Friday, December 31, 2010

Delta Blow

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I flew home yesterday from Minnesota to Arizona. Luckily, I had planned far enough ahead to reserve myself an aisle seat, though it was towards the back of the plane. Oh well…at least I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle between two strangers, or tucked against the window, having to crawl over two other people if I needed to get up.

What I couldn’t predict was the slave ship nature of this Delta flight. There were at least 250 Canadians, Midwesterners and Snowbirds smashed into the plane, and we became unsettlingly intimate upon departure, rubbing far more than elbows. Each passenger’s seat was about one square foot, which was fine for the children among us, but the adults couldn’t help but engage in good touch/bad touch. We uneasily felt up our seatmates who, under normal circumstances, we would never have found attractive. Information about our homelands and the loved ones we left behind was forcibly squeezed out of our mouths as our rib cages contracted from the crush of us against each other. Arranged marriages quickly took place to account for otherwise embarrassing exchanges of flesh. That’s what we do Up North.

As Julia Roberts flitted around free, free at last, on the video screens in Eat, Pray, Love, I sat stiffly in my aisle seat, shoulder to shoulder with—as I couldn’t help but discover—an elderly cancer survivor with one and a half lungs and no breasts. Over and over passengers passed me by on their way to the bathroom, big denim-clad butts brushing against my arm, parkas swishing against my head. I have never been so close to so many body parts at once as people of every size and shape pushed down the aisle, rubbing stomachs and butts and hands and crotches against my left shoulder and ear.

When the young couple seated in front of me decided to change their two-year-old’s diaper right there because they were afraid of joining the forced march to the toilet with a toddler, the pungent smell of poo filled the air, making me wish I had chosen an emergency exit seat. When the flight attendants started rationing out drinks, the cart came so close to me that I simply crawled in and stole a few fish and several loaves of bread. They came back later to collect trash; I gave back the bones and the crusts. I would have liked to give back the crumpled and shameful experience of flying Delta, but it was oversized and would have cost me an additional $25.

The 45 calories of pretzels you’ll get during your passage on this airline are not nearly enough to sustain you as you tussle with your seatmates, get shoved down the aisle, and try to protect yourself from the bad touches of good people—especially if you have to watch Julia Roberts gorge herself the entire time. Definitely bring a snack if you can, and don’t forget your loincloth.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Little House on the Scary

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I lie in bed at my parents’ home in Minnesota, cozy in my basement room with the wood paneling and red carpet. Heavy homemade afghans keep me snug under the chenille bedspread and clean white sheets. My head rests on feather pillows.

I’m dreaming deeply when suddenly I’m awakened by some kind of roar or scream. Someone is in great distress upstairs and I can hear it all the way down in my room. I glance at the clock—8 a.m.—and immediately think, My dad is dead. Mom found him dead in bed. This trip is going to last a lot longer than I thought.

I shake off the world of my dream, get dressed, and run upstairs. I peek into my dad’s room: still dark, his body still huddled under the covers. I walk down the hall to find my mother cheerily playing solitaire on the computer in the den. “Who was shouting!?” I say.

“That was your father. He was having a bad dream,” she says. “I found him standing by the dresser, gesturing like a wild man. I rubbed his back and he's sleeping again though.”

“Well is that normal?” I ask.

“Fairly," she says, suffering. "Too much pistachio pudding this time."

Later, when my father is up, we all sit at the kitchen table for breakfast. “What the hell were you dreaming about?” I ask.

“Something about work,” he says, stirring his coffee. My dad is retired from the Forest Service, days when he was in charge. “Something about being a leader, telling people what to do.” He stares at me intently. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you woke me up from a very intense dream too! Some lady had asked me to lunch, and I went because I thought it would help my career, but when we sat down at the restaurant I saw that she had very hairy arms and realized she was a lesbian! I knew she wanted me, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I did eat with her but then I ran back to work, where there were these two guys polishing the floor with this big machine. One of them asked me to lunch too, and I went even though I was full because he was so cute, really big with shaggy blond hair. On the way to the restaurant he stopped to get his mail, and I realized that he was Manly Wilder! When we sat down to eat, he pulled out all these blueprints to show me, and then he said he just polished floors on the side. He was really a courtroom designer. A courtroom designer! Can you believe that?”

