Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Have a Bad Day

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Begin by waking up with a racing heart because you have just dreamt that you’ve pushed a nest full of baby birds off your roof and onto the ground, baby birds now dead or nearly dead, screeching and flopping around with broken necks. These are pigeon babies—the dream comes from your ongoing efforts to stop pigeons from raising their families on your house. You would never murder baby birds in real life, not on purpose, so chalk this up to a stress dream.

Calm your broken heart by throwing extra seed to the pigeons you feed in the backyard. Think, You can eat here, guys. You just can’t move in.

Later, head out into the 100 degree heat to run errands, though you will not actually run: you will slog slow-motion through your errands as your scalp sweats and your arms break out in a sun rash. Make your first stop the nail salon for a pedicure. The salon’s air conditioning will not be working and your technician will leave you sitting with your feet in hot swirling water for thirty minutes while he talks on the phone outside. You are a limp noodle. When he returns, ask if you can take a shower in back to freshen up. Pretend to brighten when he scowls and answers you in Vietnamese.

Wonder why, when you ask for flowers to be painted on your toenails, he eagerly agrees but then only paints flowers on your two big toes, not every toe. You are dejected. Is there something wrong with the rest of your toenails? Just because a few of them grow vertically instead of horizontally, is that any reason to shun them? Try not to appear as if you’ve lost all of your possessions in a natural disaster when you are presented with the bill: $15 extra for two tiny flowers. Tip generously in an attempt to redirect karma.

Go to the mall. Walk in like you have poop in your pants because your toenails are still wet—step carefully. Start at the electronics store, which will not have the printer ink cartridges you need because your printer is a dinosaur and they don’t make ink cartridges for it anymore. Fear and loss will wash through you, just as it does every time your favorite lipstick is discontinued.

Feel like you are a dinosaur as you poop-walk down the corridor to the watch repair place with your favorite but broken watch on your wrist: Can they replace your battery? Sure they can! High-step around the mall for half an hour with your toes splayed—you are not going to risk ruining this $50 two-flower pedicure. Return to the watch repair place to discover that your watch doesn’t use a battery because it’s solar-powered, and even though you live in the Valley of the Sun, your solar-powered watch is dead because—since you are on break from work—you haven’t worn it for two weeks.

Your watch is so old, they don’t make parts for it anymore. You have starved your only watch to death.

Poop-walk out to your car and get in: it will be one billion degrees inside because you forgot to put your sunshade up. Drive to the grocery store, where the funny produce manager will ask if that cyst on your face is a boy or a girl. Ha ha. Search up and down the aisles for the items on your list, but fail to find the two items you can’t live without: vegetarian “cheese” slices and Ziploc veggie steamer bags. Try not to perform a one-act tragedy when the check-out girl asks, “Did you find everything you need?”

Drive home, carry your groceries into the house, and note that it takes your electric garage door five attempts of rattling up and down, up and down, before finally agreeing to close. There’s been something wrong with it for a long time. You know how your garage door feels.

Make dinner out of real cheese and raw vegetables. Bloat up. Watch TV and pass such bad gas that your cats refuse to sit with you. Finally, call it a night, and try not to blow yourself out of your own bed.

Vow to start fresh tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

25th Class Reunion Questionnaire, Part One

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Q. Number of Persons Attending?

A. You tell me. Did you invite everybody? There were 125 of us when this all started. Obviously we’ve lost a few, but some of us have multiple personalities now. Have you taken that into consideration? Can I bring my siblings and my parents and my cousins and call this a family reunion too, like the two birds and one stone thing?

I also made a lot more friends in college and in real life than I ever made in high school. Can I bring them too? This might make up for the wedding I made them all attend in 2002. You are saving my butt!

Q. How far will you travel one way to attend the reunion?

A. Well, I will be traveling many bitter miles from South America, where I fix cleft palates on children in third world countries. I know I was never very popular in high school, but these kids really like me. Their parents give me seashells, and I trade them for cocaine. You would not believe how easy it is to get cocaine anymore.

Is that bad?

Q. How long have you been married?

A. What!?!? You didn’t hear about my fiasco of a marriage that ended with my sleazoid of a husband suing me for spousal support? My husband who took all of the money we got as wedding gifts and spent it to pay his mortgage? My husband whose child support I paid for two years because…because…because.

I am no longer married.

Q. Spouse, Boyfriend, Girlfriend (circle one)

A. I don’t understand this question. Are you asking me to circle a person I like? Believe you me, I circle people. I circle around and around, hoping that they get my vibe. Maybe this is putting people off.

