Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pollyanna Pouts

In the morning I move my philanthropy, my Neanderthal, my duodenum, wait wait, my philodendron, yes, my last fly-infested hanging plant outside to join the other patients on the patio ward. I was hoping she wouldn’t succumb like the others; I’ve had her since 1998, the year I bought my first house. She’s been through everything with me—the moves, the divorce, all manner of drunken horseplay, but—like me—she lived through it all with few complaints, managing to grow and mature despite the dark corners. She’d get a little bushy now and then, sprout a wild tendril or a yellow leaf, but what girl doesn’t.

I walk her through the house with a heavy heart, my sick baby crawling with flies in her crocheted swing. I open the sliding glass doors and leave her outside, sitting on top of my plastic utility cupboard in the one hundred degree heat. If she was a real baby, I would be arrested. If she was a puppy, I would be reviled. But it’s either me or her, and if she doesn’t make it, at least I thought to amputate some of her shoots before shoving her into the oven. At least I still have those, rooting for her in a vase.

I come back inside, into the coolness of my house, and go to shower. Standing naked with water cascading all around me, I glance at the label on my shampoo and notice that it guarantees to preserve my sanity—that’s what it says on the bottle—and I think, how smart of me to choose this brand. This is exactly what I need. I happily clean myself and wash my hair, but since it seems almost too good to be true, this cleverly appropriate shampoo, I look at the label again. I have transposed the letters to make “sanity” out of “satiny”. Disappointed, I chastise myself for being so na├»ve, for always believing in the impossible.

It's not even noon.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back to School

Yesterday was my first day back to school, which I started by spraying bathroom air freshener all over my head. In my excitement, I’d grabbed the Glade instead of the Garnier. I didn’t want to add hairspray on top of that, so I went to campus a little flyaway, yet disinfected and citrusy. When I got to the English Department, the AC was not working very well: I walked in to find office workers and faculty members moving about in slow motion, smiling their welcome-back smiles through sheens of sweat. I joined this halting parade, killing 99.9% of the germs and viruses in my path.

Once in the classroom, it was back to offering myself up to the gods of America’s Future. I made myself call out all of my students’ names, first and last, mangling them as I went, hoping that the laugher at my expense would go in the bank so I could withdraw it later when my students start disliking me for the grades they get. I left my last class of the day with sagging sanitized hair, chapstick caked around my mouth, and sweaty feet. Yum.

Yet, it was a good day. A very good day. Teaching is one thing that I can say I was born to do, despite what anybody else might say. Going into a classroom to face twenty-five representatives of America who expect me to further them along whatever path they’re on is, for the most part, a complete pleasure on my part. And when it’s not a pleasure—when the grades are not good or I accidentally make fun of someone’s birth defect or I wear my shirt inside out—the saving grace is just being there, lost in teaching. I could always teach and forget a broken heart for at least those 75 minutes; I could teach and not feel terror that my dad had cancer. I had to teach a few days after my cat died and I didn’t cry for 75 minutes in a row, which was a record at the time.

So here is to a new school year: the hesitant laughter and forgivable errors, the flying time and unplanned pregnant pauses—the lessons in public speaking, both intended and not.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Say No Go

Last week I read a headline in the newspaper: “Mall ban on starting chitchat is quashed” (http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/nation/100691894.html) I thought, a chitchat ban? Is this where we’re headed? If so, there goes my last chance of ever finding a new friend or a man to love. If chitchat is banned in malls—and then grocery stores and gyms—then I will be rendered mute in the world outside my home.

Not that the world is a particularly chatty place to begin with. I go to the gym and get my nerve up to say hi to a man, then I see his ears are plugged, wires dangling down to his MP3 player. Everybody’s wearing ear buds or headphones. Am I supposed to use sign language to chitchat with people at the gym? The only sign language I know are the letters “a”, “b”, and “c”. I’m sure I’d make a lot of new friends that way, running around signing “ABC! ABC!” Somebody get that spelling girl out of here.

