Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lab Assistant

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My first work-study job was part-time in Bemidji State University’s News Bureau, where I had applied because I was thinking of majoring in journalism. My main task was to call up an array of form letters on our word processing machine and fill in the blanks. These form letters dealt with student accomplishments, and they all read the same way: So and so from such and such a town has … joined the women's volleyball team. Has been accepted into the honors program. Has finally graduated and is currently living at home with his parents in the Greater Nimrod/Sebeka Area.

There wasn't much excitement to it, and often I wanted to break out of the mold and write something different, something that would end up being more than a faded newspaper clipping in a parent's album: “Susie Oppenheimer was observed administering a blow job to an unknown man on a couch in the middle of a keg party on ninth street” … “Mark Sundahl no longer has hair or eyebrows since passing out and being abused by his roommates on a couch in the middle of a keg party on eighth street” … “Becky Olsen’s magenta-colored vomit is frozen as an icicle beginning on the ledge outside her third-story dorm room window. Becky’s vomit is expected to remain frozen and available for viewing through April.”

Of course, I never wrote anything like that.

Since the News Bureau job was only ten hours a week, I wanted a second part-time job for the extra cash and an additional resume line. The first opportunity came in the science department: chemistry lab assistant. I knew nothing about working in a lab, and science of any kind had always been my worst subject in high school. I had only taken chemistry during my senior year because the only other option, physics, seemed even more daunting, and I only passed chemistry because my lab partner was a kind-hearted geek who didn’t mind doing all the work if I let him tie my lab apron in back. To complicate the lab-assistant situation, I had to rely on the recommendation of my sister’s father-in-law’s second cousin to get the job, who was a dean at the time—he was happy to help me out. The lab job wasn’t even in chemistry though.

It was in biology.

I knew less about biology than any other topic in the history of mankind. But I still got hired.

As the part-time work-study biology lab assistant, my main task was to inoculate test tubes full of agar with various strains of bacteria so that the biology students would have something to study during their lab experiments the following morning. I remember on my first day, somebody showed me how to mix up agar, sterilize the test tubes, and insert bacteria into tubes so that it would grow and multiply. I also remember being shown how to clean up, and was given a key to lock the lab door behind me when I left each evening. My schedule had me inoculating test tubes from five to seven p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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One of the main problems with the lab assistant job was that I worked alone. Admittedly, it only took one person to accomplish all that needed to be done, but if anything went wrong, there was no one to ask for help. At that time of day, there weren’t even any spare professors or grad students left in the department, so if I had questions or concerns, I did the best I could.

The first indication that my best wasn’t good enough was the evening I showed up for work only to be greeted by this sign: “LAB ASSISTANTS: TEST TUBES MUST BE COMPLETELY STERILIZED IN ORDER TO AVOID UNWANTED GROWTHS IN THE CULTURES. MAKE SURE AUTOCLAVE IS SET TO FIVE JILLION DEGREES…” blah blah blah. I knew this note was meant for me because I was the only lab assistant in charge of growths, wanted or unwanted. I had a feeling that the biology professors for whom I was preparing the test tube cultures had no idea that an eighteen year old journalism major wearing yellow eye shadow, a friendship bracelet and legwarmers was working behind the scenes as their germ supplier. I wondered what they would think if they saw what was really going on.

Every evening when I arrived at the lab, it was full of that day’s dirty lab equipment: thin slabs of observation glass, Petri dishes, test tubes, test tube trays, tweezers and other small utensils. There was no dishwasher, so I ran soapy water in a sink and washed each piece by hand, letting it all air-dry on paper towels. After that, it was time to sterilize trays full of empty test tubes in the autoclave, and mix up batches of agar on the stove. When the test tubes were sterilized, I would take them out and put my agar in so that it would be sterilized too. After the agar was nuked and cooled, I would carefully pour liquid agar into each test tube and wait until the agar gelled.

On the days that my agar did not gel completely, I would sprinkle extra ingredients into the test tubes and stir the mixture carefully with a pencil until it thickened. While this may have had adverse effects on the next day’s biology experiments, I cared little; leaded agar was better than no agar at all. They should be happy with what they got.

