Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Weight of Santa

Christmas is over. This year happened to be a pretty good one. I've enjoyed some wonderful Christmases and suffered though others that were almost unbearably painful. This year I passed the first one that found me living alone. It was different, but that's not what I'm thinking about tonight. Yesterday one of my Facebook friends wrote about wanting his son to believe in Santa Claus for one more year. I can understand that desire we have for our children to keep their innocence, their belief in a Christmas spirit who shares his generosity with other kids all over the world, asking only cookies and milk in return. And it reminded me of one of my "selfish mom" moments, when I....well, here's the story.

That Christmas LtColEx was on a remote tour to Korea. He'd been gone almost a year and a half--six months in Washington DC, followed immediately by a year-long stint in Korea to which his family wasn't invited. Drake was ten, Elvira was four, and by the time LtColEx came home, Elvira couldn't remember when he used to live with us. We didn't have email and phone calls were rare. I won't bore you with the details of how difficult that winter was--flu, record snowfalls that stranded us at home, spending all day together homeschooling with no relief at 5:30 and too little adult contact. I'll just say it's really hard to keep somebody's space open in your life for that long, and that's the reason 75% of marriages end after just a one-year remote tour.

As Christmas neared, I did everything I could to make it special and, at the same time, normal for the kids. After they went to bed, I sewed a big, faux suede cape for Drake and painted wooden eggs to look like dragon eggs (one cracking open) for Elvira. They were going to go in her stocking and, knowing how much she would love them, I wished I could share the suspense with someone who would understand. It was lonely work being Santa that year, and, anyway it's a special feeling when you're chosen to share imminent surprises, right? I remember how mature I felt when I came out as a Santa disbeliever, and how much fun it was to be in on the secret and help play the Santa game with my four younger sibs.

Like I said, Drake was ten, so you would probably expect I could let him in on some of the Santa prep. And I would have, except he still believed in old St. Nick. If he had been most kids...hell, if he had been his sister....I would have suspected he was saying he believed just so he'd still get presents. A lot of kids think if they tell anybody they're on to us, they won't get any more Santa presents. But Drake wasn't like that. He's just never learned how to play those games. As far as I could tell, he'd never even questioned whether Santa existed or not.

And yet, how could he not have doubts? He had friends. Surely they talked. I thought he had to know. At his age, how could he not? Unless what they said about homeschoolers was really true, and we were hiding our kids from the real world, not letting them be "normal," whatever the hell that is. I was—fuck it, I'm just going to admit this--kind of embarrassed that he still believed some fat guy in a red suit slipped down our chimney and left filled stockings and Legos by the tree. And I really wanted to show him these cool eggs I was making and bring him in on the fun of playing Santa.

So one night a few days before Christmas as I was tucking him in I thought I was going to get my chance. He started the conversation. "Mom, Scott Murphy (a kid in his scout troop) said there isn't really a Santa. I told him he's wrong, but he said I should stop being a baby."

"Oh, yeah. What else did he say?" Finally somebody had let the kitty out.

"He said you and Dad are Santa and you're the ones who put the presents under the tree. I told him my dad can't put presents under our tree this year, and I know I'll still get some. And I told him Santa always eats the milk and cookies we put out for him. I don't know why he would say that. He's such a jerk sometimes." Not going well. Such indignation. "He's wrong, right, Mom? There really is a Santa Claus?"

This seemed like my chance. I was afraid he'd really get teased if other kids knew he still believed at his age. Still.....I loved his innocence, his belief in heroes and people who do good just because they can.

"Would you want to know if there wasn't a Santa? Would you want to know if I was the one putting the presents under the tree this year?"

A pretty broad hint, I thought, but I didn't expect his reaction. He started crying. "No!" He could barely get the words out he was crying so hard. "I wouldn't want to know if Santa wasn't real because that would mean all those kids all over the world aren't really getting presents for Christmas. And I know a lot of them don't even have enough food to eat the rest of the year, so they need to get presents for Christmas." He was sobbing, in his own little super-hero world, worrying not about whether he'd stop getting presents from Santa, but whether all the other kids in the world would have a Christmas. Not really what I expected from a ten-year-old boy.

I lay down beside him and put my arms around him. "Don't be silly," I said. "Of course there's a Santa. How could there not be a Santa?"

He finally calmed down and said, "That's what I thought. Scott Murphy is just wrong and I feel sorry for him."

"I do too," I said. And that Christmas I played Santa all by myself for my two excited, elf-believing children. Elvira thought the dragon eggs were real and patiently waited for them to hatch. Drake flew around the house in his cape fighting bad guys. There were children all over the world who didn't celebrate Christmas, who didn't have enough to eat, much less presents under a shiny evergreen tree, but for one more year I kept that secret to myself. These are burdens our kids will share soon enough, and I've always been ashamed that I forgot for even an instant how short that time of innocence is.

The next year, Drake no longer believed in Santa Claus, and I wished, just like my FB friend, that he'd had one more year of believing Santa really existed. I wish I had one more year too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gratitude (or how the karma fairy spanked me twice)

I thought I was doing pretty well expressing my gratitude in November. I posted daily status updates to Facebook detailing the things I appreciate most: warm blankets, the library (where fines are only ten cents), my dog Pippi on her twelfth birthday, friends old and new, and music. In fact, I appreciated various forms of music more than once, because it’s such a big part of my life. I even “liked” my friends’ gratitudinal offerings. I was just that thankful. And then about the middle of the month, the ever-vigilant Karma Fairy noticed the itchy hubris in my constant demonstrations of gratitude and zipped merrily over from where she plays among the cowslips and marigolds just to spank me with her sexy pink wand.

It was week ten, the last week of fall quarter. Many of my students had decided now was the time to pass college composition, so I had stacks of revisions begging for my comments. I made it through the entire quarter without getting sick only to suffer an allergy attack from something I inhaled at the dog groomer. And, no, that wasn’t enough. I found out sometime into the week that somebody needed to provide music during the offering Sunday morning at church. When the request comes that late, somebody is me.

Normally it’s not that difficult to find something suitable to play, but the service was on Sufism and Rumi, and Indian music is not one of my genres. I played through a dozen or more possibilities before I found something that wouldn‘t clash heinously with the rest of the service. If I played a sitar the choice would have been so much easier, but I didn’t have time to learn a new instrument and a new piece of music. Of the instruments I do play, the piano is my first love, but I don‘t play often these days. The guitar is so much more portable and social. And playing the piano for a quiet, captive congregation requires more practice than backing someone up on guitar. Strumming three or four chords in a repetitive pattern isn’t a precise art; add in a couple of voices, maybe a bass, and a few mistakes won’t even register on the average listener. Playing a Baldwin concert grand in a room that’s silent except for the rustle of bills and checks being placed in offering plates leaves no room for mistakes. Every note counts. I would have to practice a lot to be ready by Sunday morning.

And so I started to feel a little put out, a little taken advantage of. Enough so that I sent a whiny, snarky email to another musician friend that said “Why do people think I can pull music out of my ass? If I could fart Mozart don’t you think I’d be playing for bigger audiences?” I’m not proud that I wanted him to think I was clever and sarcastic and a fine musical savior, which he did. Validation is so vital to petty displays of self-importance, don’t you think?

Along with his sympathy, he also sent me a link to an article about Joseph Pujol, who actually could fart music. I’m not sure if he already knew about Pujol, whose stage name was Le P├ętomane, or if he googled “fart Mozart” and found this wonder of all wonders in Wikipedia. I didn’t ask. Let’s just say it let some of the air out of my self-importance to find out somebody really could fart Mozart…and I can’t.

I chose music from one of my daughter’s late intermediate piano solo books, so it wasn’t Chopin or Mozart, but still it’s a lovely piece of music. I knew I could make it sound just fine by exaggerating the dynamics: dramatizing the ritards, speeding up the arpeggios at the crescendos, doing some bob and weave theatrics as I played. Nevertheless, it would take all of the four days I had to get it ready.

And so when I wasn’t at school teaching and conferencing with students, I was at home following my new week-ten routine: I’d read and comment on a couple of papers, blow my nose, play the piano, blow my nose, and then go back to reading and commenting on papers. Read, blow, play, blow, read, blow, play…. By late Saturday night, I was a day away from having the song memorized, which was better than good enough. In other words, I practiced more than I really need to. Sunday morning I went in half an hour early to warm up on the church piano, to get a feel for the action, which is significantly different from my piano.

