Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Excrucianator

I don’t trust myself to write sometimes because I’m always anxious that I’ll get it wrong.  Somebody must be watching me somewhere to know what the exact truth is, so it’s only a matter of time before I get caught at something again.

I don’t know where or when I learned the phrase “if that’s the worst thing you ever do, you’re good in my book”, but it stuck to me like a steel bolt through the head.  I mean, it made a difference.  If the worst thing I ever do could be located next to my glowing box of stars, I would be pleased. 

I think this is how the universe should be organized.


For some reason my students think that stapling their papers will matter more than whether or not the paper makes sense.  They pass around tiny staplers like this is the last and best bet.  I’m like Hello, there’s a stapler in the English Department 50 feet away, and free staples too.  I have said this six thousand seven hundred jillion times in my teaching career; I sat down to figure that out the other day.  I used to thunder forth with “for the price of a pitcher of beer, you too could own a stapler!”, but in the last ten years or so—for however long I’ve been back from Alaska, or whenever the price of staplers went down, or since Billy Mays died—this has lost its impact. 

I gave up “curtain number one, curtain number two” when that comment drew blankness too.

I’m sure I did it wrong for many years, the same years I told them that gazelles were winged creatures who couldn't be seen unless you bent over backwards on a galloping horse.  I used all my idioms to win them over, but it’s been a harder audience than I bargained for. 


So many problems have occurred since last winter, and it is interesting to note how many more exist, like there is a never-ending list of problems that will never get solved.  I write this as I watch a spider build a web across the span of my patio.  I’ve also been waiting for a frond to drop from one of my picaresque palms.  It’s been there since the Great Flood of Arizona, in the sometime of summer 2014.  

I’m still thinking that the more I rub my feet together, the more likely there will be a genie.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The $70,000 Man

Q. Are you happy?

A. I’m happy when I’m brushing my father’s cheek with a kiss.  I’m happy riding around in the car with my mom as she points out where she was born and where she first lived.  That’s in Minnesota though; I live in Arizona.  Here, my cats make me happy.  Parts of my job also make me happy.
I like working in my yard, playing in the dirt; I'm my father’s daughter in that regard.  I like telling a good story.  I’m happy with the money I make.  I read somewhere that you can become increasingly happy as you work up to $70,000 a year, but after that, there’s no more happiness guaranteed.  That seems about right.  I’ve been waiting for the Six Million Dollar Man to show up ever since I heard he existed, with the Six Million Dollar Emotions, but the $70,000 Man keeps showing up instead.
I mean, I thought I was happy.  Then I got married, lost all my friends, and got divorced.  Then came the DUI and the shitty apartment and the breathalyzer in my car for a year; it paralyzed me.  That was over ten years ago.  I was trying to get to sleep last night and there was a dog barking; this is a new dog in our neighborhood, somebody either renting or some snowbirds are back.  This dog was barking and barking and I had a very kind note already tied to a rock outside on the patio in case it came to having to contact the owners.  But the barking of the dog reminded me of when I used to live in a really shitty place, and there wasn’t anything I could do to get out of that place except to wait.

So I didn’t throw the rock.

Q. What’s your favorite kind of morning?

My favorite kind of morning is waking up when it’s still dark.  I hope my cats aren’t far away; I hope they’re sleeping in the bed too.   I don’t like to wake up to an alarm, but sometimes I have to.  I set mine for six but am usually awake before it goes off.

I turn on my bedside light and say hello to everyone and put my pajamas on.  I cross the hallway and switch on the light in their bedroom so they know I won’t forget to come back later.  I open the front door on my way to the kitchen to let fresh air in; I set the coffee up, then head back down the hallway so I can feed the cats and freshen their quarters.  I return with a paper sack full of a thousand splendid urine balls and feces.
My coffee pot sings out that exactly one perfect cup will be ready when I am finished with my chores, one perfect cup for me.  I wash my hands and dry them, find a cup that means something to me, and fill it with coffee.  My favorite kind of morning must be, then, the average kind. 