Even if people at the gym aren’t wearing ear buds, who really looks you in the eyes anymore? Stare at anybody longer than two seconds and they think you’re a freak. Up until just recently I’d been making a point to smile at one elderly Indian lady at my gym, a silent and glum-looking member of our Silver Sneakers club. It was my project to make this lady know that I noticed we worked out at the same time, and I remembered her face: we were in this together! At first she kind of smiled back, but after several encounters with my pearly whites, she conveyed with her narrowed eyes and curled lip that she was displeased with the attention, so I knocked it off.

Pretty much the only people I chitchat with anymore are receptionist-types and check-out clerks—trapped people. Yesterday I showed the big purple and green bruise on my knuckle to the girl ringing up my stuff at the health food store: “Look at this!” I said, shoving my gnarly contusion in her face. “I accidentally punched the armrest on the treadmill!”

“Oh my God!” she screamed. “That looks like it hurts!”

“It does,” I said, breathing in my daily dose of chitchat. “It hurts a lot.”

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Neighbor Man

I greet the day by hauling in the houseplants that I banned to the back patio last week, hoping that the fruit flies and their offspring living in the dirt have been incinerated in the Arizona heat. My cat, Sara, greets the day by parading around on her hind feet with her front legs punching the air, a stuffed toy in her jaws, prancing and dancing and waving like Geoffrey Rush on the trampoline in Shine. She has the mouse, she has the mouse, God love her, she has the mouse. She is ten feet tall.

The pest control guy arrives and I tell him that I think I have found the breeding grounds for my fruit flies: they are eating, preying, and fornicating in the houseplants. I know this because there were very few flying around this past week, and now—with the plants back inside—a slow but steady wing-whipped energy has risen inside my home, emanating from the near-dead plants. All we have to do is look at the dirt to see that it’s moving, so we take the plants back outside. The question remains though: Where did the fruit flies come from in the first place? I don’t have any fruit trees on my property, I wash all the fruit and vegetables from the grocery store, I do not keep dirty dishes in the sink, and my indoor garbage can is covered. The pest control guy—“Josh”—asks if we can take a look over at my neighbor Steve’s house, because he has a lime tree that grows next to the wall that separates our property. I call Steve and he says sure, come on over, he knows this doesn’t have anything to do with him because he never sees fruit flies inside his house unless he leaves dishes in the sink “for too long”, which he rarely does. So come on over.

Josh and I step across my weed-free, decorative gravel-covered side yard into the weed-infested, beer-can and cigarette-butt covered yard that belongs to Steve. Steve meets us out front and we all peer together through the crooked slats of his decaying wooden fence that butts up to my smart cinder-block wall like a homeless person passed out in front of a bank. Steve grabs onto the gate and rocks it back and forth until the slats open further, offering us an even better view of his back yard. There’s the lime tree with fresh fruit on the branches and rotting fruit on the ground. Spiders scatter everywhere, running up and down the fence, some toward Steve’s house and others in the opposite direction to mine. The grass is mixed with weeds, all up to our waists. I am sure Steve has a dead body or two hidden back there. He must; there is no other use for this land.

“There you go,” Steve says.

“Thanks,” we say, and retreat quietly back to my house.

Josh starts with, “Well, some people have a higher tolerance…,” and I stop listening. Higher tolerance for what? Filth? Plague? Insects that fly into their ears and mouth? Some people like that stuff? Huh? Josh tells me to have a talk with my neighbor about cleaning up his property because that will probably cut down the fruit flies, not to mention the spiders and jiggers and scorpions that are also starting to pop up.

Steve calls me later to find out what the pest control guy said, and I tell him.

“But seriously, I don’t have any fruit flies in my house!” he says.

“Do you have any fruit, Steve?”

“No.”

“Any houseplants?”

“No."

“Any fresh food at all?”

“No.”

“Do you ever cook anything to even create dirty dishes in the first place?”

“No.”

“Well figure it out, Steve!” I am nearly hysterical. “Your tree is growing the fruit flies, then they’re flying over here to live! They’re born over there and they move over here! I’m hosting your frickin’ fruit flies, man.” I quiet down. “Jesus Christ, Steve. Either clean your shit up or feed ‘em yourself. Frickin’ be a neighbor, man.”

“Hey, okay, settle down. I’ll clean the place up.”