Good question.

Q. How many children do you have?

A. I was very fond of my ex-husband’s child, but of course he wasn’t mine. I had to let him go. Since then, I have had a cat named The Urinator who peed on all of my stuff. I had to let him go as well.

Now I have two former members of the Flying Feline Wallendas, Sara and Lucy, who I adopted from a shelter. I accept no blame for whatever bad happens to them in this house—clipped toenails, time-outs in their bedroom, store-bought treats instead of real meat treats—because they were the ones who walked towards me on tiny feet.

Now I just string marine rope between the rooms in my home and watch them perform. At night, I prostrate myself so they can cuddle into me like babies. I think they really like me.

Was that the right answer?

Q. What is your occupation/employer?

A. Well, as I have said, I do travel abroad and fix cleft palates. In my mind. I definitely donate to that cause: The Smile Train.

Actually, I just teach English at a community college in Arizona. I love it! The higher education system has progressed in the last 25 years so that now we all wear badges and swipe ourselves into classrooms, meetings, and our offices too. No more just waltzing into a room anytime you want, gads. How gauche. Also, you never know when somebody might be carrying a concealed weapon, which really makes for some heady confrontations during the workday. I mean, you never know who’s carrying and who’s not. I had an angry dad breach security and come into my classroom last semester. What a rush. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I can’t wait to see you guys in August, if somebody doesn’t mow me down between now and then!

Remember: I am the classmate who lives in Arizona, trying to innocently circle my friends and family and students, drawing them closer. I am working hard here to promote goodness.

Save a place for me at the kegger. I would also like to reserve two spots for the Feline Wallendas, and one more for the girl who went flying through gym class with her ten-foot maxi pad sticking out of her shorts. Oh my God.

That was me too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Every Quaking Moment

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Do you ever feel that no matter how many good deeds you perform in a day, somebody or something is going to erupt to ruin the warm fuzzies? This has been happening to me a lot lately.

For instance, I regularly clean my house and can often be found on my hands and knees, vacuuming cat hair out from underneath the beds or scrubbing the bathroom floors. These are good deeds for the household. I was cleaning the bathroom the other day and the phone rang; it was my brother.

“Hi!” I said, wiping up a hairball from behind the toilet. “Whassup?”

“I’m just going to cut to the chase here,” he said. “The whole family thinks you’re abusing drugs. You isolate yourself and slur your words.”

Oh my God, I thought. I don’t shlur my words. Not on purposh. I have a shpeech impediment.

“I am NOT abusing drugs and you can pass that along the family grapevine,” I replied, polishing the mirror so I could see myself more clearly, even if others could not. “Solve-it-all was prescribed for me because I need it, so I take it. Get used to it.”

We hung up then and made up later, but not before all the joy was sucked out of my sparkling toilet.

And I often have playtime with my cats, ten minutes or so in the late morning of dragging long pieces of twine around the house, over the river and through the woods. I gaily urge them, “Come on! Get it! You can do it! Run run run!” This morning during playtime, I galloped by my computer to check my e-mail: you never know when an important one might slide in.

There were two of note, one from a friend in Minnesota who had just received the package of coupons I’d sent to her upon her request, budget gal that she is: “You don’t understand my health situation! These are not the right type of coupons! Stop sending them! I don’t eat like you!” Hm, okay, I thought. Maybe I’ll blow my head off after playtime.

The other e-mail was from a summer school student, responding to my “Welcome Aboard!” note: “I cannot access anything for our online class that starts in a week. I am totally confused about online classes and feel like you are ignoring me. I want my money back and will be reporting you to the dean. Thank you.”

Cheerful kitty-string playtime continued for a good five minutes while I thought about how teaching used to be so much easier when students didn’t bully me, when a good deed was recognized and appreciated, even if it came with flaws, from a flawed human being.

I went for an exercise-walk later to work off all my good-deed steam. Low temps have lasted longer in Arizona this spring, so it’s been fun to whirl through my neighborhood—a four-limbed pinwheel of good cheer—and watch yards come to life in late May.

“Hey Tom!” I called out, barreling by a house with a man standing outside. I know his name is Tom because these folks have what looks like a gravestone in their front yard that says, “The Tom and Lisa Smith’s,” with their pictures sandblasted onto it. I’ve walked by this house a million times, Tom has been standing outside a thousand times, and I’ve dismissed the fact that the gravestone has incorrect punctuation hundreds of times. I’m over it.

