Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Not a Hobo

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The third major writing unit in my version of English 101 is called “Persuasive Letter”. For this unit, students must choose a particular audience—a neighbor for instance, or a friend—and write a letter to that person in hopes of changing his or her mind about something significant. Most students use this opportunity to persuade a messy roommate to clean up more around the apartment, or to ask Grandma for a small loan…something safe. Sometimes the stakes are higher, but not very often. It’s almost as if students are afraid to ask for something big, to raise the specter of desire if chances are that they’ll get shot down anyway. I think plenty of my students are used to that dynamic, whether they admit it or not. For all the blustery complaints and colorful suggestions they shoot my way via e-mail and on, when it comes to real-life, mature confrontation, they—as a whole—write softly and carry Wiffle bats.

So it was with particular glee today, after plowing through a stack of letters to boyfriends in hopes of getting the boyfriend to stop cheating, to managers in hopes of getting a chintzy raise, and to themselves—letters written to themselves, in hopes of persuading themselves to stop procrastinating—that I found a true winner. It was written by a student to his parents, in hopes of getting the parents to stop forcing the young man to become a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion they had joined a few years back. In one particularly impassioned and well-detailed paragraph of support for his thesis, the student wrote, “Mom and Dad, a Jehovah’s Witness is asked to be and do a lot of things that people do not want to be or do. Most of those rules I don’t agree with. For example, the church preaches to not celebrate holidays, like my birthday for a good example.

We can’t celebrate my birthday anymore because in the times of Jesus, they would give severed heads as gifts to the king on his birthday. Well, that was thousands of years ago, and a severed head as a gift nowadays is very frowned upon and I’m sure not on anyone’s wish list. The church also says that the men can’t have beards. Well, in all the pictures of Jesus, he has a beard. I’m sure he didn’t have a nice looking one since there were no barber shops back then, but he still had one. I don’t see why I can’t have one. It’s just hair.”

My student had more to say than just that, since a sound argument entails much more than a simple airing of complaints. He knew his job wasn’t over until he had addressed his opponents’ concerns and reiterated his main point, so he continued: “Mom and Dad, I understand that you two believe you know what is best for me. You are trying to keep me away from bad things in life, trying to put me on the right path so I end up on the right side. I understand your reasoning. I don’t want to be on the wrong side. I want to lead a good life and be healthy. But it’s my decision to believe what I want, and I want to play football. You guys didn’t let me play my last four years of high school because you saw it as a distraction from the church, a waste of time, and a dangerous activity. But you never took the time to understand what football really was to me. Mom and Dad, I am not a druggie, a criminal, or a hobo. I just have a different idea of this world than you do. I want to do what I love. I want to be happy. I want to play football.”

After I stitched up my heart and finished my own job of reading and grading, I put down my pen and thought about it. Never before had I wanted more to push a paper up and away and give it legs, let it walk and talk and cross the street if it wanted. I didn't want to say yes or no, pass go or time's up. I wished the paper could make its own decisions, grade itself for once. I think it would have rightly taken the A and run for a touchdown.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bearded Lady

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The holiday season is here, and some of us want to look our best for all the fabulous parties we intend to host and attend. But this isn’t exactly the greatest time to lose weight—demonstrated at my house on Thanksgiving Day as we mowed our way from a bowl of M&M’s through caviar, crackers, and brie, then sat down for the feast, then force-fed ourselves three different kinds of cake, finally ending a couple hours later collapsed in front of the TV, masticating an unmentionably large amount of strawberry licorice before bed. I could not have slept on my stomach last night even for a lower mortgage interest rate.

So, while weight-watching and calorie-counting are not currently priorities, the ever-important “maintaining of the complexion” still ranks very high, at least it does for me. For as bloated or vomity as I might be at any given party, I still aim to glow: I channel all of my obsessive-compulsive behaviors into exfoliating so that when it’s time for holiday pictures, I stand out as the shiniest and healthiest, at least from the neck up.

The other day, home from having coffee with yet another potential love interest, I was feeling itchy on the face as I graded papers, but not really thinking about it as I clawed at myself. I went to the bathroom later, looked in the mirror, and saw white flakes of skin standing up all over my mustache and beard area: white whiskers. I looked like an elderly dog. How long have I been walking around like this? Why hasn’t someone said something? I’ve been exfoliating, yes…this must be the day that lust and gluttony peel off…no wonder there are so many flakes. And I went shopping too, talking to people and making conversation as if nothing was wrong with me. What must these people have thought, like at the grocery store? What about my coffee date? “She’s a pretty girl but her muzzle is graying.” Jesus.

As I picked each piece of dead skin off my face, I was reminded of the only singles mixer I have ever attended: It was at a fancy Phoenix resort in the summer of ’95, when resorts would throw pool parties for the locals because tourists don’t come around when it’s 120 degrees. I was a sweaty beast as usual (having already earned the nickname “Sweaty Betty” from my girlfriends, as in: “She’s a Betty, but she’s sweaty.”) Since I was dripping with perspiration, we decided that my friend Kerry should make the first beer run so that I could stand in the shade and cool down. Lucky for me, I remembered that I had a Kleenex in my purse, so I took it out and dabbed at my face, soaking up the rivulets of sweat.

