Sunday, February 27, 2011

Smiles, Everyone--Smiles

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When I was a graduate student back in the ‘90s, one particularly stern and unforgiving professor would not cut students a break on anything. We assumed he had purposefully eliminated joy from his life so that he could concentrate all the more on ripping our papers to shreds and belittling us in the classroom, semester after semester. This was a man who did not chit-chat, and who certainly never admitted error. We assumed he ate bricks for breakfast and lived in a dungeon off-campus.

So we raised our eyebrows and said nothing one afternoon when he walked in late for class, his left hand wrapped in a mitten of white gauze. He walked to the podium, set down his bag, and stared at his white bandage. “My three year old daughter wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he began. “I was cutting it in half when I sliced open my hand. This did not faze my daughter, who took no notice of the blood pouring out.” He looked up. “She just wanted the sandwich.” I wanted to feel sorry for him, or at least some warmth, but it was too late: he’d been hard on us for too long. I only knew him as a jerk, albeit a smart one.

I always remember this story when I start to feel similarly misunderstood. When my students start hating me, my house is a mess, my patio door won’t slide, my hot water heater is producing one thimble of hot water per day, my sciatic nerve is inflamed, my joints are stiff, my heart is breaking, my spirit is low, my mail-order prescription for Solve-It-All is lost somewhere in Alabama, and the sergeant in me is forcing my soldier to buck up and carry on no matter what, I think to myself, poor me, poor me. I work so hard and try to do good and all I get is a hard time. My whole life is work, work, work—I do it all for everybody else—and this is the thanks I get. I make sandwiches for the world, then stab myself…and nobody knows or cares. At least that’s how it feels.

But then my level-headed niece from Tucson drives up to give me chocolate kisses and a chrysanthemum. She convinces me to buy ten Solve-It-All pills at the drugstore for fifty bucks because even though my insurance won’t pay for their own delivery mistake, I need to be able to walk again. A fresh rain falls in Arizona, and I finally get a good night’s sleep. My cats—who have been licking my tears for days—are so happy to see me smile that they dash through the house, knocking stuff over, scooting their smelly butts over every rough surface with their hind legs high in the sky: Team Wallenda back in action. I just laugh.

I want to apologize to that professor from long ago for not caring as much as I could have about his injury. I should have known that teachers are people too. Maybe he'd made the mistake of forgetting that students are also people, which I now know is easy to do. In memory of my best friend who passed away this week—who set the standard for giving her best to others and maintaining a positive attitude, and who never gave in to the poor-me’s—I raise my tea cup to her feisty spirit and say, “Don’t forget to let me know what it’s like out there. You said you would. And thanks for being the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Industrial Disease

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Today was a day for chores, both indoors and out. I started in the kitchen by sticking my hand down the garbage disposal, which had been making a funny noise akin to gargling rocks. It would have been perfect for “the secret sound game” on a radio station—nobody would have guessed what was stuck in there. Making sure that the disposal was definitely off, I pushed my hand through the black rubber sleeve hoping that a mangled chicken fetus was not waiting for me in the cruel womb of my sink. Or maybe it was a nuclear sewer roach with a super-tough exoskeleton.

I poked around in the disposal, scraping scum off metal with my fingernails. Gross. But I found something. I pulled it out—again hoping not to see bone of any kind, beaks or cloven hooves—and was happy to be holding a mangled plastic bottle cap. Since I wash and reuse my plastic bottles, it was no surprise to see this cap, now gnawed and distorted beyond recognition. I tossed it in the recycle bin and then, without thinking, I stuck my finger in my ear because it itched.

I dug around in my ear for a moment or two until the thought crossed my mind, Probably a lot of germs in that disposal. Greasy germs from raw chicken and rotten cottage cheese. Why are you transferring all of those germs into your ear? Do you want fungus growing in your ear along with all the other problems you have?

I took my finger out of my ear and washed my hands in the sink, then headed outside for some fresh air and other jobs I’d been putting off. First I scrubbed the pigeon poop off the patio, flinging the milky poop-water off the cement with my brush. Then I got my weed spray and hunched around the front and back yards, Quasimodo Lawncare. Sometimes I pulled weeds and put them into my bucket, sometimes I sprayed weeds, and sometimes I pulled weeds I’d already sprayed because it was hard to keep track of everything going on.