Recipes for each type of agar were taped to the wall (though, as I said, a few of them were flawed), and directions for using the autoclave were posted right next to it. Only occasionally did I fail to run the autoclave for the required length of time, and that was only when it would start rocking back and forth and emitting high-pitched hissing noises as if it was about to blow. These episodes would frighten me, and eventually resulted in the “unwanted growths” sign.

The only aspect of the lab assistant job that didn’t come easy to me was the inoculating part. While the vials of bacteria and other microorganisms were clearly labeled, and I understood that I was supposed to introduce a minute amount of these substances to the gelled agar environment inside the test tube, I could never determine how much bacteria was enough or too much. This was especially difficult when the bacteria, germs, mold, cells—whatever lived inside those vials—were invisible. I would take my long slender sterilized inoculating stick with the tiny metal loop on its end and wave it around inside a vial, not knowing if I had picked up five of five million organisms. I would then carefully uncork a test tube of agar and jam my stick deep into the agar, twisting it around just to make sure that enough of the invisible germs made it inside.

This jamming-and-twisting technique that I developed for the invisible organisms apparently did not impress the biology professors, for soon enough another sign was posted for “the lab assistants”: “DO NOT BREAK SURFACE OF AGAR WITH INOCULATING STICKS! THIS IS UNNECESSARY! LIGHTLY TOUCH SURFACE OF AGAR WITH STICK TO INTRODUCE ORGANISMS.” I didn’t understand how you could know for sure if invisible organisms had been introduced to the agar or not, but who was I to argue. I wasn’t a hostess. I was a lab assistant.

Jamming and twisting the stick into the agar wasn’t necessary with bacteria and germs that were visible. To inoculate test tubes with visible substances, I used the fragile metal loop at the end of my stick more like a spoon and scooped up as much of the substance as possible, then shook it onto the surface of the agar. If it didn’t come off right away, I would smear it around the sides of the test tube until it did. I employed this procedure several times over the few weeks that I served as lab assistant, until yet another sign was posted for “the lab assistants”: “TEST TUBES ARE EXPLODING BECAUSE TOO MANY ORGANISMS ARE BEING INTRODUCED TO THE AGAR! INOCULATING STICK SHOULD HOLD A BARELY VISIBLE AMOUNT OF ORGANISM. ORGANISM WILL INTRODUCE ITSELF WHEN GENTLY APPLIED. NO FORCE NECESSARY.”

At this point, I was getting irritated with the situation. If the organisms could introduce themselves to the agar, then why did they need me? Just as those two little words that I had never spoken in my life started formulating in my mind…I quit…the department head came to my rescue. He stopped by one night while I was making a new agar recipe—I called it “Funeral Agar”, after a recipe for hotdish my mother had given me—and asked me if I would like to transfer over to the English department, as there was an opening. I jumped at the chance, not knowing and not caring what had brought this new opportunity to my laboratory door. If somebody wanted me out of there, so be it. The oft reviled “lab assistants” had left the building…or at least the biology wing.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Free At Last

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Let’s play a game. Imagine that you meet a lying thief, an impostor kind of person who lures you into a romance by taking you out for expensive nights on the town, building a brand-new house in a luxury development, and insisting that you both enjoy only the best of everything. This is the high life that you are promised by a man who also puts a ten thousand dollar diamond ring on your finger, the kind of life you expect from a man who also nurtures your sense of comfort and security. Plus he is tall and cute and funny.

So, you marry him.

Okay, now it gets really fun. Imagine that this man starts treating you very poorly after your $25,000 wedding. Nothing you do is right anymore; there are only sharp words for you, and—even better—the silent treatment. You are suddenly living with a very cranky person in your mini-mansion of a house. You shrug it all off and forgive your husband because he’s probably just getting used to the new marriage.

