her books are rich and smart and talk about a country that feels like my own home though it is not, and it is sad to know there will be no more of her words. It could be a sadness that so many of her “issues” appear to have gone unresolved. On a personal level, the fact that most of the attendees at Summer Words fell a little in love with her intelligence, wicked wit, and warmth. She did have a way of making you feel you’d known her your whole life, so perhaps that is why I was momentarily annoyed with her for not phoning to say she had terminal lung cancer so I could prepare myself and take her some chicken soup.

I have been drawn again and again to My Dream of You, her novel about a writer at middle age who, while researching a court case during the Famine, discovers more about herself, her country, women of her culture, and humanity than she does about the case’s outcome. The central mystery she tries to solve (aside from the one she is researching), is how a middle aged woman without a husband and, more importantly, without children, defines her purpose. During the Fresh Air interview, she speaks candidly about this, and how what all humans want is some sense of why they were put on this earth. She says to Terri Gross, What am I for?

For most people, the simplest answer (though there may be other answers as well) involves propagating the species, catapulting their own genetics a little further into the future, so in the face of personal annihilation, there is the hope that some little cluster of genes directly connected to them will see the next decade, the next century, etc. And also, there is the day-to-day sense of purpose. If a person has a baby that needs feeding or a five year old who needs reminding not to play in the street or a sixteen year old with a hand out for gas money, there is purpose. It may not be inventing a light bulb (or discovering a cure for the lung cancer), but you have contributed something that should last beyond you. This is a persistent theme in O’Faolain's writing, and even in the interview she gave on RTE just a few weeks before her death she comes back to the issue of what she has NOT done with her life, of who will mourn her, of who will not.

This is, I think, why I briefly considered wearing black today. In a world where women have stronger and more often heard voices than possibly any other time in history, there are not enough voices like this one. I could easily go to a bookstore and find books written by young women wondering about love and what sort of lives they might create for themselves, I can easily find authors who will tell a glamorous Sex and the City version of what it is to be single in their mid-30s. There are more than enough books about what it is to be a mother, both the frustrations and joys at all the different stages. But to find a woman towards the end of middle-age speaking candidly about choices and circumstances she made that affect her daily? It’s hard to come by. And it’s going to be even harder now that one of those few voices have been silenced.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Z, ZiMa, and I are in Minnesota, where we met up so she could see the places Z haunted as an undergrad and graduate student, as well as meet his friends. She still seems lovely, still seems to like me, but when we are alone in our room, Z says something like, “I’m afraid I’ve discovered something that will add to your mortification.” It seems the ancient suitcase I loaned ZiMa when hers fell apart, and which Z has used to cart his belongings to Minnesota, had its own secrets. Z can’t be sure if his mother discovered them or not, but in its recesses were some maxi pads, one unwrapped (!) tampon, and two colored condoms that expired in 1999. It’s bad enough that Z knows about the latter items, but his mother! Oh, woe is me.

Z might have kept this information to himself to save me the embarrassment. Obviously, I have no need of expired condoms or unwrapped tampons or pads that were made back when they had the thickness of futons for Barbie dolls. He can’t help himself though. Last year he accidentally read an email from my mother that said something about the two of us together, and the knowledge that he had read it embarrassed me so severely I had to hide myself under my coat as we walked down Madison Avenue in Seattle. It delighted him to see me acting like a schoolgirl, and I know in sharing this information he is just hoping for a repeat performance.

The wages of sin are sometimes paid on the installment plan.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Hope for Small Mercies

I have a friend whose mother-in-law once judged her harshly for using plastic hangers. Another was called into question for using pre-peeled baby carrots instead of real (dirty) ones. A third friend’s mother-in-law may have hired a private investigator to spy on her, though there is no real way to know. Is it any wonder that I’m a nervous wreck about ZiMa’s recent arrival and all the ways I’m sure she’s going to decide I’m unworthy of her youngest son?

She seemed lovely enough when she got off the plane. She’s very pleasant and happy and kind, and I can see how such a person might have a created someone as excellent as Z. She even seemed like she might sort of like me. But right now she is in my house, sleeping in my Heavenly Bed (she needed a step stool to get into it—frivolous) and so I worry.