Finally I straightened up but swayed with lightheadedness; ammonia from the urine of a thousand splendid stray cats had filled up my senses. I stood still for a minute while the world righted itself, then scratched my nose. It was more than a scratch though; this was a smashing of my dirty fists into the sides of my nostrils so that my nasal cavities stuck together and parted, stuck together and parted. I rubbed my nose until it was practically inside out, and ground my knuckles into my eyes. Allergies.

Then I thought to myself, People worry about chemicals and bacteria and you’re out here practically bathing in them. Why? Why must you insist on rubbing animal waste and weed killer into your moist tissues? Remember the frog in Erin Brockovich? Do you want to be Erin or do you want to be the frog?

I really didn’t have an answer to that. I like to work barehanded. I’m not going to let the pigeons and stray cats and weeds of the world make me suit up.

As the sun...another hazard from which I was not protected...sank lower in the sky, I gathered my yard supplies and put them away. Taking my chances by their grubby little hands, we walked to the house, my better judgment one step behind.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dances With Wools

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A rite of passage in our house, back in Minnesota, was learning how to do laundry. You knew your carefree afterschool or Saturday hours were over once Mom led you down to the basement and showed you how to sort darks and lights and brights. The five of us kids accepted this new grown-up task as a matter of course and quickly picked up on the basics: only use the dryer if the temp was below freezing outside, otherwise hang everything on the clothesline. Don’t let a dry load sit because it’ll wrinkle. Don’t let a wet load sit because it’ll get moldy. We believed that black mold could form in a matter of minutes and certainly didn’t want to get blamed for that; likewise, we didn’t want to get stuck ironing an entire load of sheets. We listened for the buzzer or we set timers in the kitchen, then dashed up and down the basement steps, one-person assembly lines from full hampers to carefully folded piles of clothes. We did not work together at laundry because my mother knew that someday we would be on our own, so we might as well get used to it now.

By the time it was my turn to learn the ropes, the older kids were out of the house and I was only in charge of laundry for three: me and my parents. It was just enough work to nurture my burgeoning obsessive-compulsive disorder: Oh how I loved to snap those warm dry jeans before folding them into perfect squares, piled up for my father’s drawers. Since the older kids were gone, we could afford better clothes, which meant that some were delicate and needed special cycles. Some pants and shirts couldn’t even go in the dryer or get hung outside: they had to be laid flat. I was more than happy to put down a towel and arrange a silk-blend sweater on top, arms stretched out like an angel. My mother and I bonded over this new phase of laundry-doing, heightened with risk but rich with so many rewards. My father would come home at night to find damp clothes lying all around the house, air-drying on the couch, on the kitchen table, on our beds. He got with the program and bought some new wool deer hunting clothes—bright orange pants and jackets—knowing that for the first time in twenty-five years of marriage, he would not have to pussyfoot around the woods in highwater pants shrunk by his children over the years, or tight jackets with sleeves that only reached to his elbows. He could be an even manlier hunter than he was before.

And then came the man who would become my ex-husband. Always impeccably dressed in ironed shirts and creased pants, he exuded sartorial confidence from the start, with a gold necklace and a thousand-dollar watch to match. When we were first dating, I peeked into his laundry room and saw shirts hanging neatly on hangers, jeans folded and stacked, socks matched and rolled together. The washer and dryer themselves could not have been cleaner. They sparkled. I was in love.

As my husband’s secrets and our brief marriage began to unravel, it became important for us to keep up a good laundry front, this at the very least. We weren’t sleeping in the same bed anymore, but we both had clean sheets tucked in military-style. We weren’t speaking, but we sat on the couch and snapped our clean t-shirts, folding them in silence. Our good sweaters dried perfectly flat as we circled each other, bottles of Shout in our hands.

Eventually I discovered that my ex-husband was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a weak and dishonest man who put on a false front for as long as he could, much like a dickie. The man who did laundry like a professional maid was qualified to do that and nothing more, as it turns out. No wonder he fought for half my pension and spousal support towards the end, trying so hard to take me to the cleaners. “I have to protect myself,” he whined, his wool worn thin, his story full of holes.

Now, years later, free of that tangled mess, I have my own house again with my own washer and dryer. I wash whites and darks together—sorry Mom—but can’t shake the precision of drying: delicates still get hung up, nothing gets shrunk, and nothing gets wrinkled. You won't find a basket of clean laundry sitting for long, and you’ll never find dirty laundry lying around. It’s either neatly tucked away where you can’t see it, or right here on my cautionary shirttails.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Workhorse

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The paint department at Home Depot wasn’t busy last night when I went there to pick out some trim colors for my house. I hung around the sample chart section for awhile, pulling out cards and holding them up to a larger sheet that displayed my main exterior color, Blanket Brown. What would look good with that? Plum Raisin? Revival Mahogany? Cougar? I liked the name of this last one, but knew it wouldn’t work. It never does.