Click here; it's long.

Kerry was taking a long time, so after the dabbing I leaned back against a railing and took in all the cute guys. They were checking me out too—I was getting a lot of looks. When Kerry finally got back, carrying two huge plastic cups of beer, she took one look at me and slammed the beers down, grabbed me by the arm and hustled me to a more private spot.

“What do you have all over your face!?” she said, picking at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just wiped off with a Kleenex.”

“Well you’re wearing it, man. Look,” Kerry said, whipping out her compact mirror and holding it up. There I was, bits and pieces of Kleenex all over my neck and face and forehead, plastered on with sweat. I wondered what all the cute guys had been thinking as I stood there, gazing at them with my bedroom eyes, posing in my tight sundress, smiling through my shredded veil of Kleenex. Kerry cleaned me up, but it was too late—no guys wanted to talk to Sweaty Betty.

There was one other time when my face let me down at the most inopportune time ever. I was having acne problems in grad school, so a doctor had prescribed some pretty strong cream. It made the skin on my face very dry and tight. While I did not have a boyfriend at the time, I was always gunning for a fellow classmate named Danny, who was cute and sexy because all Dannys are. Sometimes he would let me stay the night in his apartment, but he’d never want to pass second. Of course he was in love with another girl.

I remember these as very frustrating times.

Anyway, the last night I stayed over at Danny’s place, I didn’t have my moisturizer (as usual), so we just finally fell asleep after a long kiss-fest…much to my chagrin. We stayed in bed and talked face to face the next morning, with me telling him again why we belonged together even though we never even took our clothes off. Can you believe that?

After our talk, I got up and went to the bathroom, where there hung a small mirror, big enough only to see your face and nothing else. I looked into it and saw that once again my muzzle was covered in flakes of white skin, but this time I had bled too. I looked like a hyena having just lifted her face from a bloody carcass. My skin was peeling off everywhere that Danny’s scruffy face had rubbed it when we kissed for all that time the night before, and blood had crusted over the abrasions.

I panicked, realizing that Danny had just stared at me looking this way for at least an hour…without saying anything. He must think I’m some kind of molting leper. How unattractive! Oh my God, what to do, what to do?

I left the bathroom, turned down the hallway away from Danny’s bedroom and towards the front door. I rushed out without saying goodbye, one of the only times I seemed to have the upper hand in this relationship that I had created in my mind, my two minutes of I’m done with you! glory in the two years of never even having him in the first place. Layers of fraud and treachery peeled off my face in sheets and flags that waved a bloody and permanent goodbye to Danny.

The Bearded Lady, exposed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Remain Single and Childless

Click here for the journal that just published this essay.

Fall in love early; fifteen is not too soon. If you can, fall in love with an older man, a senior if you are a freshman for instance, and make sure that he’s already in love with another girl who snatches him back when she finds out about you, so that your heart begins to develop calluses at an early age. Cry every day for six months after he dumps you. This is a good time to have your first run-in with the law: take your parents’ car, roll down the windows, crank your Van Halen tape, and drive recklessly down the back roads of your town until you are pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of a broken heart. This will also serve to prime your parents for future romantic transgressions.

Vow to never fall in love again.

During whatever is left of your high school career, channel your energy into having serial boyfriends. Establish a two-month relationship limit and stick to it. This will make you fit in with your peers, who are behaving similarly, and will please your parents, who need to know that the first relationship that ended badly did not scar you for life. In college, continue this pattern, but only until your junior year, when you will have to buckle down and focus more on your studies in order to obtain a degree. The degree is important, for if you are to remain single, you’ll have to support yourself.

Sometime between the ages of 20 and 22, against your better judgment, fall in love again, but this time fall in love with an even older man, preferably old enough to be your father, biologically. We will not call this a mistake. We’ll call it a learning challenge. Continue to behave like a 20-year-old: go to the bars with your girlfriends, flirt outrageously when you’re out with them, join a city-league volleyball team and consistently arrive on your older boyfriend’s doorstep drunk, with sand in your hair, at three o’clock in the morning. Run to your parents when your boyfriend scolds you for this misbehavior, and eventually move in with him when he insists that it would in be your own best interest. You think it would be, too.

Live with him for as long as it takes to ingrain in your memory how difficult it is to co-habitate with a man. At the same time, keep in close contact with your girlfriends, all of whom will be dating younger men within your age range, so that you are constantly aware of the fun you are missing out on. Take your boyfriend home as often as you can, preferably to weddings and baptisms, so that you can begin to train your family to accept your choices. Pretend not to notice that he has more in common with your parents than with you. Entertain thoughts of having children with this man; you know that he wants them, and you think that you might, too. Envision being forty and pushing your husband in his wheelchair to your child’s high school graduation. Remember all the stories that you’ve heard about your great-aunt who married a forty-year-old when she was sixteen and ended up taking care of him until she was eighty because he wouldn’t die. Be sure to tell your parents that you’re considering having children with your boyfriend so that you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away, so that no doubt remains concerning their disappointment in you.