Hopefully she is sleeping and not rifling through my drawers where she will no doubt find further evidence proving that this girl is not fabulous enough for her boy, though she probably needn’t open a single drawer. It could be the ratty underpants (slovenliness), a ridiculous number of rings (greed and vanity), a too dusty Bible (general sinfulness), the art hanging on the walls (possible blasphemy), a not well hidden copy of Sex Tips from a Gay Guy to a Straight Girl (sexual immorality), my journals from 1989 through 2006 (all of the above sins plus some others). Who knows what she could uncover. I like to think the appreciation that Z and ZiMa have for Law and Order has more to do with justice being served than mysteries being solved, in which case my secrets are safe. I am of the other school, which explains why, possibly, Z’s drawers were once ransacked when I was trying to unlock the secrets of his heart. With luck, this will not be a karma moment, a do unto others moment where I get paid back for past misdeeds.

I find Al Capone’s epitaph on my lips: My Jesus, mercy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Every Silver Lining....

There is some sort of Midwestern superstition afflicting me that makes it difficult to enjoy things until I’ve run thru a catalog of all the ways either the thing will be a disappointment, will cause its own set of problems in an each action has an equal and opposite reaction kind of way, or will fall through. I used to think it was some genetic problem of mine but my doctor told me once that he had to learn how to interpret feedback he’d get from his Midwestern patients because they’d never admit to feeling good. Instead, they’d say, “Not too bad today.” He attributed it to farmer superstitions—that a farmer never wants to crow too loudly about how well the crops are doing or how favorable the weather has been because it could all change.

So yesterday when I found out I’d been accepted into a low-residency MFA program it took me awhile to circle around all the potential problems (where will the money come from? how will I juggle my job and this program? how many days of summer love will I lose? what if it wrecks my writing?) before I could venture into a celebratory mood. Every silver lining has a cloud, threatening thunderstorms, has been my motto since birth.

I didn’t realize I was happy until yesterday. Even the sun was shining. One of my students wrote an assessment note on his paper that said it was clear I loved my job and that made the class interesting. (A for him.) M was thrilled when I bequeathed her my little magnetic “Mr. Right” with changeable messages. (My favorie: It’s not your fault; it’s mine. M’s favorite: You look thinner. Have you lost weight?) My own real-life Mr. Right does not need magnets, and I am lucky in that. Even when a postcard I had up about the repealing the Global Gag Order was ripped in two and thrown on the floor by my office door, I felt a certain amount of glee as I taped it together and then taped it to the Bill of Rights so if someone wants to make a political statement with my door flair, they’ll have to shred a document they typically like to cling to when writing tedious papers about gun control. Also, it was the first day since I got the news that Z wasn’t being considered for a job at my school that I’ve released the bitterness and hate.

(Well, most of it. I still reserve the right to glare occasionally at those I hold responsible for this injustice. And if any of them asks after him, I will definitely snort loudly and turn my head.)

Anyhow, that’s the news. I’m still having moments of fear—the first manuscript is due in just over a month and suddenly I feel as if I’ve forgotten how to write—but I think maybe I’ll chose to live in optimism on this one, and not wait for failure and abject misery to rain down.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Mile in Her Moccasins

By the end of the first day of the conference my new Dansko Professional clogs are scuffed beyond recognition and I’m annoyed. I should be grateful that I found a conference geographically close to Z that work would pay for, but all I can focus on are the angry-looking scuffs across both toes and the fact that I do not want to be listening to anymore motivational speaking about writing, but would rather be back at the gorgeous little almost-beach-front carriage house that Z and I have rented for three nights while I’m at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. He is back there in relaxi-pants, sitting on the balcony, watching the revelry of Coupeland’s Penn Cove Mussel Festival, and I am stuck with a chirpy woman who pulls plastic swords and giant eyeglasses from a bag and commands me to be a brave and observant conference goer.

I attend conferences alone. I like this. Not being there with friends and colleagues gives me the freedom to be the bad student I am at heart. For instance, on the first day of the conference, I answered work emails while editors and agents talked about what they do and don’t like. I listened to them, but some I had already rejected as having pinched faces or liking only cookbooks, which meant during their talks I was free to do work I should have done before I ever got on the plane headed for the Pacific Northwest. I realize this is the faulty logic my students use when they text during lectures they’ve already decided are beneath them, and it’s probably going to bring a heap of bad karma on my head.