Halfway through the service, the worship leader said, “We will now receive the offering in grateful appreciation…” (redundant I know, but you can’t overdo the gratitude, as I’m about to show), and I slid onto the piano bench, placing my hands lightly on the keys. I leaned forward slightly and flexed my wrists, preparing to lift and then bring my fingers down on the first arpeggio. I took a deep breath and as I looked up at my music, noticed Dan reaching for his guitar. I paused. He lifted his guitar onto his lap and introduced the song he was going to sing…during the offering.

The entire congregation was watching and listening to him, so I’m sure nobody noticed that quick twinkle as the Karma Fairy flew into the sanctuary and planted her sparkling little wand on the very part of my anatomy I had so elegantly threatened to pull music from. Ouch! I tried to swat her but she was too quick, so I slipped off the bench and returned to my seat to enjoy the rest of the service.

But I couldn’t help thinking how very ungrateful I’d been for the opportunity, during a particularly stressful week, to do something I love and rarely get a chance to do. After all the times I’ve bitched about not getting enough time to play the piano, there I was complaining that I had to play a lovely, soothing piece of music. All I could do at that point was offer Mistress Fairy the other cheek.

In my van on the way home, I thought about all the other times I’ve complained about having to do things that really deserved my gratitude. I’m not talking about being grateful for Pippi as I’m cleaning up a puke stain on the carpet. Or being thankful for dumpsters on wheels as I’m hauling the trash to the curb. This wasn’t an “embrace the suck” situation. Playing the piano doesn’t suck; it’s a privilege and I should face every opportunity to do it with joy. And yet I’m also not talking about being grateful because I’m so lucky to have a piano and the ability to play it, although the argument can be made. My mom suffered a stroke ten years ago at age 62, and she would be grateful to play half as well as she used to. It does her no good for me to practice some kind of vicarious gratitude for the pleasure she’s lost though.

No, I’m talking about those times when I complain (and please tell me you do this too) about having to do something I really like to do. Like exercise. I really do like to exercise. Years ago when I played basketball, I liked the practice every bit as much as the games. I like the feeling of muscles working; I even like the sweat and the soreness the next day. It makes me feel like I'm going somewhere...and leaving something behind. And yet, I not only complain about doing it, I actually avoid it—to my detriment.

And then there’s writing. I love to write, but I hate to write at the same time. I spent my entire stint in graduate school bitching about the papers I had to write. And yet, an assignment for a seven-page paper inevitably elicited from me a 28-page paper. My professors were the ones who should have been complaining (and probably did). I love writing so much, I can be compulsive about it. I sleep with a legal pad on the bed next to me in case I want to write something down after I’ve turned off the light. Often my muse—more about her later—visits me just as I’m about to fall asleep and I wake up long enough to write down some notes. And sometimes I just get up and give in to it. Yet, you wouldn’t believe how much I complain about having to face that blank page—so much so that I was an utter NaNoWriMo failure this year. As if my track record with this blog hadn't already blown my cover as a writer.

And sex! C'mon, who hasn't had an "oh, no, not again" moment about sex? And yet, why does a hot, juicy tumble on a soft bed, even at the end of a long, trying day...especially at the end of a long, trying day!...cause an Excedrin moment? Is it so much better to watch Desperate Housewives or to play Farmville on Facebook?

Anyway, I promised myself I would be more grateful for the chance and the ability to do those things I love to do, starting with playing music. Or if I didn’t remember to be thankful, at least I would stop complaining about those things. And last week I got a chance to put my commitment to the test. I said I would play the hymns for Sunday’s service so the choir director could have the morning off because she would be playing our big holiday program and carol sing-along that evening. Only three hymns, but one of them was a little tricky and again I had to practice. OK, I’m going to say it because the damage, as you will see, has already been done…I don’t like playing hymns. They’re all block chords played in a marchy tempo with weird passing notes. I find them challenging and not very rewarding to play.

But I tried. I did. I really tried to face those practice sessions with an attitude of gratitude and joy. Yes, I did catch myself sighing and eyeing the Christmas music with longing, wishing I didn’t have to spend my piano time on those hymns, but I always ended the wish with “but I’m not complaining.” I was sure I’d learned my lesson well enough. More hubris, I’m afraid.


Sunday morning I arrived early to warm up. The guest musician, a classical guitar player, was getting a sound check and running through his music. I opened the piano, set my music on the stand, hoped I wouldn’t screw the hymns up too badly (not that I was complaining), sat down on our nice, padded, adjustable piano bench and…you guessed it. The Karma Fairy darted in and stripped one of the screws in the adjustment mechanism so the entire right side collapsed. I caught myself just before I was dumped on my butt, and then I played those three hymns sitting on the phone book on a chair. I didn’t swat at the pixie this time.

Now I don’t really believe there’s a karma fairy circling my head waiting to whop me every time I need a lesson in humility. I’m sure karma, if it exists, has evolved into a more subtle form of punishment and reward. But I do think this is a valuable lesson I need to learn. Some things really do suck, and I’m going to bitch about them as much as I want to. For example, I love and appreciate my dog, but when she pukes on the carpet, I’m not going to clean it up with a joyful heart. I’m going to gag and whine and bathe in self-pity. However, those things I do love--playing music, writing, working out--I plan to greet with a better attitude, even if I don’t get as many points for being a long-suffering, music-farting savior.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sacred Collections


Recently Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister and singer/songwriter, posted a status update on Facebook that said "I've never collected things. What do you collect and why?" Thirty-four people responded that they collected things like books, newspapers from important events, plates with lemons on them, shot glasses, rocks, shells, rubber duckies. I said I collect people's stories, which is true. I almost stopped there, but then I admitted "also small parts of animals and insects: tiny bones, wings, claws, [snake] rattles, half a blue eggshell..." I guess that's something I've never outgrown, looking for the cast-off parts of living creatures, the tiny parts that hide between sidewalk cracks and beneath layers of soil and under river rocks.

One afternoon late this summer, after a hike along the Little Miami river with my friend Cyd and her nine-year-old daughter Maddy, I came home with the bottom of my pocket full of tiny treasures (please don't tell the ranger!):
•four orange crawdad claws about half an inch long (Maddy took one with her)
•four inch-long "finger" bones from part of an unknown small animal’s skeleton that I pried out of the mud with a stick. Oh, how I wish I'd been able to find the skull.
•a fresh-water clam shell the size of Maddy's pinkie fingernail
•five, black-webbed cicada wings. Four I had to pull from a corpse. (Maddy took one of those too.)
•a rock that looks like it has a brain imbedded in it. (You might argue that a rock isn't a tiny part of a dead creature, but you would be wrong. Rocks are made of whatever stuff was in the soil at the time: shells, bones, coral, even worm shit.)

I did not bring home a small silver and iridescent minnow we found dying in a sticky, fetid patch of greenish mud left over from when the river was higher. Several other minnows had already died there, stranded as the sun dried up their private pool. Every once in a while, a bubble would pop on the surface, indicating a heartier species lurking beneath the surface, possibly with an amphibious nature. Cyd had to hold my hand so I could lean out to scoop the gasping fish from the rank, gooey mud. I ran to the river and let it slide off my hand into the water, but it had lost its will to swim. It just laid there on its side, lazily floating with the current that lapped against the shore. Finally it floated headfirst into a dried, curled leaf. I "rescued" it again, but we knew it wouldn't live, and it didn't. It nourished other river creatures. That's not the kind of thing I collect anyway. I don't want to deal with rotting flesh.

The other thing I don't collect is feathers. I did when I was a kid, especially the black-striped blue jay feathers. But my mom has a feather phobia so I wasn't allowed to bring "those filthy things" into the house. I feared for her sanity the few times I forgot and ran in to show her an especially bright blue one.

She says her phobia is a result of being forced to feed and collect eggs from vicious laying hens when she was a child. I probably would have been scratching around the barnyard with them, looking for cast-off beaks and toenails and even feathers. (Yes, chickens have toenails. I've never found one in the wild though.) So even though we saw several feathers, and Cyd may have put one in the collection jar we pulled from the river, I didn't put a feather in my pocket for fear my mom would reach across 600 miles and thump me the top of my head. And it turns out she was right. Feathers can carry mites, although she didn't know that no matter what she claims now.