Tom stared at me in silence as if he’d never seen me before. Granted, we’ve never been formally introduced, but when you have a gravestone outside your house with your name and picture etched into it, I think you need to accept the fact that people are going to make a connection between you and that name. I mean, I knew he wasn’t Lisa.

I twirled home and took sheets out of the dryer, white sheets that a loved one had slept on just the night before. They would be fresh for her when she comes the next time…another good deed. I folded them and put them into the linen closet next to my neat pile of clean towels, then crawled into the closet and hid.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Little Ones

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I understand that when you have pets, there are going to be accidents. For heaven’s sake, I used to have a cat named Joey—the love of my life, my very first baby—who, toward “the end”, sprayed urine on every God-loving surface in this house.

It didn’t matter what I said or did, nor how I reacted: If there was something within Joey’s reach, he pissed on it. It was that simple. If he could do it while I watched, that was even better. If he could huff at me like a rabid dog afterward, that was the best. I never did figure out what he was trying to tell me, but after a couple months, enough was enough. I’m sure by now he’s figured out what I was trying to tell him, now that he’s crossed over to be with Jesus.

But with my new little ones--Sara and Lucy—I have to cut them some slack. They’re still running willy-nilly through the house, falling on their heads, suckling on each other like piglets, coming to me with the most doleful looks on their mugs when they are exhausted, reproach in their eyes, as if they can only fall asleep if I stop moving too.

So they are adorable, yes, but not accident-free, not quite yet. We’ve had one memorable upset when Lucy became entangled in a plastic grocery sack and careened through the house for two minutes before snagging the sack on something and leaving it behind. Unfortunately she'd become so beside herself that she peed in the sack, which leaked a bit behind the couch. Still, she was delicate about it—a drop in the bucket compared to Joey’s firehose blasting of my walls and possessions.

But then there was today, which now I think will live in memoriam as The Day One of the Kittens Shit In My Bed. I had just stripped my bed and put my sheets in the washer when I returned to my bedroom to do whatever. I glanced at my bed—now covered with just a mattress pad—and noticed dark spots on it. I cocked my head; they hadn’t been there just minutes before. Because I am one part bloodhound, one part Nell, and one part Inspector Clouseau, I flew to the spots for a closer smell.

There was no doubt: it had been a fly-by shitting, and it had to have been either Sara or Lucy. More than likely Sara, who I had seen dragging her shitty butt across the back of my favorite chair just days earlier.

In any case, I realized that I would have to wash the mattress pad too, so I stripped that off and then built a tent-like structure around my bed with the remaining blankets so that no cat ass could get close to my sleeping quarters. I went about my business and went into the girls’ room to vacuum, and found yet another cluster of black dots and smears…on the wall, at kitty-ass height. I leaned down to make sure, and one whiff told the story: somebody had backed up against that wall, raised her tail and scraped her crappy ass against it, probably using the textured pattern much as humans might use the rippled texture of high-grade toilet paper.

As I wiped the wall down with a few nuclear squirts from my last precious bottle of 409, I sang forth to St. Francis: St Francis! What is up, man? What’s with this forsaking me shit?

I thought I heard my sweet baby angel Joey singing forth right back.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Custerfluck

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I usually rise and shine about 6:30 every morning, but today I was awake and in motion a little earlier because a sprinkler repair guy was coming over at 7 a.m. to fix the bubbling and boiling going on in my backyard. The decorative gravel and Arizona clay underneath had tried to come to life a couple months ago—pulsating moistly in one particular spot, the earth moving under my feet--and back then I thought I’d struck oil. But it was just a broken PVC pipe.

This time I thought, I bet that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to tunnel out of California into my yard.

In any case, the repair guy arrived right on time and I met him outside, prepared for battle in my pajamas and slippers, wielding my coffee cup. I hadn’t put a bra on yet and was wearing my glasses with transition lenses, which make me look like Sammy the Bull at any given time. My hair was greasy and I had banana in my teeth.

“Hey,” I called out to this average-looking man whose butt cleavage I would soon be staring into.

“Howdy!” he said, bending over. “Let me see here...I don’t see a leak. I can’t detect a leak. Doesn’t look like a leak to me.”

“You’re not standing in the right spot,” I said. “There’s a sinkhole by the olive tree.” There might also be a tunnel underneath leading to California, I wanted to add.

“Oh yeah yeah yeah, can you turn the irrigation system on? Oh yeah! I see it! Turn it off. Hmmmm. Can you turn it on again? Turn it off. Okay, turn it on again.”