The conference is nice. I’ve been to Aspen’s Summer Words a few times, and since that is the Sundance Film Festival of writing conferences, I am perhaps a bit too judgmental of this one. For instance, I feel mildly annoyed that day one is in a church and that the pastor speaks and that his music minister comes out with a guitar to lead a sing. I’m not anti-church, but I do have a tendency to get mentally oppositional when I’m inside of one. Also, I’m put off by one of two featured speakers, a story teller in a long, multi-colored coat and white gloves, who tells a long story about a grandfather and a grandson and fishing net. I’m bored and lost and feel cynical because I’m a writer but storytellers always seem like they need way more attention than any human person should need.

I’m also critical of the motivational speaker they’ve brought in with a big bag of props to encourage us to be better conference attendees. Also, the older man with braids all over his head. And the woman in the strange teapot-shaped hat. Who ARE these people? Also, what am I supposed to do with the very thin directions I’ve received to the afternoon “chat house,” which is in someone’s actual home—and I imagine it will be a small home with lots of cats and soup-whiff. Would it be wrong to escape so early into a conference that my university has paid for me to attend? Could I maybe justify the positive spin my writing and teaching will take if I get to spend more time with Z? I think about how he stood on the balcony, waving me off this morning, and I just want to be with him. This is not a professional attitude.

I find it mysterious and comforting that despite my aloneness at any conference, I am never alone for long. Somebody, usually someone who is more socially gregarious than I am, finds me after the first session—almost as if we already had an arranged appointment—and then I spend the rest of the day with them, hearing their stories. Frequently, they are people who need an empty vessel to pour their own stories into. Other times, they end up being friends. On the first day when I sit down alone in the cafeteria, I think, “Well, I wonder when she’ll be here.” She has no first name, but I know she’ll come. Sure enough, within two minutes a woman in her thirties and what can only be described as pirate boots, sits down and starts talking. I like her instantly and am happy later when she acts as my navigator to the “chat house” where various writers visit us and chat.

I need a navigator. The house is, apparently located in the back of beyond. Pirate Girl and I drive and drive and drive, and as we drive we speculate about what kind of house we’ve been sent to. At first, we think a bungalow near town, but then the further out we go into the pines, we assume a cabin. And then we turn into a subdivision reminiscent of The Brady Bunch and our romantic hopes are dashed. Between direction announcements, Pirate Girl tells me the story of her life. It’s an interesting one and actually does involve life on sea-going vessels as a ship’s cook. I have no doubt that the book she was pitching at the conference will get picked up and we’ll all be talking about it next year. She and I drive some more and see Tsunami Zone warning signs and finally, our destination: a gorgeous, expensive-looking house with two walls of windows overlooking Puget Sound, a mere three feet away from the house. The waves crash.

We kick off our shoes at the door, and settle in to listen. Erik Larson, the author of one of my favorite non-fiction books—Devil in the White City, is the keynote speaker at this chat house. He is funny and humble and inspiring. He has a house on Whidbey Island, I like the way his jeans and cotton shirt make it seem like he’s just popped in to hang out with us and be friends.

The authors who follow him are fine—one offers depressing information about our prospects of being able to make a living from writing, and another is a resident hippy who has gorgeous illustrated journals and who is living out of the back of her truck. I’m sure they are both lovely people, but the views compete for my attention, the sofa I am sitting on is that kind you get enveloped in, and I’m beginning to champ at the bit to get back to Z. When we are released, Pirate Girl and I cram our feet into our footwear, hop into the car, and follow the Tsunami Escape Route signs to higher ground. We say goodbye when I drop her at her car and promise to meet up the next day, though I’m fairly certain we’ll never see each other again. She is newly pregnant and tired and the temptations of Z coupled with my own rebellious streak will likely mean the few sessions we do attend the next day will not be at the same time. We don’t exchange last names or email, so unless Oprah picks her book and it does become a bestseller, I have no hope of ever talking to Pirate Girl again.

I return to Z and we stroll around the town, have a drink in a bar that promises a clientele of crusty fishermen, and then we go back to our carriage house and play a card game. Z is used to living without electricity and the distractions of the internet or television. I, on the other hand, have to warm to our low-tech evening. I’ve been plugged in too long.