When it’s time, go ahead and let the honest truth in. This will be difficult because so far you’ve been trying very hard to act as if all of this were normal. Begin to dislike not being mistaken for your boyfriend’s daughter on vacations that you take; you want other people to recognize, as you do, that something is out of sync here. Don’t fail to notice that you have more in common with his teen-aged nieces and nephews than with him. Pay particular attention to the age-related physical attributes of your boyfriend that escaped you before: hair in the ears, thick toenails, wrinkles around the eyes. Let this bother you, even though you know it’s not fair. Lie in bed with him while he sleeps and compare the skin on your arm to the skin on his arm. Eventually, revert to your old bad ways and pick up being twenty where you left off, even though you’re older than that now. When he suggests that perhaps it’s time for you to either stop misbehaving or move out, choose the latter and leave him immediately. And when he attempts to reconcile—and he will, because he knows just as well as you do that you’re young and still learning—make sure that you listen good and hard to yourself say, “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” This will become your motto from now on. Notice that you are a cocktail waitress lying on the floor of your unfurnished, one-room apartment when you speak these words for the first time.

Move far away, the farther the better, so that all your friends and family will believe you when you say that you are putting the past behind you and starting over. Get a good job that pays well; you do have the degree for it. Begin to cultivate a close circle of friends; this won’t be difficult because people recognize you as open-minded, responsible, yet slightly risqué. Besides, you’re beginning to have a cache of good stories to tell, and most people haven’t lived as much as you have.

Continue dating. Avoid upscale, trendy bars and all cultural events; the men you will meet there might be well-educated and financially secure, and you don’t want that. Instead, frequent neighborhood dive bars where you will meet construction workers and truckers, men with whom you share a love of beer, well-stocked juke boxes, and nine-ball. Become a regular, a familiar face, so that no one blinks an eye when you once again climb on stage to play the cowbell with the band: you are the cowbell girl. When you tire of that scene, become a regular at a local coffeehouse, and get to know the guitarist who plays there every Tuesday and Friday evening. You’ll like him: he has long hair, torn jeans, and enough money to buy new sound equipment, but not quite enough to move out of his parents’ home, not just yet. Eventually you will discover that he is talented, charming, within your age range, and a compatible sexual partner. For these reasons and no others, allow him to move in with you.

Learn to appreciate his quirky sense of humor—when he behaves like an ape at the mall, believe him when he says he was only pretending for the children. Don’t think twice about the increase in your grocery and utility bills—your new roommate regularly slips you fives and tens, and the immediacy of cash is enough to make it seem like he’s actually paying his share. Help him haul his guitars and speakers from gig to gig. Drive him yourself when his car breaks down. Hang out alone in the bars and coffee shops where he plays, and pretend not to notice when he takes phone numbers from other women; after all, that’s just part of the show. Call your parents and all of your siblings to let them know that you’re finally learning how to compromise, to give a little. You’re even thinking of getting married.

Listen intently when your new partner speaks of future recording contracts, of breaking into “the big time.” Be happy for him when he gets out-of-town gigs, and lend him your car when he goes to them. Make sure that you fill the tank for him before he leaves, because you know as well as he does that he won’t get paid until after the gig. Familiarize yourself with the city bus routes and schedules because he has your car now more than you do. Don’t pay attention to your friends when they suggest that he might be using you; they’re just jealous because, while they’re dating boring lawyers and architects, you’re dating an artist. Think about how talented your children will be.

After six months of this, slowly--but with increasing regularity--begin to wonder if this man is ever going to get a real job. When he complains that you are not being supportive enough, try not to raise your eyebrows and make choking noises—it’ll only make things worse. During your bus rides to and from work, remember that you’re breaking your two-month rule. Finally, listen to your mother when she calls to say for the umpteenth time that he is not “the man for you.” While you wait for him to come home on that last night, chant your motto: “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” Note that you are listening to your old Van Halen tapes and drinking cheap beer at the time. When your man arrives, run to the car and make sure that the gas tank is on empty, as usual. Then ask him to move out.

We’ll call that learning challenge number two.

How old are you now? Twenty five? Take a good look around: most of your girlfriends are still single, going to the bars, dating freely, living it up. What were you thinking living with that guy? It’s high time for you to re-connect with your old crowd, get back into the swing of things. And now that your musician has moved out, you have more money to spend on your own social life. You don’t want to fall into your old bad habits, though—you’ve played your last cowbell. You decide that while you need to get out and start having a life, you don’t want to call attention to yourself, lest new strange men recognize you for the learning-challenged individual that you are. So you decide to become a lurker.

You’ve seen them before, the people who are able to go out to bars, to parties, and hang back in the shadows. They’re the ones who stand quietly on the sidelines, in the background, watching everyone else engage freely in conversation and festivity. While they are sometimes in the company of another lurker of the same sex—a lurking friend—they usually lurk by themselves. You respect these people, because they seem at ease, and they have the confidence it takes to stand alone in a crowd without appearing out of place.

You begin to lurk.

You are a self-conscious lurker at first; you don’t know what to do with your hands, and by definition you can’t chat up those around you. You begin to drink more than you ever have, which keeps your hands busy, and gives you something to do while you’re lurking. Soon enough you’re lurking comfortably, on a regular basis, at one particular establishment. You begin to notice another lurker who frequents the same bar you do; one night you decide to buy him a drink. He ends up buying you three more and soon enough you have tossed off your lurking clothes: you are chatting freely and engaging in much festivity. Back at your apartment that night with him in tow, you toss off your real clothes. This sets the stage for learning challenge number three.