After six months of this—just a laugh a minute—you jokingly ask your knight in shining armor what the hell is wrong with him, ha ha. He glares at you, marches into his office, and comes back out with a grocery bag full of paper and envelopes. He tells you that this is what’s wrong with him. After he invites you to go through the bag, you find unpaid bills and collection notices. Heaps of them. He still owes on his part of the wedding even, while you and your parents paid long ago.

Your charming husband is $75,000 in credit card debt.

Since you are his wife, you help him start paying his bills—because that’s what good wives do. You transfer all of his debt into your name because you have better credit than he does. He transfers some of it back after a period of time because he wants to get laid again. You go back and forth like this for a year before you realize that you are paying the mortgage, the second mortgage, all of the household bills, and your husband’s child support. You are also teaching full-time and teaching extra classes too, for the extra money. You have been successfully juggling bills for so long in this strangely addictive circus that when you drop a ball and stupidly ask your husband to get a job, you get your head bitten off. Headless, you finally realize that something isn’t right.

So, you start divorcing him.

You have to leave the mini-mansion because it doesn’t belong to you; your hysterically funny husband never put your name on the title. You can’t take anything with you except your clothes and photo albums and cat. You don’t own anything else anymore because you sold all of your possessions when you moved in with Funnyman.

The game reaches new heights of amusement when your husband asks for half of your pension and spousal support. You cry, but they’re tears of laughter, right? It’s just one big game that somebody eventually has to win. You wonder if you’re the winner or the loser when you walk away with your pension intact, not having to pay spousal support, and $20,000 in credit card debt.

You decide you’re the winner because you got to leave the loser behind.

Six years later—today, in fact—you make the final payment on that debt. That was six years of paying $370 a month towards your ex-husband’s dick-ass mess, pardon your language. You wish you could see the bank debit your checking account for the last time, but it happens out there online somewhere. The bank is Chase and you wonder if that’s the name of the game you’ve been playing all these years: chase.

You’ve been waiting for this day for so long. It’s not that you didn’t enjoy paying that bill because you are inherently thrifty and like chipping away at debt, but deep inside, you know that $370 a month could go towards even more enjoyable endeavors, like buying a new car, or just a new shirt. Your good head—now firmly reattached to your shoulders—will surely figure out something productive to do with that money.

You straighten out the papers on your desk, fold some laundry, and water your plants. You feel some kind of bubbly feeling rising up in your body. You wonder if this is joy. You wonder if that jerkface ever really loved you, or just saw a bank account coming. You stop wondering because it’s a waste of time, and you’ve wasted enough time and money. You go with the joy and let the happy bubbles lift you up and carry you around your house—your own house, a normal house, not a mini-mansion. Soon, you are dancing. You are dancing and laughing and loving this day. Free at last. Free at last.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Banjo Face

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My niece Shanna (rhymes with “Ghana”) and I went to see Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers play bluegrass last weekend up in Flagstaff. You might be thinking, Steve Martin plays in a band? Isn’t he the guy with the arrow through his head? The wild and crazy guy?

Yes indeed, it’s the same Steve Martin…but now he’s a wildly accomplished banjo player and he tours around with this group of crazy-talented musicians. They’ve done the White House and Carnegie Hall. Last weekend they did an amphitheater in the woods.

Shanna and I had eleventh-row seats right by the stage; we’d lucked out and were not way back on the lawn area. However, the seating area was cramped and disorganized and when we showed our tickets to the guy in charge, he became agitated because there was no eleventh row. He was unsuccessful in prying two seated concert-goers out of their folding chairs because he thought we belonged there; the seated people vehemently disagreed. Finally the guy shouted at Mike Somebody, “MIKE! THERE IS NO ROW ELEVEN! ROW ELEVEN DOES NOT EXIST!”

Shanna and I stood patiently. We’re from Minnesota.

Eventually, Row Eleven materialized and we parked our butts on the hard folding chairs that were pushed together so tightly that when we turned to look at one another, our noses touched. Big Foot was seated directly in front of me, taking up two folding chairs as a matter of fact, so if I wanted to see the stage, I had to lean right and left.