My dad shakes his head and purses his lips, a look his five silly children are used to. “You dream crazy,” he says. “I don’t know where you get that from.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hate It When You Leave

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There’s something about preparing your house for your own departure that never feels good. I cancel the paper and stop buying fresh fruit—try to eat up what’s in the fridge—and the heaviness of absence starts hanging around. The leaves on my plants droop and I water the plants, promising to return in a week. I clean the bathrooms for my own return, and start gathering my travel clothes, doing a special load because I haven’t worn those clothes in a year. I make a list of things to do and when to do them for the same man who has been house-sitting and cat-sitting for me for five years. Every year I download this list, update it, and print it out. Every year I come home and my cats are fine.

My cats know me so well that they sense my apprehension about leaving—of course. The suitcases aren’t out yet so the hard evidence isn’t present, but they know. Right now we’re playing the Sophie’s Choice game: who does Mom love most, who can irritate her the most but still find love, and who is demonstrating calm and collected love, not hysterical love. I just cleaned their entire bedroom (yes, they have their own) and witnessed the battle of the wills when it came to who could sit closest to the vacuum cleaner without running like a screaming mimi away first. Mom was making it noisy; could it be that bad? Had either of them ever suffered physical consequences from Mom running the vacuum? Noooo. But Lucy bailed first, no surprise. She’s no pin-up like Sara. She’s not cool like that.

I’m heading to Minnesota. The regular family questions have already trickled down here to Arizona: How many kids do we have on Christmas Eve? How much noise will Dad be able to stand? Did you get presents for everybody or not? I didn’t either…good. Do you think So-and-So will be able to make it, you know, despite the troubles? Are you bringing food? Are you going to church? No. Me either. Good. You know Mom wants us all to go. I know.

It’s just not me anymore.

I pack my thick cotton Minnesota lounging clothes and know they’ll get me through an unexpected storm, an unexpected two or three nights snowed in, and a mass I didn’t want to attend in the first place. There I’ll be on Christmas Day, warm and cozy at my parents’ house, setting out the smoked salmon and the herring, cutting up the cheese, waiting alone for the more disciplined members of my party to return.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


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My friend Flossy came over for brunch today. At 87, she is the most outgoing, assertive, compassionate, and well-dressed woman I know. She likes to say that we used to be “roofmates”, since we lived in adjacent condos from 1998 to 2002. I like to say that she taught me the art of chit-chat.

Flossy is one of those older women who loves to visit…with anybody. Think of yourself standing impatiently in a grocery store line—or tapping your foot, checking your watch and rolling your eyes in a restaurant—and I would bet money Flossy had something to do with it. It used to bother me to no end when we’d go out for lunch and she would spend what seemed like forever visiting with the waitress. During one lunch a few years back, the visiting started during the ordering process, started up again every time the attentive waitress returned, went into full force when the food arrived cold, reared its ugly head again during the Delivery of the New Meal stage, and continued on and on during Flossy’s Acceptance of the Apology and Free Meal Coupon stage. That lunch, I really didn’t get a word in edgewise, and I told her how I felt.

“You embarrassed me,” I said.

She leveled me with a stare that I’m sure only comes from owls before they decide to eat a rat. “It’s called being social,” she said. “You could work on that yourself. And you never know—I might have been the only person who engaged that young woman in conversation today. She could have a lot of personal problems and I was the only person who showed interest in her today.”

So this is how the world works.

I have since swallowed a few chill pills. Instead of slumping in my chair and looking glum in Macy’s shoe department when Flossy takes visiting to a whole new level with another customer, not even a sales rep, I wander off and look for bright tops. She thinks I need more of those too, to go along with the manners she taught me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Always Remember

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An old boyfriend came to town this week, and when I say “old”, I mean super old. He’s 63! What happened to when I was 22 and he was 44, we lived in Alaska for the fun of it, and dating an older man seemed exotic? What happened to when he had two kids, not four…when I had two boyfriends, not zero…when seeing him made my heart warm up and turn over instead of leaping into my throat for fear he would slip and fall and break a hip? Gone were those mysterious snowy Alaska days when I was still impressed with a man who added canned vegetables to his spaghetti to make it healthier. Long gone.