At some point between the chat house and going to bed, I come to a horrible realization: the shoes on my feet do not belong to me. They are black. They are Danskos. They are the correct size. But they wobble the wrong way. My feet slip in them more than they should. Also, there is no way my new pair of shoes could be so scuffed and worn.

I’m horrified. There is something so inherently personal about shoes that I am as icked out as if I’d accidentally come home in someone else’s underpants. I begin to obsess about how I can get my pristine new shoes back and then my thoughts turn dark and I harbor paranoid thoughts about the person who stole my shoes. My money is on the woman living in the truck. Clearly her shoes have been on her feet for a decade and the temptations of a new pair were too much to resist. I even, momentarily, blame Pirate Girl for distracting me at a crucial shoe-collecting moment from my own footwear because of my fascination with her boots. This is irrational. I was likely the culprit. I live in a land where no one wears comfortable Danish shoes, and I probably jammed my feet into the first pair of Danskos available.

Z tries to console me. They are just shoes. Nobody is going to keep a pair of shoes that are not their own, he says. I can collect mine the next day. Somehow, his words soothe me.

Only the next day, no one has returned my shoes. Because Z had me convinced, I’ve worn the offending clogs so sure am I that I can make an easy trade at the reception desk. I have even imagined the laughter I will share with the other person as we slip out of each other’s shoes and into our own. Instead, I feel a little dirty as I sit in someone else's shoes, dejectedly listening to Christopher Vogler’s talk on the writer and the hero’s journey. Suddenly, I begin to wonder what journey my shoes are now on. Somehow, it is this idea—my shoes not as things but as entities with a their own life—that suddenly makes this mishap okay. In fact, I start to suspect the shoes are going to be living a more interesting life than I could ever have given them. I even kind of hope they are living with the woman in the truck.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Prison Stories

Tonight I am looking through the Indiana Department of Correction’s website trying to find an address for a student who will be a guest of the state for the next 90 days and can’t finish my class. You’d think I’d be doing something more productive, but no, J.R. is on my mind and I’d like to be able to write a note to my own personal convict who was a good writer and conscientious student and who will be missed in Composition II.

Though I’ve read the statistics on injustice in the US justice system and how poor people are something like 14 trillion times more likely to go to jail than the middle and upper classes, I’m still surprised. Apparently everything I learned from Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking is true. I punch in the names of boys I knew at my low-income elementary school in my hometown and a surprising number of them have done time, even one of my early crushes (whose name, despite being common, I recognize by both the middle initial and birth date, two pieces of info stored on a brain cell since 1976—no wonder I can’t remember my online banking password). None of these guys are in for violent crimes—all are drug or burglary (drug) related. Then I punch in the names of the most likely offenders at my nice country high school or the boys from elementary whose fingernails were always clean and whose mothers packed them name brand snacks in new Six Million Dollar Man lunchboxes. There is no evidence that any of them have had trouble with the law.

If any of the girls have done time, their last names have changed—it seems there are a variety of systems in which people can get lost.

It’s not like I ever doubted those stats about the number of poor people in jail, but to be able to put a face and name to those statistics makes me feel a little wobbly inside. It also makes me think of Mrs. Murray and my first grade field trip to the local police station. Maybe she knew half the boys were going to end up locked up and she was trying to scare them early. Maybe it was just a cheap way to entertain kids at an underfunded school. I was a good kid and the likelihood that I'd end up in jail was probably pretty slim despite my statistical vulnerability as a kid from a single-parent household living somewhere below the poverty line.

Yet in my mind, I attribute my succesful avoidance of a life of crime to a scorching case of diarrhea.

I had a stomach bug that day and was dying to get myself to a restroom but was too shy to ask a police officer if I could use the facilities. The school had dressed us in orange, mildewed rain ponchos, the smell of which only enhanced the level of my need for porcelain. Just when I thought I was going to die for sure, the police officer/tour guide herded us into the jail cell and locked the door so we’d know what awaited us if we failed to be law-abiding citizens. All I could think was that I was going to have to use that little seat-less toilet in front of my classmates. I suspect this was the genesis for what has become a life-long recurring nightmare in which I am wrongfully imprisoned.