Was I going to get paid ten bucks an hour as an assistant? I sipped my coffee as I stood by the control box, turning it on and off, on and off, wishing it was this easy with all men in life.

“As you can see,” I called out, “there is an entire area of earth right there that is rising and falling with every burst of water.” The only thing missing here is the Pacific Ocean and seashells, man. Figure it out.

“Oh my God!” my muddy repairman finally yelled. “There are two leaks in the system! Turn it off!” I flipped the switch again.

As my short-shirted, naked-bunned repair guy got to work, I tried to excuse myself back inside, but no. This man had a story to tell: “I can’t believe all this weed fabric all over your yard. This shit doesn’t even work; it just makes my job harder.” Cut cut rip rip with a hunting knife. “Hey, do you know the story about Noah’s Ark?

No, I have never heard that story, who do you think I am, you dummy.

“Well, it transported animals, which is DNA. That’s what the earth is: a whole bunch of DNA, and I tend the earth. I am Keeper of the Earth’s Ark! I listened to the Great Spirit and he told me this is what I’m supposed to do, so I do it, and I love it. I don’t rip off customers; I couldn’t live with myself if I did. I can’t lie…it’s not in my DNA.

“The Great Spirit who runs this whole show, he’ll talk to you if you’re not doing something right. It’s your problem if you don’t listen to him; you’ll just get into more trouble. God was telling Osama bin Laden to leave the U.S. alone, but bin Laden didn’t listen, so he blew up the Twin Towers. Look what happened to him –dead. His son, dead. It’s because he was listening to hate, not God.

“Same thing with Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer should’ve left the Indians alone, but he didn’t…he was not listening to God. Indian women pierced his ear drums after he died so he could hear God in the afterlife. Did you know that? Little known fact.

“You’re probably on sacred Indian burial grounds here. Everyone is, you know. The entire United States belongs to the Indians and they are buried everywhere.” He grinned up at me. “You’re probably cursed, living here.”

I smiled and nodded, backing up towards the house. Obviously he hadn’t heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger's difficulties. “I’m going inside to write you a check,” I said. “That’s seventy-five, right?”

“Is that your baby crying?” he said through the splash of mud on his face. “You got a baby in there?”

“No,” I quickly answered. “That’s my cat. She sounds like a baby sometimes, but she’s not.” I ran in and put Sara in a basket, pushing her gently through the reeds and down the canal that circles back to my front door.

I wrote the man a check before any more current events or cruel history could ruin what was left of my morning.

“You’re a beautiful woman!” called out Landscape Service Man as he backed away from me and my house and my baby, check in hand. “You really are! And you know I can’t lie!”

I wanted to go to lunch and have a thousand splendid drinks with someone who knew me. But instead, I watched Landscape Service Man drive away, and turned back to life as usual.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Rummage Sale Disaster of 1978

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My sisters in Minnesota are having rummage sales this weekend. They live across the street from one another in a small town, so shoppers can walk back and forth between their yards and garages: a two-for-one rummaging opportunity. If I was there—which I’m not, because I live in Arizona—I’d be sitting in a lawn chair tossing quarters into a coffee can, making change for dollar bills, cackling with my sisters, and waiting for my parents to stop by with lunch from Burger King.

This reminds me of the Great Rummage Sale Disaster of 1978. We lived in Bemidji, Minnesota, and our house had a barn instead of a garage—an oddity, since we lived in town. Our barn was rectangular instead of square, with many huge gates that opened onto our yard; it was actually a livery stable. You would expect horse-drawn carriages to come clopping down the alley and into the barn, but that never happened. We just had rummage sales in there.

One summer day, my older sister Mary was helping our mom run yet another sale. This one was a two-day event and huge: clothes that five children had outgrown all hanging on racks, old camping gear we never used anymore, books that had been read, silverware and jewelry and knick-knacks everywhere. Our picnic table outside was stacked with old dishes and dolls.

Toward the end of the second day when most of our stuff was gone, Mary made a dreadful, dreadful error: Someone came up to her and asked to buy my mother’s tablecloth, which was neatly laid over one of the tables inside the barn. So many items had been sold that the tablecloth’s charms were finally visible: It was reversible, with a Happy Birthday motif on one side and a Christmas motif on the other. It was made of thick, soft vinyl—easy to wipe down after seven people spilled on it—and it had been in our family for years. On our birthdays, we would always get up in the morning to see the kitchen table covered with the Happy Birthday tablecloth—my mother made sure of that. During the holidays, the tablecloth would emerge again: old-fashioned Santas and reindeer soaring across the vinyl, holly and Christmas ornaments and colorful wrapped presents spilling everywhere. It would be on the table for weeks.