You’ve never been involved with a man quite as irresistible as this one. Even better than that, his first language isn’t English like yours is, so while he revels in your quick wit and helpful grammar suggestions, you revel in his accent and exotic good-looks. Having met as lurkers, you have much in common: you both like to be alone, you both have your guards up, and neither of you are ready to make any kind of commitment whatsoever. These similarities work quickly to solidify your relationship, and before you know what’s hit you, you are in love once again.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

After several months, maybe six, begin to envision marriage with this man. After all, you’re practically living with him already, and the cards and letters and phone numbers that you occasionally find from other women seem old, from a former life he led. Even though none of your friends think he’s “your type,” call your mother regularly and tell her that this time, you think you may just have found “the one.” Don’t tell her that what’s best about your relationship with him is the sex, though; she is a hopeful woman and still believes that you are a virgin.

Think about how attractive your children will be.

One night, when he’s working late and you’re at the house alone doing your laundry and his, listen intently to the female voice that leaves a message on his answering machine, thanking him for the roses and the “fun time.” You’ll want to pick up the receiver and talk to rose woman, but rules are rules: you don’t answer the phone at his place. Instead, drink a bottle of wine and ransack his bedroom looking for evidence of transgression. When he finally gets home, drunk with lipstick on his collar, lay with him in bed until he passes out, then sneak outside and ransack his car. There, on the front seat, you will find a slip of paper with a woman’s name and phone number on it. You know this can’t be rose woman, because obviously she was not with him tonight. Steal this piece of evidence, but don’t talk about it, especially not with your friends: it will only serve to reinforce their negativity.

Continue to date this recovering lurker; just like recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, he is prone to relapses, and you understand. You know he’s been out lurking, and you know very well what can happen: that’s how you met him, after all. Give him another chance. One night, when he’s been out with his friends and you’ve been at your apartment—where, incidentally, you’ve been spending more and more nights alone—get to thinking. Drink a bottle of wine and nurture your sixth sense. After a few hours of restless sleep, give in. Get up and get dressed, and sit at your kitchen table playing solitaire until it’s light out; no use in conducting a commando mission when you can’t see anything. Drive to his house and notice the strange truck parked out front. When you walk to the door, look through the front window and notice the purse sitting on the kitchen table. Use your key to get in, and notice the clothing and beer bottles strewn across the living room, leading into the bedroom. Step quietly into the bedroom and try not to hurt the nice lady when you pull out the top dresser drawer and toss it onto the bed, directly over the spot where her skin must definitely be touching your boyfriend’s under the sheets.

They’re awake now, and you have to leave. Before you go, reach inside the bathroom and yank the medicine chest off the wall. This won’t be difficult; it was rickety in the first place. Stop in the kitchen to find scissors and methodically cut her blazer—there it is, hanging on the back of a chair—in half. Struggle mightily when he tackles you from behind, and try not to get cut too badly as you both roll around in the broken glass from the lamp you threw at him in your attempt to fend him off. He says he’s going to call the cops, so now you really have to go. Once you’re in your car, back over his mailbox before driving away.

There has never been a better time to have your second run-in with the law. Indeed, it’s long overdue. Drive home quickly so as not to miss the police when they arrive. He has sent them to scare you. You are duly scared—after all, you started it. Luckily, your one black eye, the scrape on your cheek and the blood running down your ankle into your sneaker all help to convince the officers that you’ve been punished enough, and it’s not like anybody wants to press charges. They leave you with a warning: stay away from him.

You take them up on their suggestion; in fact, you decide it’s high time to get out of town. After you call in sick to work and get your ankle stitched up down at the ER, hop a flight home, back to your parents’ house halfway across the country. Hole up there for a week, maybe two—take as long as you need to catch your breath. Attempt to bask in all the attention you receive from the continual stream of family members who come by to see you: your sisters, your brother, all of their kids, your grandmother. The neighbor lady is a nurse and she’ll take your stitches out for you, so no problem there. At one point, be sure to tell your parents that you’ve learned your lesson, that all that bad business is behind you now, so you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away.

They hardly know you anymore.

When you’re all healed up and your sense of responsibility has kicked back in, catch a flight back and return to work. Pretend that you’re fine, just fine—eventually, you really will be. Learning challenge number three under your belt, you’re that much closer to your ultimate goal: to remain single and childless, remember? Repeat your motto every time you step out your front door.

And start to smoke. You’re going to need it from now on.

By this time, your friends are worried about you. You’ve been spending a lot of time alone, and they think you need to get out more. You agree, but since they all have boyfriends or husbands, they are mostly unavailable to accompany you as you begin to develop a social life without the relapsed lurking man. Accept all of their offers to meet available men in group situations, and be agreeable when your friends set you up on blind dates: it is imperative for you to at least appear receptive to new romantic relationships, especially since your mother now calls you every other night without exception to check on your progress in this area. You’ve never lied to her before, and you don’t want to start now.

Only accept dates with non-smokers, and if you start to enjoy their company, smoke regularly in their presence.

Buy your first house all by yourself.