But none of this mattered when Steve Martin walked onto the stage. I’ve had a crush on this man since I was eleven years old and saw The Jerk and am not ashamed to admit that I’ve written many fan letters to Steve over the years, asking for friendship, romance…any type of relationship he wanted, really. He never replied, but he was here now, in the flesh. He probably knew I was coming.

I’ve been to many concerts, but have never heard such thunderous applause and howls for a performer walking out to greet the audience for the first time. The entire amphitheater erupted with energy and adoration, all of us here to see Steve Martin. Steve Martin.

He grinned and graciously waited for us to pipe down…then he gave us the show of our lives, fingers flying so fast on that banjo that all you saw was a blur. I never considered myself a true bluegrass fan before, but now that I’ve heard the banjo like that with the mandolin, bass, guitar, fiddle, and yet another banjo, I might never listen to Van Halen again. No more John Cougar, no more Edith Piaf. Just Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers going crazy-wild on their instruments. That's all I need...

And they were having a good time too, especially Steve. The most surprising part of this show was that he’s still funny. I thought he would be serious the whole time, but he still does those fake-snooty jokes, like the one from his 70’s routine when somebody in a restaurant asks him, “Mind if I smoke?” and he replies, “No. Mind if I fart?” On stage in the woods though, his jokes ran more along the lines of, “You might think that this is my band, but in reality, I’m their celebrity.”

For two hours I leaned back and forth, crowding Shanna on the right and a lady on my left, trying to see the stage around Big Foot, who has very good posture by the way and sat up straight the entire time, his broad furry shoulders a wall to me. It took me awhile to figure out that there were five members of the band in addition to Steve; I never saw all of them at once, even though I was fifty feet away. I didn’t so much see this concert as peek at it.

But no matter: it was the greatest concert ever, even Shanna said so, and she’s only 32. Imagine a young’un like that giving such high praise to Steve Martin playing the banjo and telling funny stories. Steve Martin.

We were on our way out after a couple of encores when Steve and the band came out one more time. Everyone stopped in their tracks—a huge crowd of people carrying sleeping children and folded blankets—to hear the final song.

It was “King Tut” (“He’s my favorite honkey/born in Arizona”). I cannot express my complete and utter joy at hearing Steve Martin perform “King Tut” live. I never would have imagined it. It sprang to my bucket list and crossed itself off. I could have died happily in that moment.

As Shanna and I wandered through the dark woods trying to find my car, we contemplated our good fortune and reviewed the night. “Did you notice that his hair stuck up on top of his head?” I said.

“Yeah,” Shanna said. “Maybe he forgot to comb it.” We snickered.

“Did you notice that look on his face when he was playing?” I said.

“Yeah, that was weird. Maybe that’s his banjo face.”

I thought about that: banjo face. That was Steve Martin concentrating on doing an excellent job: eyes half closed, mouth set in a straight line, teeth probably clenched—almost like he was looking into a wind storm. That’s definitely not how he looked in Father of the Bride. I think he’s happier playing the banjo.

We had come to Flagstaff to see Steve Martin in part to celebrate the beginning of the school year, a treat for two teachers before the hard work starts. Three days later—one hour, in fact, before I go into my first class of the semester—I hope my students recognize my own banjo face. I hope they see how excited I am to be there with them.

I hope they love me as much as I love Steve Martin.

Friday, August 19, 2011


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Off-again arrives to pick me up for my epidural shot.

“I’m almost ready,” I say.

“Do you mind if I check my e-mail then?” he says.

“No, sure. Let me unlock the computer for you.”

This statement sails through the air and lands in Doug’s personal space with the grand welcome that any pile of shit might receive from anyone at any given time. Up to the last time he used my computer, he knew my password. He tries to look disgusted. “What must you think of me?”

I reply: “Well, I have asked you for my keys and garage door opener back once, and you did pretty much stalk me a couple times, and I had to change the locks once, and you’ve admitted going through my home phone and cell phone call histories, so I think that anybody in my position would consider all of that and take any necessary precautions to avoid feeling violated again.”