“Mac” was in town for a golfing vacation and he invited me to join him and his friends for dinner at the mini-mansion one of them owns in far north Scottsdale. This is the kind of house where you feel as if you have money too, just by the very fact of being there. You must have money to have somehow finagled an invitation to this Tuscan retreat with the negative edge pool and well-contained fires in every corner. I do not have money (let it be known) so I waltzed in with what I have instead: a helpful nature. The lady of the house was bent over a cutting board, slicing tomatoes with the blade coming towards her hand. “Hello and oh my God!” I said, walking in. “You should never cut towards yourself! Never ever. Always slice away from yourself. Do you want me to do it? My dad taught me how.”
Mac told her my name and she gave me the knife; I was inside the circle, building Insalata Caprese.

But later I had to run back to the bedroom that I would or would not be sharing with Mac, which of course had its own bathroom, sitting area, library, and shower for seven. I attempted to wash my hands and noticed that Mac had not yet twisted open the new bottle of hand soap by the sink. He had been there for three days and evidently had not been washing his hands after going to the bathroom. My head cocked, my face twisted up, and I ran with the unopened bottle to the lady of the house: “Do you see this?” I tiny-shouted. “Mac has not been washing his hands after using the bathroom!” I quickly tracked down Mac, who suggested that he had instead been showering after each use of the toilet.

I was not impressed or convinced, two of my basic jobs in life.

And much later, sitting outside around a beautiful table with a fire built right into the middle of it—I use candles myself, but evidently that’s out of fashion—I realized, once again, that you bring yourself wherever you go. You can’t help it; you’re attached to yourself. If you’re lucky like me, you end up in the company of six other people who celebrate you for being friends with a guy for twenty years, a guy they have loved for fifty, even though he doesn’t wash his hands. Even though—short on hair, sunburned from golfing and stiff with a bad back—he still cannot pick the right girl.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sneezed To Meet You

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I sneezed this morning and accidentally fractured a bone in my hand. That’s because when I sneeze, my entire body automatically convulses and I end up in a pose looking much like Michael Jackson did at the end of his dance routines. This morning I happened to sneeze in the bathroom and knocked the towel rod off the wall when I beat it.

My sneezes are so loud and spasmodic that even at their beginning, with the first gasps that precede them, my cats dive for cover. The three of us can be enjoying a cozy curl-up in my recliner at night, watching the murder shows on Investigation Discovery, when my pre-sneeze sharp intakes of breath send them flying. I can’t blame them because I usually end up face-down in my recliner after the attack, tangled in the comforter.

I inherited grand mal sneezing from my dad. Since he weighs more than I do, he is not so prone to flying around, but his sneezes are so loud and sudden that they can ruin the festive nature of his grandchildren’s birthday parties, causing the little ones to cry. My mother—a small woman—sometimes has to be fetched from the other room, where she has either been blown by the force of her husband’s sneeze, where she is seething at this affront to her birthday party senses, or both.

I’ll do anything to avoid sneezing in front of others, especially my students. I will resist a sneeze to the point of appearing autistic, tapping my head against the white board or spinning down the aisles to check homework. A teacher doesn’t want her students to think she’s prone to inappropriate fits of break-dancing. A teacher doesn’t want her students to think she’s human.

But students sneeze all the time in class, and they think nothing of it. We hear the squeaks, the peeps, the roaring A-CHOOOO’s, and inevitably another student will say, “Bless you.” The sneezer will be thankful for this blessing, and class will go on.

