Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Story Runs Through It


I lost my brother-in-law in September, a few weeks after Robin Williams in approximately the same way.  For me, that caused a lot of turned-down glances, some grabbing of the face, the cutting of my hair.  It was like everything slowed down and I wanted to avert my eyes from my own life, like it couldn’t have happened at all.  Noises became too loud.

From then to now, there has been a spiral in my spirits, but I have plans to fix myself.  “My biggest apprehension,” I say to a sibling over the phone, “is spending time working on myself, and not getting any better.”

“I totally understand,” she says. “Why go through all the damn work if you’re doomed from the start.”

In this lively, supportive, and convivial manner, my sister and I catch up.  We exchange and compare our news items as they have come to us over the week: our moods, our other siblings, our parents, the newest grandchild, the weather.

“Well, you sound more up,” my sister finally says, after an hour.

“Thanks,” I say. “Happy birthday, a day late.”

*

If one more person dies or another relationship blows up in the near vicinity of me this year, I’m not sure I would be able to take that.  My mom e-mails that my oldest cousin is in the hospital with intestinal blockage.  I get my brother on the phone and we talk about how rotten it would be if another one of us gets cancer.  But that’s all there’s left to do, if we’re counting numbers and keeping track.  It’s going to be one after the other, one thing after the next.

I talk to a high school girlfriend I haven’t seen in months, since I’m going away soon myself and want to keep in touch.  I tell her the story of my brother-in-law’s death, me still sitting catatonically on the couch like it happened yesterday, her on the phone like it couldn’t have happened at all. 

“No, no, no,” she says.  I imagine her eyebrows furrowed.

“That’s what I thought,” I say.  We sit in steady silence, telepathically understanding one another.  It is the most relief I’ve gotten out of life in a year.

I sit with my eyes swimming in tears, taking those deep breaths you take before jumping out of a plane, or saying a permanent goodbye.  There isn’t anyone to talk to because I have talked to everyone already.  



Thursday, December 4, 2014

Kill Me Softly


Now that so many bad things have happened, all my good jokes have been taken away from me.  Can’t talk about death anymore.  Can’t talk about loss.  Can’t sound too negative.  This would make the entire situation worse.

My sister says to me on the phone, “Write something funny!  You always sound so sad or drunk!”  I Elmo myself on the couch with my phone in my hand, once again wishing that someone somewhere would recognize my speech impediment. 

"Well there’s nothing funny to write about anymore,” I burp, slurping down my ninth martini and eating pot like it was Kellogg’s.  “And I personally don’t want to slip up anymore.”

My sister does her dangling-love thing through the phone wires and I respond accordingly.  We kind of know how to deal with one another, but she has more experience than I do because she’s older.  The last thing we want to do is upset our parents.  We would not want to do that.  It is an idea that is drummed into my mind.

I try to think of a funny thing.  I can’t.

*
I sit around and abuse my cats with too much photography.  When the youngest was maybe 12 hours old and I had no idea how to raise or feed him, the shelter-lady who came over for free said, “They don’t like it when you take pictures.  Wait for his eyes to open.”

I hate to be cautioned. 

I pretty much knew I could get my kitten through the early stages.  I ordered the shelter-lady out of my house and proceeded to nipple-feed for two years.  I took wildly flagrant photos of my baby, despite the ill will it would bring to his health. 

I couldn't help myself.

*
Good things are happening, but who wants to hear about the good things.  Who wants to know that my garden is growing.  Who wants to hear the story of when and how I learned to type.  Who needs to be reminded of the heavy strength of a big dog sleeping next to you in the night.

I continue to search for something funny, mining my best Steve Martin lines, my best David Sedaris impersonations.  I cannot find the humor within me.  “Let me try this one on you,” I say to my patient sister on the phone.

“Go ahead,” she says.

“It’s more like a poem,” I say.

“Just read it,” she says.  I already feel arrested.

I love you so much and I have never stopped loving you
not through the spring of absence, not through the summer of wine,
not through the fall of another man. Seeing you now makes me sit up taller,
but my spine straightens and my shoulders go back like this is round four
and I have to win. I check my collar bone to see if I have enough meat on it.
I pull up my sleeves, but I end up taking off my dress.

I finish reading and we wait for a few kindly moments.

“Is that it?” my sister says.

“Yup,” I say.

“Are you alright?” she says.

“Yes.”


We sit there and resonate with one another over the great losses.  We agree that these things can’t bring us down.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Crouch


You pull a pillow to your belly like it was a man and curl up around it.  You check the time—2:22 a.m.—and say to yourself, It’s not time to get up yet.  Two hours later, between the dreaming and the lying that has been taking place between your ears, you reel yourself in from another sleepless night.  You go to make the lights and turn the coffee on.

Your ears have been trained somehow to hear every last loving thing God put on the planet.  Most recently you have been hearing and then totally internalizing the sounds being made around you in the neighborhood.  There has been a lot of Mexican music being played with very heavy bass and strong accordion for a week or a month; even if it had only been played for a night, it would have stuck in your brain with all the beats and rhythms.  At the thought of it, your brain starts chanting the sing-alongs from Girl Scout campfires you were supposed to be at when you were inside your sleeping bag, writing postcards home from your bunk.  You remember willing yourself to stay awake when you were four, full of tomato soup and cheese after lunch, wanting to hear for the millionth time how those kids got away from the stove and the witch.

Sometimes even now, trying to nap is like being at every loud party you’ve ever attended, and then finally getting to retreat to your room, where you can still hear the band from a distance, but it’s not as loud as before.

The noise in your brain can reproduce the cackle of a neighbor’s laugh, the fire engine that went down the street yesterday, and the beat to all Cyndi Lauper songs.  Conversations between multiple people is a barrage of noise to your ears, in memory, when you’re supposed to be working on sleep hygiene.  Recently it’s been more heavy-metal repercussions, because another neighbor got a drum set and all the songs he practices implant themselves in your head too.  Sounds can last a lifetime—dogs barking, heavy bass, a motorcycle up the street, a basketball being bounced.  A dog can be barking and the neighbors cleaning to heavy metal music all day, but you sometimes convince your brain that this is solace.


It is unpunctuated noise.

*

Sometimes as you lie in these states of ill humor, thinking of rose gardens and fishing, the recycle truck comes down the street.  It sounds like a school bus, but it is obviously the recycle truck because God and everyone’s cans and bottles from the week before are now being dumped from bins into the truck itself.  You heard the sounds of neighbors dumping glass and metal into their bins the entire week, on individual nights and mornings.  It’s just louder when the recycle truck comes through and smashes it all together.

What safe days, these days after Thanksgiving, when you can kind of hide if your own Thanksgiving didn’t go especially as planned.  The days after Thanksgiving can be a buffer between how this holiday went and how you want the rest of your life to go.  Not that you have any special powers.

There is the tug and pull of work and temperature, holidays and preparedness, your love for someone and your ability to love something else even more. 

You trundle from the planting beds in your back yard to your own bed, wondering if this will be the day for two showers instead of one.




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.