Doug sighs, throws his hands in the air and goes to read the paper instead. “I can’t argue with that.”

Soon enough we leave, get to the outpatient medical center, and I check in. Doug waits for me, chatting up an elderly gentleman whose wife is in for the same procedure that I’m there for: an epidural steroid injection in the so-called “lower back” region. In my case, that means, once again, my ass. My ass hasn’t seen this much light of day since they let me swim in the lake without a diaper back in ‘68.

I’m getting the shot because my ass has been hurting for about thirty years, and since the x-rays I had last month showed an old, small, healed-up fracture in my coccyx--and the MRI didn’t show anything else out of the ordinary--my physiatrist, Dr. Lee, decided that an epidural would do just the trick.

I am lying on my stomach, face through a padded donut, ass to the world, when I look down and focus on the poster taped to the floor beneath me: a nice pastoral picture of woods and lakes and blue sky. I say to no one in particular, “Is this picture of Minnesota?”

One of the nurses—a jovial sort who could have been working the pull-tab counter at a bar in Minnesota for as serious as she was taking all this—piped up, “Why? Are you from Minnesota? Dr. Lee! Katie’s from Minnesota! Have you ever eaten lutefisk? Dr. Lee doesn’t understand how people can eat lutefisk….”

I know Dr. Lee is fiddling with my ass and poking needles into it and talking to me, but now the pastoral Minnesota scene is bobbing around, swaying gently to the left and right, as the pain meds work their way through my veins.

Lutefisk. Ugh. I wouldn’t eat that stuff. I hear it looks like watery white Jell-o. I’ve never even seen it, just heard about it. Why do people always think that everybody from Minnesota eats lutefisk? Does everybody from Arizona eat cactuses? I would never eat lutefisk. I miss Minnesota. My Grandma Lotus loved lutefisk. I love lakes and trees. Look at that, the water’s moving.

“No,” I say, “that doesn’t hurt. "No…yes! That hurts!”

Well Jesus, glad he asked for Christ’s sake. How many pokes does it take? I wonder if Doug’s still outside. I wonder if he’s still talking to that old man. He talks to everybody, totally socially aggressive. I can’t relax around him. Maybe he went out for coffee. He’s so nice for bringing me here, so patient. Too bad he screws up so much. I could live by that lake. I could totally live in a cabin and fish on that lake. Maybe I’ll take us out for sushi later. Maybe that would make up for my changing my password. Man, he super-didn’t like that.

We go to a hip, downtown Scottsdale sushi place when I’m released from the outpatient place, and I go to use the bathroom. I’m about to wash my hands when I remember, I just had somewhat of a near-surgery on my ass. I should take a look at that. I put my purse down, quickly unbutton my shorts, pull them and my underwear down a little and twist around to see my bare ass in the mirror, but a pretty young girl comes out of one of the other stalls before I can get a good look. I’m pulling up my shorts and refastening them when I notice that I’ve placed my purse in a motion-detector sink: water from the spigot is pouring inside. I swear, grab my purse, set it down, and quickly finish buttoning up my shorts. The girl slides me a withering look. “You’re not from Arizona, are you?”

What, do I wear it on my sleeve?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

One Big Pickle

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Last night, having put the girls to bed, I was sitting at my desk next to the window for that last-minute Facebook check, that last look for e-mail. My house was quiet except for what I thought might be one of the young single men next door flinging tiny rocks at my window. Drunk again, I thought. At least they’re not shooting pellet guns at my front door like last time. I don’t know why they can’t just use the telephone. And then I thought, You know, it’s been years since they’ve misbehaved like that…that noise is probably something else. Bugs, that’s what it is, bad stupid bugs hurling themselves against my window trying to get near the light. Must be fairly good-sized bugs because they’re really going at it. TAP. TAP. TAP-TAP-TAP.

And then it came to me: Rain. Of course it was rain. How silly of me. It’s August in Arizona and that means the occasional cloud and a little precipitation, especially at night. I listened to the raindrops hitting my window for about a minute and a half, and then it was over. I was glad to have heard at least that much.