Q. How long have you been teaching?

I’ve been teaching for 23 years.  That’s half my life.  There are several interesting things about teaching half your life or really doing anything half your life. One is that probably, nobody told you what you were supposed to be doing in the first place.  You just went by instinct.  I think that happens a lot in English.  For my first class in the fall of 1990 in Fairbanks I…well, it doesn’t matter.  English always meant anything: you could tell your students to write about the worst thing that had ever happened to them, or you could tell them to write about the suffering of mankind as seen through a lens of their choice.  As long as they were writing in complete sentences—that seemed to be the general idea.  The colleagues I thank the most are those who taught me to camouflage grades.  “Put it on the last page, not the front” was an excellent piece of advice. “Don’t even give them one and tell them to see you first” also worked for awhile.  “Instead of grades, give them checks, check-minuses, and check-pluses.” 

Green light, yellow light, and red light is the one I most recently ignored. 


I graduated early from college—in the winter instead of spring—because I had always gone summers.  I had a year to kill before graduate school started so I applied to be a waitress—this was in Bemidji, Minnesota, 1989.  I loved that job; it was totally outside the realm of student-worker, or wiper-downer at the tanning salon.  The owner of the bar would let me come back from whatever college I was studying at and pick up shifts; it was always such a huge relief.  I remember that place and those people as much as I do all of my professors, all my classmates, and all of the classes I taught.

I remember one young man I was tutoring at a shelter/center down the hill in the woods in Alaska one time during the snowy and frigid winter of 1990-2000.  It was kind of an outpost of the university, on a different side of the hill from where all the sled dogs stayed. The shelter/center was well within the scope of my life in Fairbanks because I didn’t have a car or a sled dog, so everywhere I went, I plodded in my winter suit and space boots.  I wouldn’t have tutored at the shelter/center if it had been too far away, because even if I was properly outfitted, waiting for a bus could have meant death-by-waiting-for-bus.  For this particular sandwich job—and that’s what I’d started calling them, “sandwich jobs”, like they were sandwiched between my real jobs—I was tutoring a young man who had shot his parents on the front steps of their cabin and he had won that case in self-defense.  He couldn’t have been that much younger than me or maybe he was my age.  The only thing this young man wanted to write about was the scene where he had shot his parents and maybe one other person accidentally.  I was his tutor for grammar and punctuation.

Q. What has been your favorite job outside of teaching?

A. My favorite job outside of teaching was selling tickets in a seaplane booth on Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minnesota. This would have been around 1980.  I was still going to the Catholic school, but one of my girlfriends who lived down the street—who also went to the Catholic school, but who always knew a little more than I did—happened to have another friend who actually had the seaplane pilot as a teacher: he was the sixth grade teacher at the public school, and they called him Mr. G.  After a thousand splendid phone calls, I was never so happy as when my parents agreed that I could sell tickets from the seaplane booth for the summer, just across the parking lot from the carnival and the nature museum.

I was so happy for that job.

I would bike down there even in the rain, even on days I knew we wouldn’t be flying.  It was that fun to be so close to the choppy water and see the carnival rides all battened down, the lights still glowing in the dark from the night before.  Sometimes I would get there and Mr. G would have already come and gone, which I could tell since the plane would be tied up further down the lake and the “closed for weather” sign would be hanging out on the booth.  Sometimes he’d still be there when I got there though, and we’d sit in the seaplane booth like it was an ice shack in winter—our feet up, leaning back on stools, the radio playing—wondering if we should stay open for business that day, or not.  How many tourists would come?  Enough to make it worth it?  I would really hope that Mr. G would decide to stay open.

Usually in the wake of choppy waters and with me hanging around, Mr. G would put my bike in the back of his truck and take us to breakfast down the highway at a brightly-lit spot on the lake.  I would feel like a princess of the morning, and Mr. G would drop me off at my parents’ house later.