As I held one sample after another against Blanket Brown, I kept hearing the one young man behind the counter rattle off a line he must have said a million times: “Thank you for your patience I’ll be with you as soon as I can.” He was a deliberate, hard-working guy with the teeth of a horse. When I had finally narrowed my trim samples down to twelve, I approached the counter. “Thank you for your patience I’ll be with you as soon as I can,” said Mr. Ed as he galloped by. He was apparently working alone.

I looked around and only saw one couple before me, although Ed seemed frantic in his pace to continue mixing paint. The couple and I sized each other up: I was normal, as usual, and they were odd—both very pale. “We shouldn’t even be here!” the man blurted out, almost laughing, propping up his wife. “We’re both so sick! We have MRSA and botflies! We can hardly stand but we needed paint!”

I smiled and took a step back. Thank you for your patience and get away from me right now.

“I really liked your blouse!” the man shouted as I moved down the counter. “Great colors!”

I nodded and moved further away, waiting for the homely Depot guy to finish up with the happily infected couple. I studied my shirt as I tugged down my sleeves and tried to huddle inside: it did have nice colors. In fact, all the trim colors that I’d selected matched this shirt. If I wore it and posed in front of my newly painted house, I would probably blend in to the point of disappearing, as I was trying to do now.

“Thank you for your patience I’ll be with you as soon as I can” I heard whistling by again. I knew my turn was next. Ed rang up the polluted people and turned to me, snorting. “How can I help you?”

“I just want you to say that you work really well under pressure,” I said, standing in the deserted paint department. “You’re really good at what you do.”

“Thank you for your patience,” he brayed. “After I help you, when you get home, would you mind going on our web site and filling out the survey? That’s the kind of stuff my boss likes to hear.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I can,” I promised, and I did. If there is one customer service employee out there braving the threats of plague and virus, working harder than necessary in order to keep his job—dealing with snarky customers who just happen to have better dental insurance than he does—then there are thousands. I plan to name all of my botflies after them.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dane the Great

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I got my hair cut at Great Clips today because I like a great clip. Even if I was rich, spending fifty bucks on a trim would not sit well with me. My hair is long and all one length; how hard could it be to cut a straight line all the way around?

I waited my turn, grading papers to pass the time. It’s Paper-Grading Season and teachers like me carry them everywhere: to the car wash, to the dentist, to the gym. If you can knock one off at a red light, bully for you.

Somebody called my name and I looked up to see a good-looking man standing behind the counter. He was tall and slender, sexy in a Dr. Drew kind of way, if Dr. Drew wasn’t albino. This guy had tousled salt-and-pepper hair and an easy smile. He looked like he could be a runner or a gymnast, or good in bed. But of course, he was probably gay.

He got me in the chair and told me his name: Dane. The entire Thornbirds saga rose inside me, tingling out to my fingers and toes. I’d read the whole book when I was ten, stuck in a Winnebago with my family on a trip to the East Coast. Back then it was porn. I suddenly liked Dane even more, even though he was probably gay.

I told him what I wanted (regarding the great clip…I had already put my loins on pause.) “I always get it cut straight across,” I said firmly. “No layers! It’s all one length."

He started doing what hairdressers do and said, “Your hair is longer in front than it is in back. Did you know that?”

“I sensed it,” I said. I’ve been walking around with basset hound ears since my last great clip but have been too busy to care. I’ve been pretending it was all one length.

“So do you have any kids?” Dane asked as I watched his long fingers and muscular hands dance around my head.

“No,” I said. “Never wanted any.”

“I always said that too,” said Dane, his silk shirt rusting against my cape, sinewy arms reaching in and out of my vision. The hairs on my own arms stood on end; they are equal-opportunity girls. Dane went on: “I never wanted to get married and never wanted kids.”

Yeah, because you’re gay, I thought.

“But now I have an eleven-year-old daughter,” Dane said, clipping away. “Still never married though!”

Hm! I thought. Maybe not gay! I put my loins back on play. Could this good-humored man with the winning smile and cat-like moves be straight? Available? Flirting with me? I struggled to come up with a flirty retort. “I pluck out my grays,” I said.

“You shouldn’t pull them out!” Dane scolded me, making me wish I’d worn my plaid skirt and Mary Janes to Great Clips. I definitely needed a spanking. “Even more will come back. Use a Sharpie to color them in. Little-known trick but it works great.”