This weekend I keep thinking of J.R. and wonder how the prison experience is going. It’s “only” 90 days, but when I think how long those 60 seconds were for me in first grade, I have to assume time is dragging.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Ice Queen

One of my best friends was watching the Super Tuesday returns a couple of weeks ago and her five year old daughter would periodically pop into the room and say, “Is the girl winning?” J would tell her daughter how to pronounce Hillary Clinton’s name, ask her to repeat it, and then ten minutes later the child would come back into the room and say, “The girl is on TV!! Did she win?!”

During the course of this historic primary I’ve been perplexed about who I would vote for. For awhile I comforted myself with the knowledge that since Indiana’s primary comes so late, it was a rhetorical question at best. But now that we’re talking super delegates it seems like the responsible thing to do is to make a choice.

I’ve read the debates that have been waged about how a feminist should vote, and I don’t really fall into the school that says a feminist must vote for whoever holds the XX chromosomes. On the other hand, I love the idea that for this five year old it is completely possible for “the girl” to win. In another eight years, when she’s beginning to get self-conscious and, if we are to believe the studies, ‘dumb down’ so she’ll be more attractive to men, she might not think it is a possibility (or care). So I keep thinking. Fortunately, I have until May to come to some conclusion.

There is the possibility that I shouldn’t even consider myself a feminist. Yesterday there was an ugly ice storm here, and because I am housesitting and because that house is down in a hole with a steep drive, I had fears that I wouldn’t be able to get out this morning for work and get myself to the airport this evening to pick Z up for our Valentine’s Day celebration. As my brain played out four or five different scenarios ranging from my being stuck in the house until Spring to me being dead in a ditch, I found myself wishing that he were already here so he could handle this—navigate the drive, dig the car out if it slid into a ditch, just, you know, be a man and figure it out. Now, keep in mind that Z rarely drives in America and he is from Africa where there may be snow on Kilimanjaro but there isn’t any in his little hunk of Zimbabwe. Why would I so quickly assume I couldn’t handle it but he could? I wasn’t raised with a man around and Z doesn’t make any similar assumptions about my capabilities. Yet still, there it was: let the man fix it.

Oh, it’s shameful to realize how far you are from the feminist ideal. Tonight I’ll pick up some kitty litter and a car-sized shovel and use my Girl Scout training to ensure that I am prepared for every possibility.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Money Laundering

I just did the laundry and found at the bottom of the washer one million, four hundred thousand dollars. Unfortunately, it was Zim dollars, and as such, worth less than a loaf of bread, but it was a heady moment when I first looked down and saw all that green. We’re rich, I thought.

Other areas where I am optimistic this week:

1) My Sunday Seattle departure date will not arrive (Superman will reverse the rotation of the earth to give me more Z time, seems the most likely scenario).
2) Elves will write my syllabus for me.
3) Elves will write my Monday lesson plans for me.
4) Elves will write my annual review for me.
5) Elves will go to the gym for me.
6) The Fairy of Healthy Eating will sprinkle pixie dust on my taste buds so raw vegetables taste better to me than high fructose corn syrup.

With the only thing standing between me and the achievement of said goals being the cooperation of fictional supernatural beings, nothing can stop me.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Some how, I got so worked up about turning 40 last year that it never occurred to me that—barring unforeseen acts of God—I’d turn 41. This is perhaps the single most disturbing realization I’ve come to in, well, 41 years. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that this is the age I will stop at and will simply refer to myself as 40 henceforth. Even when I’m 70.

It helps that I am in Seattle with Z, who had a bottle of champagne waiting on me when I arrived on New Year’s Eve, as well as a living room tricked out with all sorts of Christmas lights and garland that he put up before he went home for the holiday, just to please me. Our flights arrived at SEATAC within ten minutes of each other, and so far, everything about this trip has been smoother sailing than last year when he slept a day away and then I ended up in the ER. Except, you know, the part where we woke up New Year’s Eve at 12:03 a.m. because we both fell asleep before the stroke of midnight and also the part about how I’m no longer forty, but instead, in my forties, which seems like a whole different ball game.

On the bright side, the fireworks at the Space Needle were delayed, so we didn’t miss a thing.