After a longish period of time, perhaps when you’re approaching your twenty-ninth year and your friends have run out of non-smoking men to fix you up with, decide that the best way to both attain your goal and to appear normal is to date someone who has the least likelihood of desiring children or marriage: begin to date a much-older man. Don’t worry, he’ll come along: your friend will fix you up with him because, she says, you have so much in common outside of the age difference. As opposed to the older man you dated when you were twenty, this man—learning challenge number four—should not simply be close to your parents’ age: he should be their age.

In the best-case scenario, this man will be a powerhouse of success. He should be gainfully employed, a politician on the state level or an Olympic coach, so that you have the opportunity to see him on television when he’s out of town. His children, all girls, will be your age or older, an attribute you appreciate since he probably won’t be interested in having any more kids. Allow him to wine you and dine you—you’re living large now. Hang on his arm at ritzy parties, accept all gifts without hesitation. You’ve never been treated so well.

Travel with him. Listen to his stories—his are even better than yours. Humor him by shopping for Jeep Cherokees with built-in baby seats; he says he’s always wanted a boy, but you know that he must certainly be kidding. Fall into the habit of spending more time at his house than at your own; he has a pool, a fireplace, a gym, and his own movie theater. You have a microwave. Tell his children when they call that yes, you’re taking good care of their father, and yes, he’s taking his medication.

Even though you’re beginning to have less and less in common with your own friends—most of whom are now getting married and having babies—keep in touch with them, for you will need reassurance every so often that your new relationship is indeed promising. Try not to argue with them when they all tell you that actually, this one seems to make the most sense for you, that they’ve always known you’d end up with an intelligent, hard-working man. After a few months, call your parents and break the news gently: you’re dating a senior citizen. It will take them several months to accept the idea, but eventually they will admit that they only want you to be safe and happy, and if this is what it takes, so be it. Besides, your mother has seen him on TV, and he strikes her as a trustworthy sort. Handsome, too.

Just about the time that you’re starting to feel comfortable, when you’ve reached the point where you can efficiently maintain two households and you rarely think about younger men, hardly ever, your own particular man—this one who is generous, kind-hearted, and sincere--will sit you down on his leather couch, pour you a glass of vintage merlot from his wine cellar, take your hand in his, and reveal that he has a big surprise for you. Before he can tell you what it is, though, he needs to know if you love him.

Of course you don’t, though you wish that you did. And, though you are mostly a truthful person and not prone to lying, you don’t want to appear rude. To complicate matters, you are curious by nature, and you want to know what the surprise is. You feel that if there was ever a situation in which lying was acceptable, this is the one. So, you lie.

The surprise? He’s moving to Africa and he wants you to come along! If he’s a politician, he will have accepted an ambassadorship to a large but struggling third-world nation. If he’s an Olympic coach, one of the world powers is jealous that he has coached the U.S. team to first place, and they have offered him a position he can’t refuse. In either case, he wants you by his side as he forges ahead into this last great adventure.

Be careful.


Tell him you’ll think about it.

Spend several nights in a row at your own place. Call all of your friends to see what they think. They will be supportive but of no real help because, while none of them have even come close to being in your position, it sure sounds like fun to them. Test the waters: call your parents and tell them you’re moving overseas. Fill in the long silences by telling them about all the fascinating people you’ll meet, the wonderful new life you’ll lead, all the great opportunities that will suddenly open up for you. Tell them they can come and visit you. Wouldn’t they like that?

Eventually, be honest with yourself—yes, it’s time for that again. Just like before, this will be hard, but even more difficult this time because you lied, and you know that you shouldn’t have. Tell the man—who, again, has treated you better than any other man ever has--that, although you appreciate his invitation, you simply can’t go. You don’t want to go to Africa. You want to stay here. Alone.

Continue to watch CNN so you can keeps tabs on him.

Repeat your motto.

You’re over thirty now. You haven’t been back to visit your family in awhile, and you’re missing out on seeing your nieces and nephews grow up. Join a frequent flier club to take full advantage of your miles, and go home regularly. Tape a picture of yourself to each of your siblings’ refrigerators so that their children will know who you are. Put a picture of yourself in a nice frame and give it to your parents, so they’ll know too.

Try not to recognize the curve of your own chin when your six month old nephew smiles at you, or wonder at how, while his eyes are still blue, all the rest of the kids have your color. Tell your mother, when she gets out your baby book to show you how much your five year old niece looks like you at that age, that sure, okay, you see the resemblance. Correct the two year old each time he comes careening around the corner, wraps his arms around your leg, and calls you “mom”—his recurring habit of mistaken identity when you’re there. Breathe deeply into his hair when he sits on your lap.

Breathe deeply.

Think to yourself that these children could be yours, and try to be glad that they’re not.

Click here. Listen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Don't Blame Dallas

Click here, then read.

Since I work from home most days, I can hear any commotion going on outside: the schoolbus rumbling down my street, people on their way to work rocketing over our speed bumps, Waste Management picking up everybody’s recycling bins and dumping a thousand splendid beer cans and booze bottles in a raucous clatter into the back of their truck. This is my ‘hood, these are my peeps.