With my mother inside the house making dinner, Mary sold the reversible tablecloth for fifty cents. For whatever reason, she had forgotten or somehow never recognized the fact that this was a family heirloom and one our mother’s most prized possessions. Upon discovering Mary’s mistake, our mother was frantic. She put an ad in the paper offering a reward; she posted signs on telephone poles in our neighborhood. She even went on the radio during the local Swap and Shop program, my shy mother, begging for the tablecloth’s return.

We never saw it again.

My sister was devastated over our mother’s devastation; she would have gladly moved into the barn and lived there for the rest of her high school years if it would have helped facilitate my mother’s recovery. But there was nothing to be done except to endure a noticeably reduced level of joy during the next several birthdays in our house, and a toned-down Christmas or two as we all got used to less cheer coming from our round oak table.

This is an old story; my sister’s apologies and my mother’s forgiveness are now just facts of our lives. Hopefully the reversible tablecloth is either still in good use, or in a fitting grave. The loss of that tablecloth introduced a new era in our family—placemats—and we’ve been a placemat family ever since.

My parents still have that same round oak table, which is now two inches thinner than it was back in 1978 because Mary and I accidentally started a fire on it during the Great Candle Disaster of Christmas ’94. We all survived, and my parents had the table shaved down. You can only see a small burn spot in the middle now instead of a fire pit. Sorry about that.

If anybody finds the thick, sturdy, reversible holiday tablecloth that warmed my mother’s heart in ways a kitchen fire never could, please get in touch. I know a few people whose hearts would soar to see it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Quicksand Thinking

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I go to my dermatologist for many reasons: to maintain the success we’ve had in eradicating the mange on my scalp, to see if we can talk my cystic acne into retreating back to the evil place, and to make sure the Arizona sun isn’t killing me softly. I zoom twenty miles across the city from my house in the burbs to my dermatologist’s office in downtown Phoenix, which is a long way, but she’s a good doctor, and those are hard to find.

Yesterday it was time to go again, so I gathered up all of the useless lotions and potions and pills I have been prescribed over the last few months and put them into a small paper sack. These would work as physical reminders to my doctor that while she was trying hard to make my acne disappear, in reality, her magic was not working.

When I arrived at the medical building where my dermatologist has an office, I circled around the parking structure all the way up to the third level—no open spots. That was odd. I hesitated to keep driving up because I began to see “staff only” and “reserved” signs, but I couldn’t turn around. I decided to pull into a spot on the short side of the structure, where no spots were specifically marked “reserved”—unless you wanted to consider the huge “RESERVED FOR MEDICAL STAFF” sign hanging from the ceiling that may or may not have applied to all of the parking spaces on that particular level.

I grabbed my sack full of useless prescription drugs, took the stairs down to street level, then walked right up to the armed security guard who was sitting at the front desk in the lobby. Pretty girls used to sit there and talk on their cell phones, waving you by, but today a large and ugly woman was there with a gun. I felt compelled to confess my risky parking situation to her—she looked like she could eat my car if she wanted to—and she said if I left it there, it would get towed. Period. She would tow it. I imagined her in a harness, pulling my car through the parking structure and down the street, maybe to Tent City—my car in prison stripes and orange flip-flops, eating a stale bologna sandwich.

I ran back and moved the car all the way to the top level, then hurried back down to street level again. I passed the security woman who should have gotten the Charlize Theron part in Monster—now inspecting the screens that showed other possible parking crimes—and took the elevator up to my dermatologist’s office. After a short wait, I was called to a room, and soon enough my doctor came in to examine me.

“I’m bothered by these white spots on my forehead,” I said.

She tilted my face back to see it better in the light, and said, “Those need to be exorcised.”

Yup, that’s just my luck. I have evil demon spots on my forehead that need to be expelled by a priest. Only I would get those. I probably deserve them. That would explain a lot about what’s been going on in my life.

“I mean excised,” she said, giggling.

That made a lot more sense, not that I wanted her digging holes in my forehead either.

“Do I have any other options?” I said. I imagined an atomic facial peel that would make my nose smaller and my upper lip grow, along with annihilating the little white bumps.

She tilted my head back down and looked me in the eye. “They’re tiny. You could just live with them.”

Live with them? And see them every day in the mirror? “Good morning tiny white spots. Would you like some coffee, tiny white spots? Tiny white spots, you’re the one. You make bath time lots of fun.”