I'm not sure what I'll do with my little collection of parts. They could join the blue robin's egg shell, the chicken wishbone, the minuscule vertebrae and the rattlesnake rattle that stay on the little ledge made by the top of the backsplash on my kitchen counter. The rattlesnake rattle came out of an old classical guitar Cyd's sister brought her from Colorado last winter. They said I could keep it. OK, I begged for it and they allowed me to keep it, but I didn't ask for the feather that was tied to the headstock. The chicken wishbone is one I used when Cyd and I taught poetry workshops with a class of seventh-graders in a school near downtown Dayton. We gave them bags and got them started on keeping a collection of “poetry bones”: photos, special words, glue sticks, and other things they could pull out to inspire their poetry writing. I have a feeling lining up too many of these things on my kitchen counter, even if it is the part where I don't cook or eat, will eventually make me into one of those crazy women who, in lieu of owning too many cats, collects too many body parts from dead animals.

Of course, I could throw them all out in the garden and let them decompose into their elements. I've done that many times before, and I keep meaning to do that with my last dog's ashes. He died only twelve years ago.

Or I could collect them in a pretty jar and try to fill it up. That might look cool. Or pile them in a hand-tossed pottery bowl and set them on the table by the couch for guests to sift through and examine.

The best idea is to arrange them on a piece of mat board and mount them in a shadow box. You can frame almost anything. My ex-husband and I owned a custom framing store for a while, and we framed everything from a signed electric guitar to Shaquille O'Neal's big-ass athletic shoe to an Olympic torch.

The strangest thing we framed though was for a woman who liked to collect organic castoffs too: her own toenails. She claimed her ex-husband used to complain that her toenails were too long; they scratched him in the night. After they divorced, she grew her toenails out, painted them blood red, cut them, and paid us to frame them in an expensive shadowbox. She wanted to remind herself why she should never get married again. That's her story and it's as good as the next one.

Here's what I'll do with my collection. I'll arrange them in a frame and leave room to add more later. Already I'm thinking of other things I could add to this small collection: a couple of my kids' teeth from the little box in my dresser drawer. (What? You can't just throw those away after you smear glitter on the sheet and slip a silver dollar under the pillow.) A small skull I had on the mantle for several years. Whatever else I find next time I walk along the river. Hey, maybe one of those minnows has decomposed into a perfect little skeleton preserved in the killing mud.


Someday maybe I'll try to analyze this penchant I have for picking up the tiny leftovers from what to us seem like very short lives. Whatever animated those bodies is long gone. Call it god or the great creator or the flying spaghetti monster. Somehow these little parts retain for me a memory of creation that goes back to those first organisms that grew teeth and toenails, fur and beaks, bones and feathers. Even if I keep them in a frame for the rest of my likewise brief life, they will eventually find their way back into the soil, maybe to become a rock that looks like it has a brain growing out of it. One of my descendants will throw my carefully arranged shadowbox into the trash, breaking the glass if it's not already broken, freeing the tiny parts at last to feed the earth, return the elements they borrowed. By then, my body too will be doing the same thing, although I doubt very much anybody will collect any of my parts and show them off in a shadowbox.
I don't know or much care why I feel a connection to these little bits of bodies any more than the person who collects plates with lemons painted on them does. She said they make her feel "[h]appy. Sunshiny and yellow." They make her happy. That's good enough for me too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Weight of Stars

Tonight was supposed to be one of the best nights for seeing the Perseid meteor shower, so about 2:10 I took off on a walk with my standard poodle Pippi, hoping to glimpse a few falling stars as we walked in the dark quiet. OK, I’ll admit, walking along staring up at the sky in the middle of the night isn’t the smartest thing to do. I could have fallen flat on my face (again), but I was lucky--all I got was a crick in my neck. Oh, and I saw one meteor. One bright tantalizing miracle in the sky. Even though I was looking right at it, it flashed by like childhood and then it was an invisible particle of dust. I might have inhaled it for all I know. So I came home and lay on a damp cushion on the deck, hoping to see more. But I didn’t. The sky didn’t even look like a night sky. A waning half-moon shone too bright. Everybody in my neighborhood (and yours) has at least three bright yard lights. And then there are all those Walmarts and Speedways and streetlights….it never gets dark here.

I miss black skies sprinkled with a number of stars impossible to imagine. My best friend Sherry Roberts and I used prop an old metal bed spring across two spools we got from the phone company and sleep out in her yard. I could never actually sleep because of the weight of those stars. I’d lie awake all night watching them move across the sky, swallowed in that unlimited mysterious vastness. Sometimes I’d try to count them or I’d make up stories about the shapes I picked out, creating my very own constellations. I knew nothing of giant clouds of gas or black holes, red dwarfs or nebulae. I could no more imagine light years then than I can now. I didn’t know many of those stars had died millions of years before their light reached my retinas. I could pick out the big and small dippers, and sometimes the Milky Way was spread out like a smear of glitter, but I didn’t know the rings of Saturn were made of dirty chunks of chemical ice the size of my van. And Pluto was still a planet then. There was as much I didn’t know then as there is now.

As I walked into my yard tonight, I felt a certain disgust for my trusty van, parked there in the driveway. I remembered watching other night skies from the hoods of various cars, propped against a windshield smoking, drinking a beer, probably making out with some boy. Every once in a while a shooting star would whip across the sky and blink out in an instant. That was when you could still sit on the hood of a car without it caving in. The last time I sat on the hood of a car was right after we bought a brand-new Maxima station wagon. I was pregnant with Brandon, and I hopped up there like I always had on our other cars. Only this time the metal made a sickening crunching sound, and when I slowly slid off, there was a permanent dent where my butt had been. I don’t think Dan ever forgave me. It’s probably why we’re divorced now.

Tonight I would have liked to have lain back against a windshield and watched a truly black sky, made bright by stars instead of ambient human light. Given the number I could see from my deck, I could believe they had died before their light reached me. It didn’t look like there were that many left. Yet I lay there and stared into the sky I was given, willing chunks of comet to hit the atmosphere and flame out before my eyes. I’ve seen the Perseids from my deck before. One night several years ago we lay out there on the deck rails for hours as icicles dripped off the trees, and watched hundreds of them streak across the sky. They’re like Las Vegas slot machines—you don’t want to go in until you’ve seen just one more….and then another...and maybe just one more.

I wanted to see more than one tonight. But eventually I started psyching myself out, imagining wisps of light in my peripheral vision, but not really seeing a single meteor. Finally the cold dampness on the cushion seeped through my clothes and I decided to come inside.

It’s 3:30 now though, and I wonder if maybe I’d see some if I went back out. Maybe I watched too early. You never know when you’ll see your last meteor streak across the sky, when you’ll get your last chance to wish on a falling star…..I think I’ll check just one more time.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mirrorball by Mary Gaitskill

I'm sure Mary Gaitskill needs no introduction, so I'll just share a couple of paragraphs and a link to her featured short story, Mirrorball, at Pantheon Books. This is one of those stories that just has to be experienced. I don't think understanding is the point.

"He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think of it that way. He didn’t take the whole thing; that would not have been possible. But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone. As soon as he had it, he not only forgot that he’d taken it; he forgot he’d ever known about it. This was not the first time, either.

He was a musician, well regarded in his hometown and little known anywhere else. This fact sometimes gnawed at him and yet was sometimes a secret relief; he had seen musicians get sucked up by fame and it was like watching a frog get stuffed into a bottle, staring out with its face, its splayed legs, its private beating throat distorted and revealed against the glass. Fame, of course, was bigger and more fun than a bottle, but still, once you were behind the glass and blown up huge for all to see, there you were. It would suddenly be harder to sit and drink in the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness, where a girl might still look at him and wonder who he was. And he might wonder about her."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Water

This isn't a new poem, but one I posted a few months ago on MySpace, back when I used to go there.

Water

You can’t hold on to water.
It’s like your first kiss,
The perfect temperature of a cup of coffee—
just after it burns, just before it’s tepid—
the honey milk smell of a baby’s neck,
that last 10 pounds you lost again—and regained,
purple hyacinths pushing out of the snow,
a ripe, red garden tomato.

All that is important drips, flows or floods from your life
Like water escapes your cupped hands
No matter how thirsty you are
No matter how much you need it
No matter how tightly you press your palms and fingers together
And suck up what you can before it’s gone.

Remember contests in the bathtub with your little brother and sister
To see who could hold a handful of water the longest?
Over and over you tried
While soap scum cooled on lukewarm water,
Tiny waves lapped at the dirty tub ring
And your brother’s lips turned blue.
Just like yours, their lives have slipped through their fingers—
Like your grandmothers’ lives and your children’s lives
And the love you thought would last a lifetime.