And then, there are the dogs. Many people on my street have dogs, which is fine, but when Arizona temps finally fall from one jillion degrees to a measly 90 or so, some people get the bright idea to leave their dogs outside all day while they are at work. This lasts until late spring, when it becomes so scorchingly hot again that only morons and criminals leave their dogs outside.

Dogs left outside all day, all alone, tend to bark. I would bark too if I was left outside with no one to talk to or play with. I would bark especially if I saw a stray cat. In fact, I have.

A few days ago, I heard a dog start barking around 7 a.m. I knew which dog it was and which neighbors he belonged to, though I had never met these people. Their dog had been barking every day all day for about a week. I had grown weary of listening to him, so I crossed the street in my pajamas and knocked on the front door. I read the “NO SOLICITORS”, “NO TRESPASSERS”, and “BEWARE OF DOG!” signs while I waited. Nobody came out, but of course this made the dog bark more. I walked over to the wood-slat gate and looked through the cracks: there he was, a beautiful large mixed-breed dog, nicely groomed with a collar and tags, barking his face off. “You’re a good dog,” I said. Bark bark bark. “Can you be quiet?” I said. Bark bark bark.

I turned around to walk back to my house, but I couldn’t help but notice an odd and off-putting odor. I looked down to see mothballs strewn all over my neighbors’ yard. Evidently moths were not welcome here either.

I walked back to my house and wrote the owners a note along the lines of, “Hi, my name is so and so, I live across the street, I’ve noticed your dog barking a lot lately and was wondering if you could quiet him down a bit. Thanks!” I thought it was a nice note. I walked back and stuck it on the front door next to all the signs. I tried not to gag as I crossed back over the lawn towards my house, crunching mothballs.

Every time I passed the house that day—driving to the store, out for a run—I would look to see if the note was still there. I went out to get my mail later in the day and saw that the note was gone. Hm, I thought. Wonder what’ll happen.

It didn’t take long to find out. Around dinner time, a man appeared at my front door and rang the bell. I saw through the window that he was about 60 years old and normal-looking in all ways. He wasn’t carrying a clipboard wanting me to sign something, apparently he had nothing to sell, and he was not carrying a bible. I opened the door. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said gruffly. “My name is so and so and you left a note on my front door this morning about my dog.”

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The man seemed safe enough, so I stepped out. I mentally thanked my higher power that I still had my bra on. I quickly morphed from an assertive, mature woman into a demure and innocent housewife. “Oh, that’s your dog!” I exclaimed, sticking my hand out. When the man shook my hand, I stepped closer to invade his personal space and touched his shoulder with my other hand. I hoped he could smell my perfume. “I hope my note didn’t offend you,” I purred.

“As a matter of fact, it did!” he said. “Dallas only barks when he’s provoked or protecting our house!”

“Sometimes dogs bark when they’re in distress?” I suggested, my inflection rising as I batted my eyelashes.

“Dallas is not in distress! You know what Dallas is? Dallas is being taunted by the stray cats that jump up on the wall. You know what they do? They sit there and hiss at him.”

“Oh, I know…we definitely have a stray cat problem in this neighborhood,” I said, nodding my entire body in full and complete agreement. “They use my yard for a litter box.”

“My wife threw mothballs all over the place outside, which they’re supposed to hate, and still they come,” the man said, obviously exasperated. I knew how he felt; my scary fake owl works that way too.

“And it’s not only that!” the man continued. “Drug deals go down in the alley behind my house all the time—cars pull up, kids stand on lookout on every corner, then they do the deal and peel out. I’ve called the cops many times.” The man seemed to be getting agitated, so I invaded some more of his personal space, touching elbows this time. He seemed to soften a little before adding, “And there is a whore who lives down the street whose ‘boyfriends’ sneak down the alley and jump over fence. Dallas doesn’t like that either.”

I would bark too if I heard kids dealing drugs behind my house and if there was a whore living down the street. Poor Dallas.

“Well,” I said, glad that I was not the whore in reference, “one thing that we could both do is report all these stray cats to the city. I’ll call tomorrow! We need to do something!” I looked the man in the eyes before embracing him. “Let’s work together.”

“That’s a start,” the man sighed, allowing me to rub his back while I rested my head on his shoulder. “But let’s not blame Dallas. Dallas has been a part of our family for ten years. I raised my kids here, they went to the schools in this neighborhood, and you know what? We used to get over 200 trick-or-treaters on Halloween, and this past one we only got 20! This place is just going downhill.”

Luckily I had a Kleenex in my pocket, so I pulled it out and handed it to the man to wipe his tears. “Let’s do our best to make things better,” I said. “For us and Dallas.”

The man nodded, then turned and walked back across the street to his house, his shoulders slumped, still wiping his eyes.

I have not heard from Dallas since.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Still Feral After All These Years

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My black cat Lucy—three years old now, adopted from the pound—came to me with a confession last night.

“Yes Sweetpea?” I said as Lucy settled down on my chest as I lay in bed, trying to read a book. No more of that though: Lucy’s innocent and sweet whiskered face was right next to mine.

“I think I’m feral,” she meeped, looking around wild-eyed in case her happily domesticated sister happened to pounce upon this snuggly moment, ruining it.