I would have been happier with the exorcism, but I guess I’ll learn to accept my imperfections…someday. Tiny white spots, I’m awfully fond of you?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Adoro a mi madre

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Everybody has their first childhood memory, like that one fourth of July so long ago when you watched your father break down the bathroom door and drag out your dead great-aunt with her pantyhose around her ankles. Remember? It was the hottest day of the summer, and everybody knew she’d been in there too long.

I’m not saying that was my own first memory. It probably wasn’t yours either. In truth, that was my oldest sister’s eighth memory, but I’ve heard the story so many times it’s almost like I’d been there, though I hadn’t even been born yet.

Fortunate or not, our entire family excels at recollection, except for my father, who has blocked out many of these episodes in the name of Christ.

My own first real memory occurred when I was five. I’m not talking about a little memory, a short snippet of things happening like throwing up on somebody’s kitchen floor or sitting on a horse somewhere. I’m talking about full-fledged, action-oriented memory with sounds, color, and other people. My first memory is connected with a young woman who showed up on our front doorstep one afternoon, dripping blood from her skinless arm.

I remember the doorbell ringing, and I remember walking to the front door with my mother. We were alone in the house, as my four older siblings were at school, and I had already returned from my half-day of kindergarten. I remember walking towards the front door, which was open into the hallway, and seeing through the screen door that there was a girl standing on our front porch. She had light-colored disheveled hair, and no skin on her left forearm. Because she had no skin on her arm, she was dripping blood all over our front porch, which was made of cement that my mother had painted red. Our house was green, our porch was red, and this girl was standing on our front porch dripping red blood all over the red steps.

The girl never said anything to my mother—she simply emitted a low howl of pain—but my mother expressed verbal concern (while I do not remember her words, I remember the tone of her voice), at which point a man drove up in a car, leapt out, and ran to our door. He asked my mother for a towel, and she told me to go get him one. I ran through the house to the bathroom, pulled a bath towel off the rack, and ran back to the front part of the house, where my mother, the girl, and the man were still standing—my mother inside, the two others outside on the porch. My mother opened the screen door slightly, passed the towel to the man, and then closed the screen door. I remember the man wrapping the towel around the girl’s bloody arm, and then they left.

And that’s it: my first memory. I don’t remember what my mother and I talked about afterward, and I don’t recall sharing the incident with anybody else in the family. I did find out, years later, that the girl had been mentally impaired, and that a group of delinquent boys had been teasing her outside of the local Big Boy restaurant, and that they had ended up pushing her through the glass door of the restaurant. The man who met her at our house remains unidentified, and how she chose our house remains unclear.

I have not been haunted by this memory. I harbor no real sympathy for the girl, and no ill will towards the boys who pushed her through the door. I was only five, and since I was unable to understand the complexity, the sad irregularity, of the situation at the time, it has only left me with a vivid impression of one isolated event. Why mention it at all? I’ll tell you: Because I believe that shortly after that event, I started paying far better attention. My mother’s unwillingness to open the door and step outside into the mess of that girl pushed me in the opposite direction, and I have been a willing participant in the complications of life ever since. I don’t mean to blame my mother for not investing more of herself into the girl’s unfortunate circumstance: I’m sure she was frightened and stunned, and feeling protective of me. In fact, if I hadn’t been there, my mother might very well have thrown open the screen door and taken the girl inside, tended to her arm, called the police. But I was there, and it made all the difference.

I do pay very close attention to people and circumstances now. I can’t help it; it’s the way I turned out. However, paying attention can take extra time, extra patience, extra heartache—even extra money—and there’s no guarantee that funneling all this energy into the outside world will ever really matter. In fact, a good case could be made in favor of tuning most everything and everyone out. Case in point: I have a friend who takes antidepressants regularly, because without them she sinks into the abyss of meaninglessness. While the antidepressants save her from the deepest despair, they also deprive her of the true highs of happiness, so she occasionally stops taking them. The last time she took herself off her meds, I found her standing alone one day in the restroom at work, crying. I asked her what was wrong, and—her breath catching—she said, “You know that screen that lets you watch the news at night without breaking down?” I nodded; I know that screen. “I lost mine,” she said, and I knew how terrible that was.

Perhaps when I was five and my mother withheld her physical person from the bleeding girl on our doorstep, I sensed the presence of her own screen for the first time: she was filtering out the worst part, the tangible cruelties and resulting pain. I know that ever since then—when I started getting older and noticing more details, making connections, sensing the nuances of situations that had escaped me before—I have possessed a screen of my own.