Sometimes you just have to speak the language.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Heavy Fuel

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been noticing the smell of gas in my car. I’ve pooh-poohed this smell, glancing around at intersections for offending 18-wheelers. However, today as I drove around town, my dura began to ache, and there seemed to be an oil slick forming on my palate. By the time I arrived at my massage appointment this afternoon, bittersweet fumes had filled up my senses. I walked headily across the parking lot, still hoping that whatever reeked of gasoline was not my car.

“I’m here for my Rejuvenating Massage,” I said at the front desk.

I was quickly led down the hall to a room, where I disrobed and climbed onto the table like an unfortunate pelican. My massage therapist came in, a new girl to me, and immediately started digging her fingers into my back. I wondered if she could smell the gas like I still could. After awhile I couldn’t smell anything anymore because the fumes coming off my hair had stuffed up my nose. I breathed through my mouth and could taste gas. I tried to relax.

I had asked for the Rejuvenating Massage and I’m sure the blood was rushing back to my spine from wherever it had been hiding all day, but my massage therapist was hurting me. She repeatedly jabbed two fingers into the flesh on my back and pushed them over my ribs, bumpity bump bump. I should have told her immediately that this did not feel good, but I didn’t, for the same reasons I stayed married too long. For the same reasons I was driving around in the Exxon Valdez.

Finally, my eyeballs swimming in rainbow swirls, I mustered the courage to tell her the truth.

“I think the pressure might be a little too much,” I tiny-shrieked.

I think I’ll call my mechanic tomorrow.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Return to Me

I drive back from visiting gracious friends in their lovely world states away, afflicted with a serious case of the Shoulds. I drive and think, I should wash the dirt off my house because it looks like Pigpen lives there. I should always leave extra rolls of toilet paper out. I should stop subscribing to celebrity magazines; that’s just junk for my brain. I should get out there and volunteer. I should buy grown-up furniture. I should set up Pandora so I never hear another song I don’t like. I should eat more quinoa because it’s perfect. I should stop making cruel fun of people. What’s wrong with me?

I come in the house dragging my heart and my suitcase. My cats, Sara and Lucy, are waiting for me on their backs, eight furry legs waving hello. Hi Mom. We forgive you. After the loving, after some unpacking and a quinoa-free Hot Pocket, I get down on the floor to play with them. I absentmindedly toss a small red rubber ball against the wall. It returns to me and I begin playing a game of catch with myself, the wall my imaginary friend tossing the ball back. It’s been years since I have played this type of game, maybe 30 years since I last threw a ball against a wall because I had nothing better to do and no one to do it with. A thought crosses my mind—I’m making a useless thumping noise in my own house and I like it—when Sara leaps off the couch to join me, Sara the feline Flying Wallenda. I toss the ball against the wall and whoosh there Sara goes, into the air in a stunning arc, bending it like Beckham. She gets the ball, she chases the ball, she scores. I toss the ball again and Sara flies into the air, Geoffrey Rush at the height of his schizophrenic glee.

We play like this for awhile until I notice Lucy, my wallflower. She sits, staring blankly, mesmerized by the air. I slide my free hand under a magazine and wiggle my fingers; she takes a full minute to coil herself into a loose spring, slowly pouncing on the paper, the only trick she knows. Wild thing, I think. You make my heart sing.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Roadrunning

I drove from Arizona to Blanding, Utah, today and am pleased to say that all of my personalities have arrived in one piece. What took me most by surprise as the day wore on was how wide of an age range I’m capable of in just a twelve hour period. I started the day as a 42 year old hausfrau, unplugging appliances and kissing cats goodbye, but just an hour later there was a teenager driving my car, stuffing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich down her face and trying to use the cell phone at the same time. Later on I stopped to gas up and stared at my reflection in the restroom mirror: a somber elderly Indian woman stared back. Evidently we’d been chewing betelnut.

My middle-aged self was back to check us into this Super 8; that was me with the hunch on my back, dragging the suitcases and the food box up the stairs. But who was that dark-haired little girl sitting alone at the family restaurant later on, ordering a cheeseburger with fries, wolfing down her food so she could run around outside before it got dark? How did she get old enough to stay in a hotel all by herself? And why was she wearing those white orthopedic sneakers?