“No you’re not,” I cooed, patting her butt, which rose into the air; there’s a butt-button back there somewhere. “You’re just shy. You stopped being feral the moment I took you home from the shelter. Remember?”

I remember sitting in a large but friendly room with about 200 kittens and other people who were there looking for good ones. I’d been instructed to let my kittens pick me, so I sat there cross-legged on the cement floor, waiting for who would come up. The first one was Sara: she was definitely not feral, simply laid off from the Flying Feline Wallendas. She trapezed into my life and has always been outgoing.

But then there was Lucy, a little pudgier than Sara, a solid color black—bused in from another district? For whatever reason, she too wandered toward me, sniffed, and climbed into my lap. She was home. She was five weeks old.

I’m sure that in some way, my cats remember their kitty-colds, their eye infections…all from being at the pound too long. I nursed them for three weeks once they were in my house, every day gently applying salve to their eyes, squirting antibiotic broth into their tiny mouths. I fed them and nursed them back to good health; I clipped their nails and started learning about their toy preferences.

But still, Lucy struggles. She continued last night with her whiskers in my face: “It’s hard for me to live with a more assertive cat, so even though I love you, I hide from you.”

“Luce,” I said, massaging her shoulders which I know she likes. “I always know where to find ya. Just because you’re shy doesn’t make you feral.”

There’s the snack issue in our house: We get snacks twice a day, fairly promptly at 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sara reminds me of this routine by leaping into the air from a sitting position over and over (she is, after all, a retired Flying Wallenda, probably a dog in a former life.)

Lucy—always most comfortable in the back of the house, under my bed—wants snacks too. She has a good nose and will conduct a commando mission from underneath the bed to the kitchen, where the snacks are dispensed, but time and again I have to follow her back to wherever she has come from before (darkness under a bed), and leave the snacks within her reach.

I lie on my back and push kitty treats under my bed. “I can’t see you, sweetie, but I know you’ll like these!”

For over three years I’ve been following Lucy around. She enjoys the sunshine patch in the middle bedroom at 10 a.m.; I make it a point to go in there and rub her belly. She comes to me when I’m working at the computer later, meeps and makes mini-dashes towards whatever sun might be shining in my house at that time. Her message is always clear: “Mom! There is sunshine that you’re missing by the back window. I want to enjoy it and share it with you! Come, Mother, and lie in the sunshine with me.”

Lucy always has good ideas.

She came to me this morning as I worked on the computer, feeling her way gingerly onto my lap. All cuddled in, she began: “It’s hard not to be feral, Mom. You don’t know the conditions I was living in before I met you. I love living with you because we play fun games, my food bowl is always filled, and I know the rules of this house. But I’m skittish and afraid, and nobody ever taught me to be confident. I’m sorry I run away from you, but am glad you find me.”

Then I sneezed and she was off again like any child would be, playing with her sis, tormenting her sis, running down the hallways of my house looking for a new adventure.

Maybe I am feral too: untrained, wild, anti-social. Sometimes I even have fear in my eyes.

No wonder these two picked me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Song Wrecker

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Occasionally, stories tell themselves. They sit there like gurgling babies in the background of your life; they wait for you to acknowledge them. These patient stories are alive in your memory, if you give them the time to sing out. Often though, you ignore them so long, they are elderly babies when you finally get around to them. So you can’t blame an old memory—as good as it might have been—if it doesn’t come out for forty years.

And before this story goes any further, I would also like to remove myself from the hook, take myself out of the firing range, and remind key people that I had nothing to do with this *whatsoever*. These are the kinds of things that happened when I was three and all of my older siblings made a lot of noise and I hid from them.

However, it’s hard to hide in the backseat of a station wagon. It’s difficult to tune out four older siblings—and when I say older, I mean a lot older—who have watched The Sound of Music too many times and now want to sing Do Re Mi out of boredom on the road to North Dakota. We never knew why we were going to North Dakota; it was just something we did as a family, and the older kids sang their way there.

I’m not the family reporter so I don’t have all the facts. I was three and hiding inside a sleeping bag for most of my youth. However, I do remember this phrase being yelled inside our station wagon on plenty of roadtrips:

“Song Wrecker!”

This would normally happen when my sister Mary would try to harmonize with somebody else. The other main singer in our family was our oldest sibling, Ann. That was a fine battle until a new song would come on the radio (which our ever-gracious parents always played, urging us on, I don’t know why).

As far as my memory serves, the first song we wrecked was, “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart”. As if we could sing along with the Bee Gee’s. Not that I was singing though: I was just listening. Listening and learning, my head stuffed underneath the front seat.

I know my siblings wrecked a lot of other songs. As I recall, it was mostly Jenny and Mary, the middle children. I would have been happy playing Candyland on the backseat, but no—these girls had to sing.

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There was one time when I had no idea what was happening. I’m sure my parents felt the same way; we’d been on the road forever. Our cooler of tuna fish sandwiches was empty. We were probably looking for a place to stop for dinner that would take seven wild and dirty Indians. My two singing sisters splayed themselves in the way-back of our station wagon—no seat belts, just hanging out on top of our sleeping bags—and they sang: “Hi Yi a chung a chung chung, achung achung achung chung, a chung a chung, a chung a chung a chung.

They didn’t know the words, and they were hungry. Probably for Chinese.