But water that slips away always comes back—
As the tears you shed at your mother’s funeral
Or the urine that determines your daughter-in-law’s pregnancy test
Or the ice cube in the scotch your husband drinks
The day he knows the biopsy is positive
Or the moon-driven oceans that ebb and flow with the life of a blue planet.
You are as likely to hold on to love as you are to drink an ocean,
Hold it in your full round belly and belch fishy burps...
Eventually you’ll have to pee.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Weight of Paper


I wake this morning crushed under the weight of paper: papers to write, papers to grade, papers to read, not enough paper to spend…but the sun shines through the blinds and the sheers and even though I’ve only slept about five hours, I get up and settle the weight of paper on my shoulders. I let the dog out and the smell of spring slips into the room and nudges the weight of paper aside a little so I can take a breath. How do you describe that? Is it chlorophyll green or petal purple? High and tweety like a cardinal song or dark and heavy like the earth turning and stretching? Is it the milky smell of the top of a newborn’s head or the soft, thin skin of old hands turning the soil after a lifetime of care?

The herbs and flowers I neglected last fall stand like crisp, brittle sentries in their pots, their dead seedheads spent. I get an orange folder of student papers out of my rolling backpack and set it on the dining room table next to my laptop. I eat a bowl of oatmeal with the papers in front of me, as appealing as the dead seedheads and stalks poking out of the dozen or so big pots on the deck. I check my email, Facebook, the weather….76 and sunny today…59 and rain tomorrow. Same Monday. I shrug off the weight of paper, let it fall to the floor next to my backpack. Just until 1:00, I promise. Paper has no life. It will still be there. I open my laptop, steal my daughter’s computer speakers, plug them in and set them in the window. They’re not loud enough for the neighbors to hear—not that I care, and you’ll see why—but the window opens to the deck. I set the station to Pandora, grab my clippers and my goofy straw hat and head outside.

First the pots. I clip and pull and dig, tucking the crunchy stalks into a five-gallon bucket. They will nurture another generation of sage, mint and marigolds. The elvin thyme is starting to green into a fragrant carpet that will cover the top of the pot and spill down the sides. The chocolate mint is putting out a few tentative leaves. I can’t tell about the spicy oregano. It should be leafing out, but it’s not. If I planted it in my yard, it would take over like kudzu and I wouldn’t be able to kill it if I tried.

A frog in the pond trills and trills to another in the pond two houses down the street. They’re so confident in their ability to attract another. Frogs probably don’t broadcast their requirements for the perfect amphibian lover—must be 22-35 years old (croak! I’m 53, but look and act much younger); height/weight proportionate (fatties, don’t send me hate mail; I have a right to prefer slender frogs); just looking for somebody real—anybody out there?; your pic gets mine; love NASCAR, camping, flea markets, BBQ and the Bengals; 420 friendly…In a few weeks the pond will be full of tadpoles, fluttering like little sperm in the shallow water along the edge, no custody battles, no visitation, no child support. Just spermy little offspring who will become food for birds and fish, and possibly even frogs someday.

My bucket’s full of dead plants, so I head down to the compost pile. The raccoons have worn a path through grass from the deck to the shed. I think they’re living in there somehow, and I’m going to have to deal with them soon. Not today. I grab a shovel and start turning the finished compost. It’s dark and rich, but my neighbor planted some stupid perennial vine along the fence and it’s now out of control. It loves my compost like Audrey loved Seymour’s blood. I have to chop the roots out of the compost. I can’t get back there to cut the vines out so I think about using Roundup around my compost for a while. Damn it. I dig out a bucketful and smile to think this used to be grass clippings and egg shells and the insides of jack-o-lanterns. I dump a couple of buckets on the strawberry bed. A groundhog has been in there. I’ll have to deal with her too. A neighbor to the back starts up a saw. He hasn’t run out of things to saw in all the years I’ve lived here. He saws and saws and saws. His riding mower is out too, ready to fill the air with exhaust and noise. I fill my bucket with more compost, grab a blue Rubbermaid trash can and head back up to the deck, away from the neighbor’s whiny circular saw.

I stop to count the fish in the pond, but there are too many and I need to clean out the oxygen plant that’s taken over through the winter. I don’t really like sticking my hands down in the pond. I’m afraid I’m going to grab something gross, like the time I was pulling out big clumps of oxygen plant and a bloated, white frog carcass came up in my hand. Or that I’ll lean over too far and plunge headfirst into the murky water and drown. It could be days before anybody found me, ass up, white and bloated and eaten by goldfish. I call the pond Dan’s cancer pond. He dug it the summer he had prostate cancer. He carried pea gravel two cups at a time from the front yard to the back just days after his surgery when he wasn’t supposed to lift anything, his catheter swinging against his thigh. It took him the whole summer to get the waterfall to work just right so it didn’t leak behind the rocks, but he lost interest in it after that. I never run the waterfall because I can’t afford the water bills, but I plunge my arm in the water up to my shoulder and drag out the oxygen plant, pull the weeds around it, fill it with the hose during the drought of summer. Today I won’t disturb the frog’s love calls.

Back up on the deck I continue cleaning the dead plants out of pots, pulling out handfuls of maple leaves that wintered over, uncovering new green growth. My hands are black and smell like spaghetti herbs. I cut off the masses of dead snapdragons that volunteer in the cracks of the concrete pavers around the air conditioner. The whine and grind of the circular saw continues, joined by a nearby chainsaw. How these men of privilege love their loud machines: saws, leafblowers, riding mowers (hell, yes, I’m jealous), snow blowers. They’re never in their yards unless they’re using their machines or paying someone else to bring their own and work. Their lawns are perfect—smooth and green and plastic, every blade cut the same height. They feel entitled to their ideal of beauty and whatever means it takes to create it: the poisons, the fertilizers, the noisy engines. I teach their entitled children too, and I won’t be surprised this quarter when one of them says, “You can’t fail me. I paid for this class.” And I will reply, “I can fail you. You didn’t buy a grade. You only bought the privilege of sitting at that computer while I offer you a little of what I know.”

I don’t belong here now. I never really did. My grass is full of dandelions and violets. I have a firepit and a big pile of wood in the backyard, circled by old lawn chairs the kids dragged home from the trash of various neighbors. I let two raccoon babies grow up on my deck last summer after…well, I won’t go into that painful story. They come up to visit when we sit on the deck at night, almost adults now. I don’t mow often enough. I sit out on my deck playing my guitar while my neighbors watch their big-screen TVs. And there’s no man in my house to run loud engines on the weekends. These are just a few of the reasons I don’t belong here.

I try not to listen to the saws, but they annoy me. So do the white dogs when they start barking. I know they’ll be out in their pen, where their feet never touch grass and they poop on a small square of white gravel, and they will bark into the evening. All of us hate them, but it’s been going on since before I lived here. Letting your dogs bark isn’t as bad as letting a dandelion grow in your yard.

I listen to the music coming from the dining room window instead. Patty Griffin sings about letting him fly….”ain’t no talkin’ to this man…” I tried, but I never could get that song right when I played it. The Indigo Girls beg Jesus for some relationship help, but I know that won’t work, and it doesn’t. Don’t you think Mary begged Jesus not to be the Son of God, not to leave her? You know she did. Ani DiFranco comes on and I remember driving to Indianapolis through a blizzard to watch her in the Egyptian room. She beat the shit out of six guitars, all tuned differently and none of them in standard. She had to take a year off because she hurt her wrists playing like that, but we saw her right before. Gail was looking for a good woman at the time, and as we left the crowded bathroom, I said, “That girl just checked you out. Go say hi to her.” Gail looked back and asked how I knew she was even a lesbian. I said, “Other than that we’re at an Ani DiFranco concert and there’s nobody in the men’s room? She had on a T-shirt that says ‘I’m a lesbian’ on the front.” We’ve laughed about that many times. And then James Taylor starts singing “Fire and Rain,” so I cry a little. I miss the music and I always will, but that song ended. Every gardener waters her herbs with tears, don’t kid yourself. And I remember that James Taylor was the most disappointing concert I’ve ever gone to.