When I got myself settled back in the hotel room, almost ready for bed, I took one last look around at the scattered evidence of who I am: a multi-colored pill box the size of an appetizer tray, candy bars and ponytail holders, a tube of homeopathic pain-relief gel, bananas and granola for breakfast, a wet bikini next to white sturdy shoes. An atlas open to Utah.

I’m about to do my stretches, as usual, and know that none of this is a stretch at all.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hate for Teacher

Online students harass me much more often and with more gusto than on-campus students, and I love them for that. Perhaps my on-campus students are scared off by the vertical “expression lines” that divide my forehead into three distinct panels; perhaps it’s my sharp tongue and biting wit (“wouldn’t win any orator contests” writes one student on ratemyprofessors.com). Whatever makes them hesitate to raise my ire or approach me with a problem larger than a dull pencil—-whatever exists as a barrier between me and the students who sit in my classes—-does not exist between me and my online students. Many of my online students seem to think of me as a faceless, limbless, highly fickle and unfair blob with no human feelings who calls the shots as they e-mail their way through first-year composition, otherwise known as Internet English 101.

Today I was e-assailed by Cheyanne, another underprivileged child born to uneducated parents who knew the name had a horse-running-free-on-the-prairie ring to it for some reason, or who pulled her name out of a crayon box and couldn’t remember how it was spelled when they signed the birth certificate. Cheyanne wrote:

Ms. Mohler,

I am quite frustrated with the responses I am receiving. In the first essay my problem was comma splices and in this essay I did not have enough commas. Can you please explain my errors. Some of the commas I feel should not be there and some of the commas should.

Ms. Mohler responded:

Actually, there is no such thing as "having enough" or "not having enough" commas. There are correctly used commas, incorrectly used commas, and missing commas. To learn more about commas use, you should check out the links on our class web site, or do a simple Google search (which always results in many good comma-use sites). The back of your textbook also contains a helpful punctuation section. Since English 101 is not a grammar class, I do not focus on teaching grammar and punctuation; you are already supposed to possess those basic skills. I understand, though, that many students struggle in these areas, which is why I offer some guidance and suggestions (and some editing assistance).

If you have more specific questions, please let me know.
Take care,
Kate

I know that upon first reading this exchange, you might think that no real problem exists, that this student is simply seeking out some friendly clarification, and once she receives it, she will say “thank you” and retreat from the light. However, I know better, because I’ve been teaching online courses for fifteen years. I know very well what Cheyanne really means:

Dear you bitch,

I’m trying my f***ing best to juggle work and school and three kids and a boyfriend who’s a drunk and you’re telling me that my f***ing commas are incorrect. I didn’t take this class to f*** around with somebody like you who doesn’t give a shit about my life and who gets paid a shitload of money to just sit there and f*** me over because I can’t use a f***ing comma. I’m going into debt here to pay for my education so I can move out of this shithole and make a better life for myself and my kids and you’re out there telling me to Google my comma shit. If commas matter that f***ing much to you then why don’t you just show me where they f***ing go.

And here is what I could have written:

Dear incorrectly spelled Cheyanne,

I’m sorry you’re frustrated, and you have every right to be. The fact is, in my humble opinion, you were totally short-changed in grade school all the way through high school when you should have been taught how to write, including all the basics like how to use a comma. If you had been my little girl, I would have raised holy hell at your school if your teachers were not providing you with such basic knowledge. And, if I had been your teacher, I certainly would have taught you myself. However, for reasons that remain unclear, nobody made sure that Cheyanne learned how to use commas, and now you are earning very low grades in this college course because of it.

It’s not my job to teach you how to use commas. It’s my job to hold up a series of hoops and see if you can jump through them. If you can, then you can proceed with your college education. If you can’t, then you will have to take English 101 over and over again, either with me or with another hoop holder, until somebody either decides you’re ready to pass and move on, or is too tired to care anymore and passes you anyway. The truth is, if you’re patient enough and keep coming up with the cash, sooner or later you’ll find the college instructors who will keep passing you through no matter how well or poorly you perform, and—-just like you got your high school diploma—-eventually you’ll get your college degree. It happens all the time like that.

So buck up, Cheyanne (no pun intended!). Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

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