Sometimes I carry it directly in front of me, feeling safe and smart. Sometimes I allow it to slip, wanting to be more involved. And sometimes it falls away on its own.

I try to make sense of reality, so far as it’s happened to me, and so far as I can determine its truth. Today I dedicate the flawed and tawdry and perfect work of my life to my mother, who—purposely or not—encouraged me to carry my screen at all times, for my own safety and mental health. I do the best I can. Thank you, mi madre...and my apologies as well.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How to Lose Five Pounds

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At one time or another, most of us have wanted to lose some weight. I can certainly remember my own high-number points: the “freshman fifteen” in college; twenty extra pounds when I spent a year in Alaska and it stayed dark for nine months (I hibernated); and two full years of the I-Don’t-Care’s after my spirit-sucking divorce when I ate and drank anything I wanted. I remember standing out on the patio of my new home after the divorce dust finally settled, looking at my reflection in the patio door: There I was, smoking a cigarette, dressed for school in my old-lady fat clothes, thinking, This is so not me. Soon enough, I found my mom-and-pop (and fireman!) gym, learned how to cook for one, and ever since I’ve been fairly lean and mean.

Of course there are times of slippage, like when I go home to Minnesota for Christmas and eat piles of fudge and frosted sugar cookies. Or very often in the spring, after our bitterly cold Arizona winters, when it’s much more fun to stroll around the neighborhood to see all the new colors than it is to exercise inside. But walking the ‘hood is not the same as hitting the gym—I don’t care what Dr. Oz tells you—and this inevitably leads, for me, to that extra layer of body fat that bloats my face, reestablishes my linebacker shoulders, and has me carrying my naked breasts from shower to bedroom so that I don’t develop a hunchback before I can strap them into a bra. My inner thighs also start giving off sparks.

I’m finally tired of the five pounds I gained this spring, so am back into my regular eating and exercising regimen. I don’t call this a diet…I call this part of my obsessive/compulsive lifestyle that you too can adopt if you have body dysmorphia like me.

First off, if you have some extra weight on you, grabbing at it, squeezing it, and slapping it around will not make it go away. Believe me, I know. You have to get into an eating routine. Here are some suggestions:

1. Eat a piece of fruit when you get up in the morning. I don’t care if you ate an entire pizza the night before…eat the fruit and drink your coffee to let your stomach know who’s in charge.

2. Later in the morning, eat something else breakfasty: a couple boiled eggs, a bowl of oatmeal, peanut butter toast. Throw down a handful of almonds or walnuts and have another piece of fruit. The beauty of this is that it keeps you from being hungry.

3. For lunch you have an array of options: lentil soup, black bean soup, pea soup…a turkey sandwich…a Balance energy bar…or any combination thereof. I’m not much into mentioning brands, but I have to praise the Balance bar, which comes in a variety of flavors, is always good, and is always only 200 calories. I take them everywhere.

4. In the afternoon, have more fruit or—better yet—some raisins and almonds. Some people might call this “trail mix”, but I hesitate to use the term because while “trail mix” sounds healthy, it’s not. Trail mix will ruin your figure and undermine any other efforts you might make to lost weight. Trail mix is not your friend; think of it as the Osama bin Laden of food. Instead, throw a handful of almonds and another handful of raisins into a baggie and take that to work with you. Call it a snack.

5. Dinnertime! (You might think of this as “suppertime” if you’re from the Midwest). No longer will you be that frazzled working girl in the TV commercial wondering what to cook, because I’m going to make this easy: You either get a big salad with turkey, chickpeas, olives, dried cranberries and low-fat dressing, or—instead (not in addition)—a huge pile of steamed veggies* with pepper and parmesan cheese, and some chicken, turkey sausage or salmon on the side. Yes, I said “on the side”—Dr. Oz is right on this one. Do not cover your plate with meat.

*I have to give a shout-out to Ziploc Zip ‘n Steam bags here. I swear they aren’t paying me to say this, but honestly, all you have to do is chop up your veggies, stick them in the bag, and nuke it. Presto: they come out perfect every time. I’m thinking of submitting Ziploc steamer bags to the Pope as a miracle.

6. And finally, your nightly snack. Forget what everybody says about not eating past 8 p.m. or not eating for two hours before bedtime. I used to date Mr. Natural America (who is now in a nursing home, but still—these are time-honored ideas) so I know that it doesn’t matter when you eat: it’s how much you eat. So feel free to enjoy one of the following while you sit on the couch and watch TV: four individually packaged cups of Hunt’s Snackpack sugar-free pudding OR three fourths of a pint of any sorbet you like (sorry…not the whole thing). These are your only nighttime snack options; do not combine them.