I go to the upstairs deck and finish clearing the long pots on the rail outside my bedroom. A crazy damn squirrel has chewed and chewed the edges until they’re almost gone. It will eat the flowers I plant too unless I can find a way to deal with it. Pat Santucci suggested a squirrel catapult. Last year my son brought me an air soft gun that shoots straight through Coke cans from 50 feet, but I can’t imagine that squirrel will hang around for me to shoot it after I’ve opened the door to the deck and taken aim. Cruel as it sounds, I hope it died of old age this past winter.

I dig some compost into the all of the pots. I love my compost. I love the idea of garbage turning into something dark and rich and nutritious for plants. It smells clean and slightly wormy, and it’s dark like the black Iowa soil I will never stop missing. I smooth the dirt, ready now for bedding plants or seeds.

Four big pots of rosemary have been wintering over in the big sunroom, so I drag them out and give them a drink. A couple of them have bloomed. I hope there are lots of pollinators this year to dance with the flowers now that the honey bees are gone. A big fat bumblebee hovers over a tiny purple flower and I have the urge to take off my shoes and socks. My dad never let us go barefoot until we had seen a bumblebee in the spring. I did the same thing with my kids, not because I didn’t think they could decide for themselves whether their feet were cold, but because I like the idea of letting a bumblebee decide.

One more thing to do before I lift that paper weight back on my shoulders. I take a trowel and scrape together all the cigarette butts Sophie has left in the big pink pot by the sliding door. She won’t clean them up herself. Last time Brandon did it because he didn’t like the idea of me doing it for her. Since she turned 18, she’s been smoking a lot more and she has a chronic cough that keeps her up at night. I carry the butts to the front and put them in the dumpster. Later, if I want, I can soak some in water and use the nicotine as an insecticide spray. It’s a powerful poison.

Time to get to work. I put away my tools, turn off Pandora, and pick up the weight of paper again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The next best thing to writing poetry is...

...somebody else writing poetry about you. I'll start with the good stuff. Sunday a few of us engaged in a scintillating discussion on Facebook that started with my posting an unusual spoken word poem by AFI, along with the following quote, which I stole from 'Zann's status update: "You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick.... You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps... so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. ~Dylan Thomas, Poetic Manifesto, 1961."

Following Patrick's comment that I'm supposed to be a "folky-hippie" and shouldn't listen to AFI (but you should click on that hot link and listen to their poem anyway), Dave shared Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" and drew not only a standing ovation, but an invitation to date Patrick.

I was so inspired, I wrote on my status update that I'm going to paper the walls in my next house with poetry . Doesn't that sound like the logical next evolutionary stage after cave painting and Medieval wall tapestries? Dave said I had to put up all Charles Bukowski, which would "limit my dinner guests to only certain people." (Probably to the ones who would have accepted my invitation anyway.)

'Zann, who really is doing NaPoWriMo every single day, not just aspiring to like some posers whose names I don't need to mention, said she was going to write a poem that starts with "Carol papered her walls with poems..." (I suggested Charles Bukowski should be there and drink so much he fell asleep on the couch and didn't wake up until afternoon even though the dog licked him on the ear five times and barked at the mailman, but 'Zann said that wasn't going in her poem, by which she politely meant "write your own damn poem.")

The reason I told this entirely too long story is because you need to know why Charles Bukowski matters. And I'm taking my time getting to the point because I'm so embarrassed that I said I would do NaPoWriMo and then didn't unless you count a lame haiku and a limerick in the comments under my unfulfilled promise.

But, 'Zann has done it every day this month, and her 14th poem is the one that starts "Carol papered her walls with poems..." It's amazing. My friends are all jealous, which is quite a feat given I didn't even write the poem. Go read it and leave her soft, snuggly huzzah comments because she's really doing it and every poet needs to know someone is out there reading...laughing...crying...nodding....and reading again just to savor those perfect words.

As for me, I'm a poetry loser this year. The best I can hope for this month and next is to write a decent ethnography and an independent paper (what this university calls a master's thesis) that passes and earns me the ticket to walk in a cap and gown this June, in addition to teaching all those spring-fevered freshmen how to write a multivoice/multigenre research project. Somewhere I'll need to fit in laying out and editing the school's literary magazine. I've got so many excuses.

After that though, I will paper my walls with poems, starting with 'Zann's...and some of them will even be my own. And then I'll have a dinner party and set a place for Charles Bukowski, may he rest in beer-soaked peace.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month Challenge

You've probably heard of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Poets.org has adapted the challenge for poets, who are encouraged to write a poem a day during the month of April and post them on their blogs or on the NaPoWritMo website. It's a hefty challenge, but I'm going to try it. Anybody else game? Feel free to share your poems here if you'd like. Or put a link to your blog in the comments area. I'd love to have some company.

Now I just have to write that first poem......(no cheating and using old stuff.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

And Now a Rant After the Unspeakable

I’ve wanted to say something about Shannon’s funeral, and yet I haven’t wanted to. I have no desire to write something full of pathos and tears about suicide or how parents might live with that once the funeral is over. I’ll just get that part out of the way and say even though I didn’t know Shannon’s parents, I thought that day they must be the strongest people I’ve ever seen to stand there beside their daughter’s coffin and receive people one after another. And when her mother hugged me hard enough to break bones and told me to “hold on tight…so tight,” it seemed to me that if a mother’s love had already created that child’s body and filled it with life one time, then shouldn’t she rise right up out of that coffin and stand beside her mom and her dad again? If only the power of a mother's love could do such things.

I thought we were only going for the viewing, which was from 11:00-1:00 at St. Helen’s. Elvira thought the funeral was private. So we got there a little after 11:00, after we picked up Elvira’s best friend, Katrice, and another friend, Jade. We met up with a group of their friends in the parking lot, and then we waited for my Girl Scout co-leader, Gina, to get there. Shannon had been in Gina's troop when we combined our troops, but she stopped coming. The whole group of us went in together, and then Gina and her daughter left.

Here’s the weird thing. Gina and I were the only moms there, and after she left, it was just me. A bunch of teenagers came and went. Another group of 7 or 8 stuck around. Our group of 10 or so did too. All these other kids who went through in twos and threes came with no parents at all. Am I crazy to be astounded by that?

Turns out the funeral wasn’t private, so the kids all wanted to stay. They sat in the sanctuary for a while, then they went outside to smoke and mingle. I wasn’t really hanging out with them, and I felt kind of funny being the only mom there--with them and not with them at the same time. I didn’t want Elvira to feel weird or embarrassed about her mom hanging around.

I sat in the sanctuary for a long time after they went outside. (The funeral didn’t start until 1:30, so we had over two hours to wait.) Every once in a while someone would come back in. Katrice hadn’t said what she wanted to say to Shannon when she went through the first time, and she wanted me to go back with her. So we did that. Jade came back in and she was confused because she felt angry, and so did Shannon’s best friend. She wasn’t sure if it was OK to be mad at Shannon. I told her it would be strange if she didn’t get mad at her for leaving this life like that. One of Elvira’s guy friends broke down after he was called into service as a pallbearer and carried the casket to the hearse. He’s a kid who’d probably cause some adults to cross to the other side of the street, with his crazy-colored Mohawks and his gauges. People think they know something from hair and piercings and tattoos, but they don’t. He’s not like that. But he’s had some tough times in his life, and he’s usually pretty controlled emotionally. No seventeen-year-old is prepared to lift his friend’s coffin into a hearse though. I don’t know why his mom wasn’t there to hold him while he cried, but damn it, I think she should have been. I didn’t even see Shannon’s best friend, Maggie’s, parents there, but Elvira told me later they were. I just saw her by herself most of the time. Maybe they were helping out with other things.

Where were all the other moms (and dads) though? I don’t get it. These kids were dealing with something we never master no matter how long we live. Death hurts like nothing else and it’s confusing and it strips us of the lies we tell ourselves about our own mortality. What the hell has happened to our society that we don’t support our kids when they’re going through something like this? They can only do so much for each other. Dealing with death takes experience, and if you don't have it, then you need to be guided by people who have been through it before.

When my dad died, he was only 46; I was 24, the oldest of five. LtColEx and I were stationed in Georgia, living on base. I talked to my mom on the phone before we left to drive to Atlanta and catch our flight to Iowa, and I told her I didn’t want to come home. I knew they were all waiting for me to get there and somehow take care of things and I didn’t know how. She said I had to come; they all needed me. I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to deal with it all, but somehow I did: my siblings' grief and confusion, all the people, the food, the coffee, the thank you cards.... Sometimes you’re thrown in the deep end and you survive the drowning.