This might all sound creepy, but it wasn’t.  I had a job and I had my hours and I had every reason to be there on time every day of the summer that was flyable.  I loved this job, to sit in the seaplane booth sheltered from the heat with a fan on me, or from the chill with a space heater.  To be responsible for keys—to know that the entire operation shut down when I had to lock up and run across the parking lot to pee.  To sit in the booth even in bad weather with rain coming through the screens having to tell people we weren’t flying…even that was fun.  I always understood when Mr. G thought it best not to fly, or not to fly anymore, and it was at those times when we might duck down the way to a diner for breakfast, or a burger and fries.
Those were pretty top-of-the-world days for me, especially knowing all along that the pilot I sold tickets for was also the sixth grade teacher to some other kids.

That was my best job ever.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Daughter from Nowhere

My daughter calls me from wherever she is; of course I pick up the phone.  I didn’t really know I had a daughter, but I’d always suspected it.  She’s finally found me.

“How can I help you?” I say, piling things up before the cleaning lady comes.

She hesitates like a little seed not knowing what to do with all the dirt piled on top of her.

“Tell me everything,” I say. “Where have you been?”

Mom, my first memory is eating an apple on a doorstep to a new home.  We kept a dog tied up there for a long time.  I was skipping double dutch in the church parking lot when my family pulled alongside me and told me to get in. My brother peed in the milk jug and the five of us pummeled one another all the way there.  Dad parked the car and spanked us once in the rain.

“Oh,” I say. “That must have been tough.  Then where did you go?”  I fold up laundry so the cleaning ladies don’t have to deal with it tomorrow.

Mom, we moved to a whole new world.  Dad said not to stare at the Indians as we drove through town.  I skated on ice rinks and roller skated too; I made out with a cute boy underneath the plastic wrap on a landing pad.  There was another girl there and she did it too.  I flirted with the hockey boys through the wire fence.  My sister found me one time on the Indian Trail; I was smoking one of your cigarettes.  She was sixteen months pregnant.

I grip my teeth and set my jaw, like I do the timer on the stove.  “And then what?” I say.

Oh, and then la la, my daughter says.  I moved to Pennsylvania and then to Washington and then to Alaska and now I’m in Arizona.  I was just wondering how you were doing.

I hedge.  It’s in my nature.  I cannot deal with this honest little human being.  “Do you know who got laid by a thousand men?” I ask.

Alas Kanpipeline, she says. 

“Why not Minot?” I say.

Freezin’ is the reason.

Now I know it’s my daughter.  I kind of  jump for joy.  We can start over again.  “Honey, there’s a man here I want you to meet,” I say.

Is it my dad?

“No,” I say. “It’s better than that.  It’s Woody Allen.  Do you have any memories of Woody Allen?”  My daughter tries to think; I can hear her energy.  She is trying to conjure Woody Allen.  Is that the guy who married his step-daughter and kept a park between himself and Mia Farrow?

I could not be prouder of my daughter than at this time.  “Indeed,” I say, whipping the trees in my front yard with my rugs, dusting.  I go back, way back to the bathroom where Woody likes to hang.

“Hey,” I say to the freak of an individual hanging upside down from my towel rack at Halloween.  “Long time no see.”  Woody folds his wings and tries to be handsome with his face turned towards the ceiling.  His thin t-shirt gives him away.

“Our daughter called,” I say.

What? he bleets.

I feed him a fruit fly, a fat one I’ve been saving off my bananas.  “She found us,” I say.

Well, everybody knows Woody, so it’s no surprise that he just ate the fly and looked at me like it was my fault.  I take a clean towel off the rack because I want to clean again.

“Don’t make me be alone in this,” I say, knowing before the words leave my beak that there is nothing left to do but scratch in the sand. “You do this every time.”

The phone rings again and we look at each other—Woody and me—knowing it’s our daughter.  Neither of us wants to pick up.  She is so happy camping; we don’t know why she would want any part of us.  We look at each other again.  “At least put on the shower curtain,” I say. 