They would sing a lot on road trips, with Jenny and Mary in the way back, and the older ones in the middle seat. I was too little to sing so that’s why they kept me in the glove compartment. My older sibs sang and harmonized a lot. If someone messed up, they would all yell, "SONG WRECKER!!!"

Mom liked us to sing, but I don't remember Dad ever saying anything while in the car. I do remember Dad glaring through the rear view window at Ann and Craig, but not at me. I remember Dad saying to Ann once, "YOU KNOW I CAN SEE YOU THROUGH THIS MIRROR, DON'T YOU?"

Once, when no one was looking, I tuned the radio to where no one was looking, my thin and strangled arm reaching out from the glove box. I remember a Beatles song about Eleanor Rigby; I kept it to myself of course. I think it was called "All the Lonely People". I read the car registration that time.

I almost feel like I was borne of a car.

I have fond memories of our road trips, mostly of the singing we did because we had nothing else to do. It was fun. Lots of laughter at our mistakes, and a term that has stayed with us all our lives. Not only are we song wreckers, but we have become fun-wreckers and party wreckers too. We are holiday wreckers. And don’t get me started on the ruining part.

Funny how those little things keep popping up in a person's life.

My brother remembers, "Where are you going, my little one?" He says, “We sang the hell out of that song on our journeys. Oddly I also remember thinking that my singing with 'the girls' wasn't a very masculine thing to do.........perhaps if I'd have had a football in my hand while I was singing.”

I am not sure why, but no one has ever asked me what songs I sang or wrecked or even tried to sing when I was a child. The weight of a family when you are the youngest member can be squashing. But I’ll tell you now.

Nine million years ago, I was driving home from a roadtrip with yet another loser boyfriend and my radio didn’t work in the Northern Arizona boonies. So I decided to sing, and this is what came out:

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

It was not a song we listened to on the radio. My mom played it for us on the piano. It was the only song I knew by heart.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Glint of Maybe

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A student asked me yesterday if she could smoke her electronic cigarette in class. None of my standard facial expressions seemed appropriate for the situation: not my frustrated face, not my withering look, not even the one I save for when I try to appear open-minded but am not. No student had asked this before.

“What was that?” I said, deaf to the words “electronic” and “cigarette” put together.

She pulled out a small tube that resembled a pen, then pulled the cap off. “It’s a smokeless cigarette,” she said. “You can’t smell it and there’s hardly any nicotine in it.” She pushed the pen’s clicker and showed me how the inside glowed, kind of like my car’s cigarette lighter: coiled and hot. “It’s helping me quit smoking,” she added.

I’m sure I looked at her as if I was seeing a live birth for the first time, a car crash about to happen…somebody explaining AIDS or the computer to me for the first time.

“I don’t know about that,” I said sternly, searching for a good reason to say no: a legitimate and resounding “NO”. Surely there must be something in the handbook that would answer this question in my favor. There always is. I just didn’t have a copy on hand, so I did what most other parents-I-mean-teachers do around the country: I fished for more information. “What do your other instructors say about this!?” I boomed into the sparkly eyes, natural blush, and straight white teeth of this student.

“They say it’s okay!” she said, smiling. “They even asked me to give a class demonstration.”

Great. Now I’m the mean old teacher who is not allowing new technology into her classroom. Smoking is bad, I know that, but this seems better than the old style. Still, it’s only a matter of time before they all discover this device, start using it, bringing it to class, and then I’m competing against ear buds, cell phones, laptops…and smokes. How would I feel if they were all pursing their lips and taking drags off electronic cigarettes? Probably worse than how I feel now when they text during my lectures.

“Ya know,” I said, hedging in a way that more parents and politicians and teachers should do when it comes to determining right and wrong, yes and no, “I need to look into this. I myself certainly don’t want to break the law again, so bear with me.”

My student readily agreed and bounced back to her seat, no hard feelings. If I didn’t get Botox, I’m sure my brow would have been furrowed. My lips have taken on much of the heat that my forehead used to bear in times like these. I left campus that day chapped, wrinkles from whatever kind of smoking I used to do and might still do now easily found on my face. Right next to the dimples.

Electronic cigarettes, I thought as I drove home. What a frickin’ world. They want to smoke but I don’t want them to. I want a classroom’s attention but they want to smoke. I want to teach but somebody’s smoking. Is smoking okay if we’re learning? Maybe they would pay better attention if I let them electronically smoke. What would be best for the class? Am I a fuddy-duddy? Is the world dealing with this problem or is it just me?

My student’s words rang in my ears: “It’s just a vaporizer.”

At home, I changed out of my school clothes into my play clothes and went to light a match.

Weapons quickly surrendered, I watched the sunset from my patio. I took in the clouds and color in the far distance, then my beautiful yard, the canopies of my trees and new growth on my plants, then my radio and cement, and finally the pattern on my pajama bottoms. I loved it all.

I loved it all so much, I was not able to pick sides or determine who was right in that afternoon's schoolhouse tussle. Gaddafi over his citizens, Imelda over her shoes—who has time for that? I am a leader of tomorrow’s leaders. If they want to smoke raspberry flavored air-nicotine in my class, who’s stopping them?

God knows it's somebody better than me.