Could I get to know Dane well enough so that he would color my grays with a Sharpie and then roll around in bed with me then hang my pictures and do my yard work? Could Dane be my boyfriend?

“So where do you go in the summer when you’re not visiting in Minnesota?” he asked, interrupting our future.

“I’m going to the Middle East next month so I’m not too concerned with travel beyond that and a safe return.” I’m such a bitch! What’s wrong with me? Why must the soft parts of me retract and the thorns of me always push out?

Still trimming my ends, making the front match the back, Dane pointed with his beautifully curved chin towards the magazine I had put on the counter. “Did you find an article in there that you like?

“No, I’m using it as a folder to carry around my students’ papers.”

“Oh, well you can take it home with you if you want.”

“That is MY magazine, sir!”

Dane blushed like I would at a time like that, having made the same kind of mistake: giving people what already belongs to them, in the tradition of white people everywhere. “Here, you can have this cart,” I’ll say in the grocery store to an old man whose cart I have stolen. “Take your coat,” I’ll say, pushing a dinner guest out of my home. “That’s mighty white of ya,” my Indian customers would say years ago when I would tell them they could sit wherever they wanted in the restaurant where I waitressed. I got used to it; I deserved it; it was the least I could put up with, knowing my white skin would always be better off than theirs.

I think that I’m better off than Dane, the probably-straight guy who cuts hair at Great Clips, but the discrepancy is nothing: skin is skin. I’m going to request Dane the next time I’m there. For exactly what, I’m not sure, but I’ll think of something.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


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With so much activity going on lately—an ongoing credit card dispute, some car trouble, an overseas trip to plan, papers to grade and used baggies to wash and obsessive dwelling on how to obtain medical marijuana when it becomes available—I haven’t been the best alpha cat lately. I wasn’t home to lead Group Play for the past two mornings, and stale kitty treats have replaced fresh turkey because the old turkey went bad. In response to these changes in routine, Sara has been digging in the plants and dragging her smelly butt across my bedspread. Instead of trotting happily down the hall at bedtime, Lucy hides her bad self in dark corners, making me poke at her with rolls of Christmas wrap I have yet to put away. In fact I have to chase both of them into their bedroom at night, when it wasn’t long ago that they skipped in there all by themselves.

They finally decided to stage a rebellion last night after lights out when I was just drifting off. Sara tried to open their bedroom door from the inside, pulling down on the lever with her front paws and letting it thwack back into place over and over again. When this didn’t work, she started yowling and Lucy started meeping and Sara began to throw herself against the door. I finally jumped out of bed and stormed into their room as I’m sure many mothers have done in the past. “NO!” I bellowed. “NO! NO! NO!” I shut my mouth for a moment to meet their startled gazes, and then screamed, “STOPPIIIIT!!!” That did the trick and I returned to my own room to greet a sleepless night, which I deserved for losing my temper.

This morning we were all awake at 5 a.m., me lying in bed feeling old and grizzled, them making the same kind of racket they were making the night before, still very out of character. I got up and let them out; we trudged into the dark morning together, Starsky and Yoda and Hutch.

At eight a.m. a painter knocked on my door, right on time, here to give me a bid on the exterior of my house. We walked around outside looking at my rotting fascia, the hundreds of nails and screws sticking out of my house like some kind of junkie, and then I spotted it: a mourning dove lying on the ground outside Sara and Lucy’s bedroom wall, under a tree. She was perfect except that she was dead. The painter seemed fine with this and carried on, but I could only focus on the dove and the immediacy of death. I thought back to Sara and Lucy last night, so upset. What had they seen? What had they heard? Had the dove been murdered? There wasn’t a mark on her. Was it a heart attack? Had Sara and Lucy understood what the dove was saying; had they heard her last words? Was it a friend of theirs from the feeder?

“Everybody’s time comes,” the painter said, trying to get me to acknowledge a drywall repair. He pointed out another dove sitting on my roof. “Look,” he said. “Its mate.” He walked back to his truck to write up an estimate as I stood in place, watching the widowed dove shuffle around on the shingles.

I told this story to Man Friend later on, and the first thing he said was, “The painter didn’t get rid of that dove for you? He didn’t throw it out? What a bum.” At first I thought Man Friend had missed the point entirely, but then I realized that actually, the penalty was on me. I remembered that most people don’t think like I do—a boon for men and women everywhere, for America itself, and the few people who suffer my friendship. I would have to make it up to Sara and Lucy, eye witnesses to my own crimes and more.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Naked Truth

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I learned something yesterday about women’s clothing. It seems that women’s pants are cut in a stack, so that the top of the stack might turn out to be a size two, and the bottom of the stack might turn out to be a size eight, while whoever is in charge of cutting the stack is aiming to create a bunch of fours. All of the pieces are then trimmed, sewn together, processed and shipped around the country...each labeled as a size four.