When I came back to Georgia after 10 days at home helping my mom, none of my friends knew what to say or do, so they didn’t say anything. I was crushed under the weight of this brand new grief I’d brought back with me, but I was absolutely alone with it. One of my friends said, “We don’t know what to do or say. We don’t know anything about death. We’ve never experienced a loss like yours.” I got through it. There wasn’t a choice.

About three months later, seven of the guys in our wing were killed when their B-52 flew into a mountain in Utah. There are no survivors in crash like that. There aren’t even any bodies. It was the last flight for the pilot. He was going to be flying a desk in DC. We’d bought his lawn mower because they were moving to a town house. All of the wives were waiting on the runway with champagne to celebrate, but the plane didn’t come home. Our neighbor two houses down was on that plane. He was 25.

I took a big can of coffee down to his widow Rosanne’s house, because I remembered how much coffee we had to make the days before and after my dad’s funeral. I don’t remember if I saw Roseanne that day, but the day of the memorial service, afterwards, she called me and asked if I’d walk with her. I hadn’t gone to the memorial because I was still awfully raw from my dad’s death. LtColEx was TDY in England, and….sometimes you have to know what you can handle.

Rosanne and I walked a long way that day. She said she called me because everybody was being terribly nice and she appreciated their help, but none of them knew what she was going through. She wanted to be with someone who had experienced death too. She wanted to know when she would stop hurting like that. I told her I was still grieving and it still hurt just as much, but I was surviving. I’m not sure why that helped, but she said it did. People tend to tell you a lot of bullshit about time healing all wounds because they’re uncomfortable with other people’s pain. Maybe it just helped that I didn’t lie to her. Some things hurt almost unbearably for a very long time.

Back to Shannon’s funeral. Finally we went in for the funeral and took up most of a row, our little group. I haven’t been to a Catholic mass in a very long time. Most of Elvira’s friends never had. They were upset that most of the service wasn’t about Shannon at all. Her brother gave a heart-wrenching eulogy at the beginning. Otherwise, it was about Jesus and how Shannon was in a better place where she would find the love she didn’t find here. The young Indian priest got her name wrong in his homily to the family, and I felt the whole row of them stiffen in outrage. The teenagers in front of us put the kneelers down and put their feet on them, and they weren’t dressed in formal clothes. Elvira said she almost smacked them and told them to behave themselves. They were both fascinated by the service and disappointed. I think they wanted the funeral to be meaningful to how they remembered Shannon. It wasn’t for them. But I could tell it was for her family.

I was so impressed that everybody knew their parts. Methodists use books or let the minister do the talking. These people knew their lines cold, throughout the entire service. It was like going to Rocky Horror Picture Show with people who are there for their 152nd time. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I thought it was powerful theater. I have to say, I was also grateful for Mother Mary, who held court over the candles. I’m glad She was there. I wanted to light a candle, but I wasn’t sure of the protocol.

After the funeral, the kids wanted to go to the graveside services, which were held in…..Springfield. So we loaded up my van and a couple of the kids rode in another car. The final service was in a small chapel that happened to be right next to the grave. It was short; in fact, it took much longer to drive there. But that’s OK. We all walked by, dipped our fingers in holy water, and touched the casket. And then we went outside. I don’t know how Shannon’s mom left that little chapel, knowing what would come next. If it were me, they probably would have had to drag me out. It was hard enough for our little group of teens to leave.

But we finally did after more hugs and more tears. I drove the other kids where they needed to go. Elvira, Katrice and I got home about 5:00, and her dad picked them up an hour later. Wednesday night is her night with him. I rehearsed music for Sunday’s service for about three hours with a couple of my friends. Elvira came home a little after 10:00. Life went on…for us.

The next day Elvira came home from school and told me Don had asked her to tell me he was sorry for breaking down and crying on me for so long. She said to him, “Donovan, don’t ever say you’re sorry for crying on my mom. She’s a mom. That’s why she was there. We all needed a mom there.” (See? Elvira does have a softer side. She just hates to show it.)

I told her she’d said just what I would have said. And I told her I had felt kind of awkward, and I hoped she hadn’t felt like her overbearing mother was hanging around embarrassing her. She said she was really glad I was there, that they needed a mom there with them, and she couldn’t believe more parents weren’t there. And she said the other kids were glad I was there too. OK, I don’t want to make this about me, because that’s not my point.

Teenagers need their moms (and dads) just as much as little kids do. They’re moving into a world that, if they’re lucky, they’ve been protected from all their lives. They’re no different from when they didn’t know the stove would burn them or when they started their first day of school or when their first pet died. It may seem like they don’t want our wisdom and experience, and often they don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to offer it. From what I’ve observed, parents push their teens away far more often than teens push away their parents. They still need to know the safety net is there and that it will come up to support them when they need it. They shouldn’t have to fall before it catches them, because sometimes that’s too damn late. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to catch them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Musings on the Unspeakable

I had a plan to get through grading almost half of my portfolios tonight even though I didn't get started until after 11:00, but sometimes other things take the front seat. Tomorrow morning Elvira and I are going to the viewing for a friend of hers who committed suicide this past Saturday. We're taking some other friends in the van. I think they need a mom to go with them; I don't care if Elvira is almost 18. They need a mom.

She was surprised, but I wasn't, that she couldn't sleep tonight. She's not sure how she should feel, and it's hard to explain why that's normal for her age. I think we learn how to feel about things we can't understand; we aren't born knowing, and empathy plays an important role. She can't put herself in anybody's place but her friend's, and she can't imagine hanging herself in her dad's closet with one of his ties. What I know is that her friend isn't feeling anything now, but her parents....oh, her parents will never forgive themselves. All the questions they'll never answer: What if we hadn't let the doctor put her on Prozac? What if I'd been there instead of watching the basketball game? What if I.....? They'll never get over this. I'm not sure how I would live if that much of me died inside. I know how to feel about this; she doesn't yet.

I asked Elvira earlier today how she was doing. She said, "Mom, it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It's a logical fallacy. Wrong thinking." I felt such a flood of relief. The school is trying to keep it all quiet...the reason her friend died. Of course, duh, that's not going to happen. I dread the copycats. I hope not one of them succeeds, but sometimes they do.

I remember about 13 years ago hearing an ambulance siren stop nearby. I looked out the back and saw the lights about a block away, down the hill behind our house. About the time I went to bed, I heard the backup beeps and then the ambulance driving off, this time without the sirens. Later I learned a 15-year-old boy had shot himself with his father's gun. The story was--and who knows the truth?--that Dad had a new wife and they'd gone on a trip and left the boy at home. It was the first week of school and nobody was there to take him to buy school supplies. I don't know if it's true or not. The next-door neighbor told me though, so maybe it's true...a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Several other suicides followed that year.

I still have portfolios spread across my living room floor. I was sorting them, getting the obvious failures out of the way first. They will probably still be there in the morning, and maybe tomorrow night when people come over to rehearse for Sunday morning church music. When Elvira came back downstairs, those portfolios lost their importance for a while. Yes, they represent hard, important work of kids who are almost the same age as my daughter and her friend. As a teacher, I hope I never make a decision that causes....well, I won't go there.

We sat on the couch for a while, and then we went outside so Elvira could smoke. It's the first time I've let her smoke in front of me, and I hate it. The reasons why are another story. It was more important tonight that we sit out on the deck and talk. I had a glass of wine; she had a Bacardi Silver Raz (about as much alcohol as cough syrup) that I finished while I wrote this. The raccoons we raised last summer, Bonnie and Clyde, came up to eat dog food and a couple of bananas. Bonnie was in a playful mood and kept trying to pull off our shoes and bite us. He climbed up into the umbrella and got stuck. Sometimes it's not a bad thing to distract yourself with cigarettes, booze, and crazy raccoons.

Elvira wonders why her friend, who was always so happy, would do such a thing. She worries that she's not reacting the right way. I....I just want to hold on to my little girl--who will be 18 in one week--and keep her safe. Anybody who knows her knows I won't be able to, but just for tonight, an early spring night when we sat on the deck drinking, smoking, and laughing at the raccoons under a clear starry night....just for tonight, she was safe and nothing was OK, and yet everything was just fine.

I wish tomorrow wasn't here already.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brick......House

I was out dancing the other night when the band started playing "Brickhouse," a Commodores song from the 70's. I love how clever this song is and how much fun I had explaining it to my kids in the van on one of our homeschool field trips.