Woody hangs himself on the shower rod.  That was not exactly what I was thinking. 

“Hi Honey,” I say.

Mom, I just wanted you to know that I can keep up good humor in the face of nothingness.  I do look at everyone and try to adjust accordingly.  The absence of you and Dad has helped raise me.  Thank you.

I want to throttle my daughter in this moment.  Where was she when we had picnics by the lake?  Where was she when we were taking notes on what movies won awards at the Oscars?  Was she even in the car all those times?  I pull Woody’s wing and he wakes up. What? he bleets.

“She doesn’t remember us.”

My daughter is still on the phone and I don’t know what to do with her.  I would give her fruit and bits of bread if she wanted, but again, I don’t know.  I fly into a snit, thinking that Woody should get down and I should make things more comfortable.  I mean, if I don’t, at least he should.

“What’s your name?”  I ask my daughter. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bad Examples are the Best Examples of All

I walk into class this morning totally prepared for a different class at another time.  Slightly taken aback at first—dummy—I revert to Plan B of Teaching, which in the old days meant going back to the textbook because the technology didn’t work, but which today means checking in with my students because I need a jump-start.

“Have we learned about quotation format yet?” I thunder.

“NO!” they chorus back.  I hand out candy and begin the lesson.  I hand out markers and soon students are clamoring to write on the board.  “Don’t be afraid!” I shout out over the din. “Bad examples are the best examples of all!”

I close up shop five minutes after the hour, rolling around in my chair, asking a boy not to clean my erasers.  I will do it myself; I don’t want to be viewed as having favorites. Two hours later I’m on the phone with my brother, talking about jail time and death.  It is a real winner of a conversation.  We need to work on transitions.

“Did you hear that new song by Glen Campbell?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. "It made me really sad.”  He pauses.  “Weren’t you in jail when he was?”

“No,” I say, slightly indignant but only to a degree.  “I was in when Martha Stewart was in.”

You look back at those days as fast as two seconds can take and remember feeling sorry for Glen Campbell, not as sorry for Martha, but commiseration with both.  The only thing on your mind these days is why people write “arrived to” rather than “arrived at”.  It is your new mission in life to find out.  You would also like to know how your sister is doing and how your dad is doing and what everybody else is thinking.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Understood Rule

You lie in bed in all of your fifteenishness, arms akimbo, your stomach growling for breakfast on Saturday.  Your parents are out on the breakfast date they’ve been on since 1956.  You heard them leave. You pull the remnants of your own last night—a purple truck and purple drink and your own purple blanket—together around you, and go downstairs to make food.

You can make anything you want and this is an understood rule of the house, as long as you clean up after yourself and do the other things on the list. 

The first thing you do is look for eggs.

Your ability to turn eggs into meals as a sub-adult is quickly laughed off and then marketed by Eggo.  You have never felt more under-appreciated.  You feel the same way when you make chef salad from everything in the refrigerator and suddenly all restaurants country-wide are offering chef salads.

Your story is an old story before you even knew the story existed.


Thirty years later and two thousand miles away, you wake up in the morning.  You are still lying in bed in all your fiftyishness, arms akimbo, your stomach still growling for Saturday breakfast.  Your parents are still out on a date.

Suddenly, your entire life as you know it throws itself on the loveseat you use for decoration, and starts crying.  This is the last thing you need.  It’s not like you punished it.  You turn your head away in hopes of seeing other people suffering more, anything to get you off the hook, but your life continues to throw a tantrum in the loveseat.  Stupid baby.

You get yourself comfortable in a propped-up-chin, leg-look way, ready to hear all the stories and everybody’s excuses.  You can’t wait to hear what everybody thinks.  The polls are open.  You feel like you’re in control in a way you haven’t been in in awhile.  You pull your remnants around yourself, this time clean laundry you left on the bed last night and a few cats who have been experimenting with weightlessness.