Any woman who wears pants knows that this scenario makes sense and probably solves the mystery of why, when we go shopping, we can’t just head straight to the fours or sixes or sixteens—whatever our size might be—pick out our pants and be done with it. Rather, if we think we’re an eight, then we have to try on all the eights in the store because any of them might fit, or none of them. This then extends to the sizes surrounding our original number: if we think we’re a ten, then we have to try on all the eights and twelves too, in all brands of course, to find the one pair that fits right. That’s why salesladies hate women: because unlike men, we can’t just go in, buy a pair of 32 waist, 34 long, and leave. We have to try on everything. And once we get that perfect pair of pants home, they don’t fit right anymore, so we have to return them. If they wouldn’t put trick mirrors in the dressing rooms, this last problem could be prevented.

But that wasn’t even the most interesting part of my day. The most interesting part occurred on campus, when a guy walked up to me with a naked woman on his t-shirt. Full frontal! He asked for directions and I gave them to him, then I couldn’t help but blurt, ““Do you go here?”

“Not yet. I’m just checkin’ out what kind of classes you got.”

Really? The young man strutted off and I happened to see two bike security guys parked on the corner, so I asked them if that was acceptable: Can students just walk around with naked women on their shirts? After some discussion, they decided it was freedom of speech and would likely be okay unless it was proven a disruption to the class.

Well…since when is public nudity not a disruption in class? Am I supposed to stand there and carry on as if nothing’s wrong when I’m staring at a pair of tits and a snatch? Would it be okay if I walked into class and stood up front with a naked penis on my shirt? Would that cause a disruption? A big erect penis with a vein running down the side? “Oh, I’m sorry Sally, did the big hairy balls on my shirt disrupt you? Were you looking at the erection on my chest instead of proofreading your paper? Well, that sounds like it’s your problem, Sally, not mine.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Ethicists

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My brother called today; I turned down the radio to hear him better. As usual, we chit-chatted to start.

“What’re you listening to?” he said.

“Lady Gaga,” I said. “Did you know the first time I heard Lady Gaga on the radio, I thought it was Madonna?”

My brother gasped. “You can’t say those two names in the same sentence! You’ve just lost your gay card for ninety days.”


“That girl has totally wrecked Madonna’s career." He sighed. "It’s such a delicate issue. Lady Gaga is good. But Madonna’s got one hit left in her and she’ll go on tour with it: She’ll reinvent the Re-Invention!”

As I considered the prospect of a veiny Madonna writhing around stage with flappy breasts and knobby knees, my brother continued: “I’m calling to run an ethical dilemma by you. You’re always so good at these. Today I had my house insulated, and they did a really good job, but they must have banged really hard on one outside wall because when I came home, one of my antique clocks had fallen off the shelf and it broke all over the place. Do you think I should say something?”

I thought about it. “Well, it was definitely an accident, but then again they could have warned you to take down your delicate items, so I think you should point it out. Maybe they have insurance to cover things like that.”

I’m a contractor,” my brother announced, which is true. “When I break things—when I’m in a client’s space and something goes wrong—I’m responsible for that. I always pay for things I break.”

“That’s because you're Catholic,” I said. “Most people don’t feel that guilty. Just tell the insulation guys about the broken clock and see what they say. If they fix it, great; if not, no harm in asking.”

“You’re right,” my brother said. “Now what’s up with you?”

“I too have an ethical dilemma,” I said. “I got a massage yesterday and my massage therapist was obese. She was massaging me with parts of her body that should never have touched mine. Plus, she was sweating.” I paused so we could pretend-retch together. “And she had a cold!” I said. “She sneezed and coughed and sniffled the whole time. Do you think I should complain?”

“Oh, absolutely! That’s got ‘free massage’ written all over it.”

“But I’ll feel bad about saying she’s fat.”

“You can’t say she’s fat!” my brother warned. “That’s an invitation to bad karma that will manifest itself in a vaginal infection or something else horrible. You can only say she had a cold and practically wiped it all over you. My God, that’s bad enough.”

“You’re right,” I said.

Pleased with our decisions, we said our I-love-you’s and hung up, saints for the day.