Brandon: What's a "brickhouse." It doesn't sound like a woman.
Me: The whole phrase is "She's built like a brick shithouse."
Sophie: What? A woman is a shithouse?
Me: No, it's a metaphor. It's saying she's built like a brick shithouse.
Brandon: How do you know that? They don't say that in the song.
Me: No, but they leave space in the lyrics and melody. Listen to how they say "brick....house." They're leaving out the "shit" because they wouldn't be able to play it on the radio. But it's implied because of the pause and the way they fill between the words.
Sophie: I still don't get what a brick shithouse is.
Me: It's an outhouse. People used to dig a big hole in the ground and build a small building around it. They called them outhouses or shithouses, and that's where they went to the bathroom. We used to steal them for our big autumn bonfire when I was growing up. Not many people had them by then. When my dad was a kid everybody had them, and they used to think it was funny to sneak up on people and tip the outhouse over while they were in it.
Brandon: Did they build them out of bricks? How did you burn bricks?
Me: No, most of them were wood, but rich people could build theirs out of bricks. They would be much nicer than most people's. That's why it's a bigger compliment to be a brick shithouse than just a shithouse.
(At that point, I realized I wasn't going to be able to fully explain the metaphor, because really, what woman wants to be called a "shit" anything?)
Sophie: I wouldn't want anybody to call me a shithouse. That's not nice.
Me: Well, if somebody was going to call you a shithouse, at least you'd want them to call you a brick shithouse because that's the prettiest kind.
Sophie: I guess so.
Brandon: (opens his mouth)
Me: Don't ever call your sister a brick shithouse, Brandon.
Brandon: (closes his mouth)

She's a brick...buh buh buuuuh buh.....house
She's mighty mighty
just lettin' it all hang out...

Monday, February 9, 2009

What they say...

I dearly love my students and I would never make fun of them. But I do have to laugh at some of the word usage mistakes they make. In the last batch of 48 papers I read and commented on, I found two pretty amazing mistakes. If they had done it on purpose, I would have been really impressed. They didn't though, and probably wouldn't even see the humor in them that I did.

The first one was in an analysis of a TV commercial. The writer described the commercial down to the opera music playing in the background. Further on she said the commercial would appeal to men because "men think with their libretto." Is that awesome? (Of course, she meant libido, but that's really not news to any of us.)

The second one isn't as funny, but I still like it. This student was analyzing a parody of a Mastercard commercial. In the commercial, a young man is asking a young woman for a blow job after a date. The writer wrote that when the young woman responds she "makes a facial expression depreciating his comment." Oh, if only I were that clever and could do it on purpose. (Unfortunately I have no idea what word she meant to use.)

God bless spellcheckers. Have you ever made a word usage mistake that turned out to be the cleverest thing you said that year of your life?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Facebook Connections 1

I did one of those "25 things about me" lists on Facebook yesterday after I'd been "tagged" so many times I couldn't remember who had tagged me. It was one of those serendipitous connections that I love so much--and that I'll be writing about next--that I geared my English 101 classes around lists and poetry this week. Once you start looking at and for lists, it's amazing how prevalent they are in our communication. But that's another post.

Shortly before I made the list , I was thinking how much time I waste checking my Facebook. And how very shallow most of it is. As I tell my students, we must always be aware of our rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre, stance, media/design). I've got Facebook friends who were students in the first class I taught (fall 2007), colleagues from the university, homeschool friends from around the country, people from my church, a sister, a son, someone from Chicago who may be an offspring of a distant relative of my ex-husband, and my ex-husband's niece (who is my niece too, damn blood). Some of these people are connected. Most aren't. It's a smorgasbord of people who know me in different facets of my life, who play different roles in my life, and some....well, I'm not sure why they haven't unfriended me. How deep can these connections go in such a disparate world?

When I wrote the 25 things. I was honest, but I didn't bare my heart. Not really. Facebook isn't a diary. As I read the lists my other friends posted, I felt honored to receive them. I knew the things they listed were important to them, things they wanted the people in their lives to know about them. We take such risks on these networks. We know real people will be reading what we write, but let's face it. We're writing in our own homes, at our solitary computers. It's not like meeting over a glass of wine and spilling 25 things about yourself. You get to think about it. And you don't have to drive home wondering if you should have called a cab.

So now I'm swinging back on the pendulum between shallow and significant, but not just because I wrote the 25 things, nor because my friends did. It's the responses I got. One friend said she only got halfway through mine before she "lost it" and she would have to read it later. Others told me the ones they agreed with.

And that niece, the one who is my ex's brother's daughter? She's the only one in ex's family who will have anything to do with me since he left me. After 30 years of being family, she's the only one. She invited me to her wedding last summer though. And she wrote this on my 25 things list: "Did I ever tell you how much I like you? Cause I do. And I think my mom shares your sentiments about #9 + 15..." And those words were not shallow, nor were the tears I shed when I read them. Sometimes a lot can happen with just a few little words on a computer screen.

What do you think? Shallow or significant? Do you consider your audience when you write on social networks to the point that you self edit what you say about the weather? Do you have a story about a time when you didn't care?

I have a lot more to say about social networks, but for today, I really just wanted to share the story about connecting with my niece.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Caught Your Attention Today?

I often give short, prompted writing assignments to start off my classes. Yesterday I handed out notecards and asked them to write one sentence about something that caught their attention in the past 24 hours, and they were to be very descriptive. (I think I got this from singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer.) My morning class loved this prompt so much they asked to do it every Friday. My afternoon class--the one that has 6 girls and 19 guys--whined about having to do it at all. So I thought I'd share a few of the best ones--totally without their permission--and later in the quarter, if their writing sensei has taught them anything at all--I'll share some that are amazing.
  • I was sound asleep at 4:30 in the morning when a gurgling scream woke me. I flew out of the bed and ran to check on my daughter (8 mths old). When I peeked at her in her bed she was covered in throw up. That got my attention and woke me up real fast!
  • The freezing cold weather. I walked outside and I thought I was tackled by the winter warlock.
  • The weather. It was so cold this morning I noticed even the small puddles of melted snow on the car mats inside the car were frozen. When I left the house the car thermometer said it was 4 degrees F. Quickly it began to plummet as we left the garage 3 degrees, 2 degrees, 0 degrees, -1 degrees. The first thought that came to mind is "OK you can stop now!"
  • This guy texts me and burns me up with his clingy nice attitude and he reminds me of a wussy kitty!
  • Even though class isn't until 8:30, I awake to the sounds of my dad banging a wrench at 4:35, and with each bang, it becomes clear: the furnace is off.
  • The first sharp breath of ice cold air as I left the warmth of my house at 7 am to drive five minutes and feed the Hallmark giant by buying a birthday card.
  • Pulling into the parking lot, I saw a teal colored van with an air conditioner hanging out the side window with a bed and TV inside.
  • A giant blue monkey with a small gold machine gun came to my door this morning and he was wearing a sleek polka-dotted suit with a pipe in his mouth.
What caught your attention in the past 24 hours?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Proust's Madeleine Redux

Maria came into our novel-writing class yesterday carrying a fragrant bag from Subway. As she unwrapped a big sandwich she said, "I don't eat meat...except pepperoni and salami." I said, "So you're saying you're a vegetarian who only eats pepperoni and salami? I know I'm going to use that in a book someday!"

She said she can't give up pepperoni and salami because she comes from an Italian family and they remind her of her grandma. Then she dug into her sub and the teacher went on to talk about how logic belongs to the character and may not make sense to anyone else. And I just knew Maria was sitting in her grandma's warm, moist kitchen, eating something rich with tomatoes, garlic and spicy meat that definitely didn't come from Subway.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How Can You Get Lucky?

Richard Wiseman, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, wrote a book called The Luck Factor, which relates his findings on why some people are lucky. He found that people who are observant tend to be luckier than people who are oblivious. If that's the case, I should be very lucky, because I'm one of the most observant people I know. I remember walking with a friend at a park and stopping to pick up a cicada wing off the pavement. "How did you even see that?" he asked. "I couldn't see it even when I saw you bend to pick it up." I don't know. I constantly look for things and patterns and connections; things that are where they're supposed to be and things that aren't; things that can be explained and whatever is needed to explain the things that can't be explained, to put the world in order. I notice people doing things they shouldn't--like the day I saw an elderly woman slip the disk-shaped bone out of a piece of beef in the meat case. She tore right through the plastic on top, quick as if she'd done it many times and popped that round bone--the kind with the marrow in the middle--out of the steak and into a baggie in her purse. I see dropped paperclips and tiny earrings and pennies. Writing on bathroom walls and misplaced keys. Sometimes I think I see too much.