“Get up,” you say, draping lifeless forms of cats around you. “Gravity still works here.” 

In the apparent absence of gravity—in the face of everything you know that has worked up to this time but which now has suddenly stopped working—you have to do better.  “Who wants to hear a story?” you burble.  Twin peaks of ears funnel towards you.  You clear the throat that was gifted to you from your father, the same throat that runs with the phlegm and can be heard clearing not only itself but entire cathedrals at certain times of the year. 

You suck up any remaining vestiges of the night, hoping that your weightless children can still benefit from a story, and begin, “There are the people who have killed themselves, and there are the people who haven’t.”  You wipe the inside tears off your glasses.  You set your jaw and gather the purple blanket.  “One time with my back against a wall,” you continue, “and no instruments of survival within my reach, I looked to fire as my friend.  I had been taught against it, the same with knives and friendship, but this was a desperate situation.  I looked for a girl but there wasn’t one; I looked for the bridge that I had been told my grandfather built, one particular pile of stones, but I couldn’t find it either.”

It’s a good start, but you don’t know how to end it, plus it’s your dad’s story, not yours.  You look for boys.

“Thirty years ago I didn’t pay attention to my father’s rules of never using a knife in the wrong direction, never setting a fire unless it’s controlled, never leaving a hazard for someone else to walk into, and never going into the woods without blazing a trail first,” you bludgeon.

You shift around in the sheets you haven’t left yet, a bandage on your thumb.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Still September

You sit at the keyboard of your computer, the same type of keyboard you sat at as a child, although now, it’s not a piano.  You know it better than you ever knew the piano; you think in typeset now, and you time yourself in all important events by how many words per minute.  These are hard habits to break.

You remember your first walk down the sidewalk to your first and only guitar teacher’s house.  He was probably seventy to your eight, your guitar case bigger than you.  You lugged that thing from your house on America Avenue to his house on America Avenue every Wednesday after school.  His main thing was trying to make you better when you were already happy enough the way you were.  In later years, you would liken yourself to Tom Petty when your guitar instructor was trying to make you Eddie Van Halen.

Piano lessons and guitar lessons spiraled into a nightmarish spectacle of not knowing how to do anything except to read.

Read, you could do.  There were clubs for this, and awards. You squeezed the ability to read into the lacking parts of your brain; you learned to play first-chair trumpet with one hand and your lips, you played the guitar by anchoring a pinky…basically you could do anything one-handed that other people saw as only being able to be accomplished by using more than one hand.

You look at abbreviations now very skeptically.  What used to mean something to you doesn’t mean anything to anybody anymore, and what means everything to people now has you asking questions.  But questions do not alight liltingly from your tongue into any conversation.  You are your father’s daughter.  Your eyes always cross and your hair stands on end; your tonsils grab the question back because you should already know.

Yet you have to ask. 

On your own best day when you’re liking yourself to the greatest degree, you liken yourself to a student who puts himself in the path of a bus to say, “I don’t get that.  I don’t get what you’re talking about.”  You start out all snobbish in your answer, then you soften when you realize that it was the bravest of the group who asked the question, and you’re the bus.  What does that mean? 

You were using html code in 1986 to create files and drawers that somehow were supposed to simulate the same thing in real life.  To you, the definitions of these terms were closer to what your parents put money in every week for church and grocery and taxes.  There was a test during senior year and it was the only time you ever cheated.  Okay, it wasn’t.  The mathematical part of your brain kicked in enough for you to get through High School HTML and College Math 100.  You got through without a second language, too. 

You smirked all the way to the line that divided you from the over-achievers.

Math, never having been your strong suit, is the one thing you have to get better at for the good of mankind.  Math is the only thing that saves you in times of trouble when counting counts.  Nobody showed you how to play tennis, but you learned it up against the cement wall.  Nobody has to show you every equation to prove that a certain something is correct. 

You knew how to play cards from the moment your parents needed a third for Merry Widow.

Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Survive September in Arizona

First, you need to be sick in August.  It doesn’t matter what’s wrong with you—a broken heart, a broken arm, a terminal disease, a slumbering addiction coming awake—just as long as blood tests are needed.  One of those tests should be so special that one vial of your blood has to fly cross-country to an equally special testing lab.  The travel of your blood should take place over a long holiday weekend so that your blood dies en route, necessitating more labs as soon as you are available, the nurse says on the phone. But no charge this time.

You go back to your doctor’s office to get a matching bruise on the crook of your other arm.  You are pleased when the nurse calls the following week to say that your blood arrived alive and well at the Special Lab, and that she will be faxing the results to your Special Doctor that very afternoon.  Yay.
You hang up the phone, but it will start ringing again thirty seconds later: it is the nurse trying to fax your home phone number instead of your Special Doctor's.  Your phone will ring like this every six minutes for forty-five minutes—screaming the fax scream every time you pick up—before you will be so moved to call your doctor’s office and inform them of the mix-up.  It will be after-hours, and the fax machine will be on automatic dial all night long.

You turn your phone off, thinking of the unfairness of life. 

You awaken the next morning to texts from your sister in Minnesota featuring photos of massive conifers with their roots in the air, their trunks and branches six inches from your parents’ house, front and back.  Your father’s garden is sitting about even with the roof, balanced on a web of roots, its own roots dangling underneath.  A tornado blew through while you were sleeping; your sister just wants you to know that your parents are okay.

Your heart will tighten, thinking of what could have happened.  You’ll grit your teeth and look at the floor.  You will call your parents and hear how they spent the wee hours of the morning sitting on lawn chairs in the laundry room with a battery-operated radio and a flashlight.


When you feel your own and everybody else’s survival slipping, you’ll need to get out of town.  Go south.  There, in the ruins of mining towns and artificial divides, your eyeglasses will drop from you, breaking themselves.  You always remember to put mishaps this way because, though you don’t speak Spanish, you know from listening that it’s better to say “it fell from me”, not so much “I dropped it.”

You’ll begin the fix by wrapping a long single piece of Scotch tape from the screw part down the ear handle, essentially cocooning that side of your glasses for the butterfly it will never be again.  You’ll repeatedly forget that your glasses no longer have the bendy feature on the broken side; your glasses will break themselves again.  Luckily you have a pipe cleaner on you; you wrap one bristly end around the screw part and bend the rest around your ear.

You’re one step closer to surviving September.  You drive home.

The next morning, after being soothed all night by the steady fall of rain—such a treat in Arizona—you wake up to a flood, another natural disaster: Hurricane Somebody dumping tons of water on your part of the world.  You have never seen a rainy day like this, not in Arizona.  It isn’t long before everything gets canceled and the entire state is ordered to stay home, out of harm’s way, lest the citizenry cause even more problems.

Your own street will flood to the point that your yard is now everybody else’s yard, and their yards are yours.  Stay-at-homers kayak down our river-street; a child floats by in an inner tube.  One family, everybody in swimsuits, has a barbecue in their driveway.  You only know this because your friend comes by in a Ski-Doo to take you out for lunch.

Another week later—how can it be this many into September—you’ll be standing in an eyeglass repair shop with your mangled glasses on the counter.  You’re sure the man waiting on you has seen it all, like you have.  “I bet you’ve seen glasses fixed in a lot of strange ways,” you’ll venture as this man turns your eyewear over in his hands.

“I’ve never seen a pipe cleaner used,” he’ll say.

Oh, you’ll think, pipe cleaner user.

Tomorrow, another flood is in the forecast because of Tropical Storm Stupid. This could happen at any time, even tonight.  For you, it’s just a continued bloodletting, another mosquito sunrise.  Listen to a colleague before you leave work when he brings your mutual flood conversation back to reality: “Well, it’s not like it’s Hurricane Katrina.”  Katrina, the German diminutive that your mother uses when she wants you to know that everything is going to be okay.