7. IF you are still hungry as you trundle off to bed, if you’re wringing your hands thinking I won’t make it to morning, I know I won’t, boo-hoo, then eat a banana. I promise, a banana at bedtime will put you right to sleep.

You might have noticed that this eating plan contains very little cheese, very little bread, and few prepared products. Also: no butter, no oil, no added salt, no calorie-laden beverages. None of this might sound very appealing to you, but listen: when my inner thighs start to spark, that’s an S.O.S. to my mind saying, “Katie Jane, you ignorant slut! Put the pizza down and get on your treadmill!”

I just don’t want you to suffer through all that like I do.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Birthday Girl

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Last night I was standing in the shower thinking, I can’t believe I’m going to be 43 tomorrow. What an ugly number. At least when I was 42 you could imagine a one in place of the four and think of 12, but with 43 you automatically add the numbers and times ten: 70. 12 is cute; 70 is not.

Yup, one more year away from the Roaring Thirties, one more year towards death. Last year’s birthday was good: went out with my best friend for sushi, had a great time. Too bad she knocked the leftovers out of my hands when she went to hug me goodbye. That was a sight, raw fish all over the asphalt. She felt so bad. I love her so much.

What will I do tomorrow? I have to teach all day; it’s not like my students know it’s my birthday. I hope they’re not sarcastic or snarky or too critical with me—I don’t know where they’re picking that up from. I wonder how many people will call me. I know all of my siblings and my parents will call; that’s five calls right there. How many years do I have left of those five calls on my birthday? Which one of us will go first? I hate to think of it.

Look at my body. I can’t shake those five pounds I gained in Oman. Now I have a tummy—even my face is rounder. I guess it’s okay, maybe I was too thin anyway—the crinkles around my eyes were starting to look like prehistoric crow’s feet. My nose always looks huge when I’m thin. Speaking of huge—look at my boobs. That’s where the fat always goes. These look like flotation devices. But still, even with the Omani pounds, I’ve never been this thin in my life, except for when I was sick and almost died. Best not to be that thin again. I’m not too worried.

Jesus--my sciatic nerve is so tight it makes my left foot turn out when I walk. Sexy. Gotta get that looked at. What am I waiting for? And my eyebrows—why am I growing my eyebrows out right now? That’s something you wait for summer to do, when school’s over. Only I would grow my eyebrows out in the middle of the semester. I look like Andy Rooney. I must be getting old if I don’t care anymore.

There are so many things I don’t care about anymore. Thank God. It’s been freeing getting old. Don’t wear makeup to the store anymore…don’t care if I go to Walgreen’s in my jammies and slippers. Don’t care what I wear outside in the yard, flood pants and no bra. Go the gym even if my hair’s greasy. Say what I want when I think it’s the truth—people are going to like me or not. Nice to not have a conniption now every time somebody hates me.

But I still care about a lot of things. I want to look good when it counts. I always shower before school now; that’s an improvement. I care about my job, my family, those pigeon eggs I accidentally killed yesterday when I accidentally pushed their little nest off the porch ledge when I was just trying to clean out there. Oh my God, I felt so bad about that. I didn’t see a nest! Can’t pigeons build a real nest? It was just twigs and then plop plop, two broken eggs. How was I supposed to know? No birthdays for them. And then their parents flew around and cooed all day. Break my heart.

I have to stop thinking about that. It was an accident.

Well, I’m glad I scrubbed down this shower last weekend and cleaned the whole bathroom so one less maid has a job. I don’t know why I don’t get somebody to help me. It’s so hard to do it all. Hope somebody around here remembers to buy more shampoo. It was nice of that lady who cut my hair today to tell me how soft my hair is. I never knew that. It was nice of that girl at work to tell me I have pretty toes. I don’t have pretty toes; I barely even have a baby toe—it’s a parasitic twin. I have to paint the nail on. Makes you wonder what her toes look like.

Did I wash my face? Who cares, I’ll wash it again. I can’t remember anything anymore. What day is it even? Oh yeah— the day before my birthday. I’m going to be 43 tomorrow. I cannot believe that. I hope I get to be really old. That would be cool. Maybe I’ll meet a guy.

I want to go to Africa next year. Or Cuba. Now that I’ve been to Oman, I know I can take my refrigerated medication anywhere.