The only other person I know who notices things like I do is my 17-year-old daughter. Last night she said, "Guess what I saw on the bathroom floor today?" I didn't want to guess, but she didn't wait for me to anyway. "An empty granola bar wrapper and a packet from drink powder that you pour in a water bottle." I waited for her meaning to become clear. She continued, "So I looked in the feminine waste dispenser and found just what I expected: a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a baggie. Somebody in a school of 3000 people had eaten lunch in the bathroom stall." I made a disgusted, yet compassionate sound. "Can you believe somebody in a school that size would have to eat lunch in the bathroom?" she said. "Surely out of all those people you could find somebody to eat lunch with so you don't have to eat in a bathroom stall. Even weird kids have friends in a school that size."

Every quarter I pass out notecards and ask my students to write one line about something they've observed in the past 24 hours. They come up with some pretty crazy stuff, and I keep the cards after the exercise.

Here's a poem I wrote about needing to be observant during a particular period in my life. What have you observed lately?


Pennies
Since my husband left in October
I’ve been collecting pennies.
random
abandoned disks
copper-colored Lincoln icons not worth the bend-over for most people.
They’ve become cheap 97% zinc prayers…
(Jesus loves me, this I used to know)
prayers that I’ll be OK, just OK,
or that they’ll add up to the cost of a few cans of cat food
if I’m not
OK.
I don’t ask for much these days.

I decoupaged an old square salsa jar to hold my pennies—
words: green, sign, wise—
photos: a woman playing a guitar, Granny Smith apples, a praying mantis, the sun,
a voluptuous nude woman caught in tree branches, a bird flying, a woman flying.
All my found pennies go in it
after I polish them,
touching them to remind them of their worth.

One day I stepped off the shuttle bus at The Academy
and saw a penny on the pavement.
I bent in front of the bus to pick it up
but it was stuck in the asphalt
embedded from a summer day
when the tar was hot.
I couldn’t pry it loose with my fingers;
I wanted a tool,
my keys,
a dime,
a ballpoint pen
to dig up an edge so I could get it out,
take it,
put it in my pocket,
hear it clink when it hit the bottom of my jar,
but I was embarrassed
aware of the bus driver waiting to leave the parking lot,
make another circle around the campus.
So I left it there.
A week later as I waited at the bus stop
alone,
I looked for the penny.
I looked all over, keys in my hand,
ready to pry, claim my reward,
certain I remembered where it had been,
watching for the bus, ashamed
of how much one cent meant.

It was gone.
One copper penny and it was gone. Maybe…
maybe it was worth something to someone else.
The shuttle came.
I got on.
Other days I found other pennies
and paper clips
and pens—
many useful things have little worth.
But that penny,
that penny trapped in its tarry, asphalt prison,
bearing the weight of tires and feet…
I hope that wasn’t the one penny that stood between being OK
and being a penny short of OK.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Proust's Madeleine


I wish I could remember where I recently ran across a reference to Proust’s madeleine. Intrigued, I googled it, and then I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. Maybe I had and I wasn’t paying attention. Who knows? It’s not as if I sit around reading Proust, although if you’d like to think I do, I’m fine with that. If only I were that high-browed. I’m never even sure if I’ve pronounced his name correctly—not that it comes up often in my conversations.

Every writer must dream of writing such a deep and enduring metaphor, one that has coined a phrase used in psychology, “involuntary memory.” Proust writes that he was having a bad day, so his mother gave him a snack. He took a spoonful of tea with some crumbs of madeleine floating in it, and suddenly he felt much better. He spends a significant number of words describing his internal search for the memory that tiny sip of tea must have evoked. Eventually he ties it to his aunt having given him bites of her madeleine years before when he was a boy.

Who hasn’t experienced tasting something that transported you back, in both memory and feeling, to another time and place? Often these are fleeting, whispy moments; we barely pause in that place out of present time and space, that place where we are the ghost watching like Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Past. Since I learned about Proust’s Madeleine, I’ve been on the prowl for such an experience, but they’ve been like that lone fly that buzzes and buzzes around your head until you finally get up and find a flyswatter or a section of newspaper, only to have the fly mysteriously disappear until you turn your light off to go to sleep and then just as you’re about to drift off you hear that buzzzzz….you get the idea. I was getting discouraged, thinking maybe my madeleine would never come. And then on Christmas Day, a peanut did the trick.

I invited my usual “family” of friends over for Christmas Dinner. We were eating at 3:00 and I didn’t want people to starve while they waited, and yet I didn’t want them to spoil their dinners, so I put out a basket of peanuts in the shell so they’d have to work for their snack. Phil and Joe were the first ones here. They poured coffee and eggnog for themselves and started shelling peanuts. Phil commented that I’d bought unsalted—totally unintentional on my part—but they still ate them until it was time to make the gravy.

After everyone had gone home and the dishes were done, I grabbed a peanut on my way out of the kitchen, thinking as I did that I might as well just put them out for the squirrels. Who likes unsalted peanuts? I cracked the shell, pulled it apart with my fingernails, slipped the peanuts out, popped them in my mouth and chewed.

All of a sudden I was standing outside a three-sided tent in the yard of the courthouse, which stood in the middle of the square in the small Iowa town where I grew up. Packed snow crunched under my boots as I waited in line behind what seemed like hundreds of other kids. It was probably only five. In the tent, sitting on a big chair, straw covering the ground around him, sat Santa, and soon I would sit on his lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas.

Winn Geeseman played Santa every year. His daughter, Valerie, was a year younger than me, and even though by the time I was seven I recognized him, he was magical once he put on that red suit. (I certainly wouldn’t have sat on his lap if he hadn’t been wearing that costume!)

I wasn’t one of those kids who asked for big impossible things like ponies or red sports cars or bringing people back to life. I always asked for what I knew was possible—clothes, go go boots (never got those), a crying baby doll (she gave me away several times after I was supposed to be in bed asleep), a Barbie with bendable legs. (I was the first girl in first grade to get one. I took it to school for show and tell and Sherry Ryan broke one of the knees so it flopped instead of bending. I was devastated. I still haven’t forgiven her.)

After we had taken our turn on Santa’s lap, his helper would hand us each a small brown-paper bag half-full of hard candy—ribbons, raspberry-filled, a couple of small candy canes--and some unshelled, unsalted peanuts. We got the same bag of candy and peanuts at the church on Christmas Eve, after the annual nativity play. I wonder if they were the leftovers.

Although we didn't live in a little house on the prairie, Christmas was the only time we got nuts, except the little black walnuts we picked up in the fall. Somebody would give Dad a fruit basket with big, shiny red Delicious apples and basketball sized navel oranges — not like those nameless little sour apples Mom bought in three-pound bags or the wormy green ones we stole from the neighbors’ trees and nuts in the shell — pecans, fancy English walnuts, almonds. They were so fun to crack open with the silver nutcracker and they tasted so exotic, coming as they did just that one time a year, probably from very faraway — New York, maybe, or even California. And they weren’t selfish with their meats, like our home-grown black walnuts.

Oh, and then there was Grandma’s peanut brittle, shards of hard, amber candy impregnated with Spanish peanuts. I didn’t like it as well as the chocolate-covered cherries and fluffy white and pink divinity she made. And two kinds of fudge — regular chocolate cut into squares and the maple fudge that she put into tiny fluted paper cups. And caramels, creamy and chewy at the same time. One year when I was helping her make candy she told me about how her mother had to invite several friends over to make divinity. Because they had to beat it by hand, one woman couldn’t beat long enough for it to set up so they took turns beating the egg whites, sugar and corn syrup into divinity. If the weather was too humid, sometimes they never could get it to peak, and so they’d just make sticky disks of candy, failed divinity they called it. (I only remember one year when my grandma’s divinity failed in spite of her electric mixer. It was never mentioned.)

It’s surprising how the taste of one unsalted peanut can bring back so many memories. I still want to write a Proust’s Madeleine poem, like the one below, written by the late Kenneth Rexroth.

Have you ever experienced your own madeleine? Would you be willing to channel your inner Proust and share it here?

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
    Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
    Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
    Slow horses and fast women.