I used to say “Bless you” when my students sneezed, but not anymore. I hesitate to bring God into the classroom for fear of getting fired. But I’m quick with a Kleenex and “Gesundheit”, and sometimes I’ll say, “Didja get any on ya?”, like my dad always said when we were kids. This leaves my students staring at me as if I was a stranger from a strange land, which…being from Minnesota…I guess I am. It’s the lesser of so many other evils.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Clicking My Heels

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I’ve been out of sorts lately, mean and ornery, and I think I know why: I’ve been cheating on my old gym. I didn’t want to tell anybody because the firemen there are like friends to us now…why would I turn my back on them?...and my new gym has such a bad reputation for being shallow and fake. The only reason firemen ever go there is to resuscitate young women whose lungs have given out under the weight of their false breasts.

So now I admit that for the past couple months, I’ve been working out at a big famous gym, located directly across the street from my house. It was easy, like an affair with a neighbor. I could come home from work, duck in for a quickie, and actually be home earlier than usual. I could sneak over there on the weekends and be home before anybody noticed I was gone.

The new gym had glitzy locker rooms, big-screen TVs, and tons of machines on which you could exercise in any position you could ever imagine. The problem was that so many people were attracted to this place, it would get really warm in there. It would get hot. The women would glisten and pant; the men would get all pumped up and sometimes they’d shout. I would get distracted and then not concentrate on what should have been important to me: my family, my abs, my work, and the healthy, predictable patterns of my daily life. No matter how boring all that might be sometimes, it’s still my core strength, and I had been wooed away.

Yesterday I broke up with the fancy new place and drove my car back down to the old predictable place to renew my membership. The TV’s are smaller there, the machines aren’t new, and the lockers are metal, not wood. The teenage girl at the front desk chirped, “You didn’t miss much!” and the massage guy came running to pick me up and hug me, my feet dangling two feet off the ground. “There’s just something about you,” he said. “Something good.”

There’s no place like home.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Don't Mess With Me

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Popular names when I was a kid, when I was growing up, were names like Missy, Eric, Michelle, Laurie, and Jeff. I lived in Minnesota back then, so I guess you could say those names were popular in Minnesota during the 70’s and 80’s. Andrew, too. And Denise.

Now I’m 42 and teach college courses in Phoenix, Arizona. The names of female students become just a little edgier every year, a little weirder, more and more misspelled. A glance at recent online rosters reveal Kelsie, Mimi, Ariel, Chyna, Cadence, and Sunny. Thankfully for the young gentlemen, their parents have been more traditional: we have Michael, Adam, Phillip, Justin, and Paul.

There was, however, one young man in one of my on-campus classes a few years back whose name gave me pause. His name was Blair. He looked like a witch project coming straight for you, anybody would've agreed. He had one perfect feature—bright blue eyes—but other than that, he was all scary movie: acne, greasy hair slicked into a shark fin Mohawk, clothes right out of the dirty laundry, dumpy fat, just a Pigpen of a guy with fangs.

Blair never talked much, but one day he had to do some talking because when I passed back graded essays, I noticed that I didn’t have one for him. “Blair,” I said. “Do I have an essay from you?” He shook his head and said, “No, I didn’t do that one. I couldn’t think of a good topic.”

I looked at him like he’d just told me he had to change his last name because people didn’t like the sound of “Dahmer”.

“What?” I said. “You didn’t do it? You can’t just not do it. You can’t just skip a unit.” I spit out those last words: skip a unit. Skip a unit. Lick dirty feet. What the hell kind of a world did he think he lived in? Skip a unit. Eat dirty poop.

“Well you said we only have to complete three out of four units, and I didn’t like this one, so I didn’t do it.”

Didn’t like it? Didn’t do it? Smelly poopy pants.

At this point I’m sure I was looking at him like he was pissing on my feet. I was Linda Blair in a face-off with the Blair I Didn’t Do My Witch Project. Everything was fecal and rank and wrong, retarded and Siamese evil, evil.

“I didn’t say you could just skip a unit,” I said, measuring my words. “I said if you fail three units, you can’t pass the class. That doesn’t mean you can skip one.” Rotten smelly fart. Shit finger. “You’re going to have to speak with me after class!”

And I was going to have to go home and take a shower. Skip a unit my ass.