Anybody who lives in Arizona knows how special rain can be. Most of us are from someplace else—someplace where it rains a lot. We like to run in the rain, play in the rain, and watch a good storm from our open garages. However—and I don’t know why this is—many of us cannot drive in the rain. You would think we were making our way through a hurricane, lights on, bumper to bumper, crawling down the streets and freeways, hoping and praying we get home in one piece…when you can count every drop of rain on the windshield. It’s not that the roads get slippery or the rain is coming down so hard you can’t see; it’s the paranoia of having an accident. And the fact is, people do have accidents: they rear-end each other because they’re following too close, then they have to pull off to the side of the road which slows traffic down even further because everybody has to rubberneck.

I had a friend once who had an accident in a rainstorm—but it’s probably not the kind of accident you’re thinking of. Doug was stuck in traffic, no surprise, going about five miles an hour, creeping down the freeway on his way home. Suddenly, Doug felt the distinct urge to “go”…and I’m not talking “number one”. Oh no, Doug had the pressing need to erupt from the back side. The night before, his roommate had made a big pot of pea soup and it was the best pea soup Doug had ever eaten, so he ate all of it. Now the pea soup was back to haunt him. It wanted out, and it wanted out now.

As Doug told me later, he suppressed the urge to go many times, squeezing his cheeks together as hard as he could every time the pea soup knocked on his door. But Doug was ten miles from home, sitting in rush hour traffic, bumper to bumper in the left lane…and it was raining. He wanted to wait—believe me, in the worst way—but, he could not.

The main image that has always stuck in my mind from Doug’s rendition of this story is that he ended up sitting about six inches higher in the driver’s seat after his “accident”. There was that much pea soup in his pants.

Doug eventually made it home, pulled into the garage, and carefully stepped out of his truck. He took off his pants and threw them in the garbage, then found a sleeping bag and walked into the house with that wrapped around his legs. His roommate was having a party and a few people asked what he was doing.

“I’m going camping,” he said, and walked into the bathroom to clean up. Doug was always a little goofy and he did like to camp, so that was that.

If you ever find yourself caught driving in the rain here in Phoenix, Arizona—going nowhere fast and all upset—think of Doug and how much worse it could be. And if you find yourself in the same kind of pickle that Doug found himself in, know that you are not alone in the world.

Friday, August 12, 2011


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Many years ago, when my brother lived with his first partner and they were both divorced dads, they would get their children—two little boys—on the weekends and holidays, a typical joint custody situation. They would do things that most families do: go to the movies, go to the park, build forts in the back yard.

One Christmas, my brother and his partner David both had their kids for the holidays. Santa had been especially generous that year, bringing David’s little boy a bike. When the excitement of Christmas day had settled down, and since the boys would be leaving in the morning, my brother and David sat their little ones down to write thank-you notes to Santa.

The colored paper and crayons came out, and the boys were left at the kitchen table to make their hand-made cards. They folded sheets of paper in half, decorating on the outside and writing on the inside. When they were finished, the dads came over to inspect. They each sang the praises of their own boy’s card, what wonderful jobs had been done, what lovely cards these were, how much Santa was going to appreciate them. The cards were set on a little dresser in the hallway, and the boys were put to bed.

It was only later when David came to my brother with his son’s card; my brother hadn’t seen it yet. “Here,” David said, handing the card to my brother. “You have to read this.”

So my brother read: “Dear Santa. Thank you for my presents. I lave my bike. I lave you too. Lave, Adam.”

Lave! How much more expressive and heartfelt than “love”. Word of lave traveled quickly, and without knowing it, Adam had added a new word to my family’s lexicon. We have been laving each other ever since.

“How do you like this outfit?” one sister will say to another.

“I lave it,” the other sister will say.

“How did you like those photos I sent you?” my mother will ask me on the phone.

“I laved them!” I’ll say.

While we all adopted “lave” as one of our favorite words, my dad especially took to it. As a man who sometimes has a hard time expressing his feelings, “lave” seemed warm enough to say without having to step too deeply into the dangerous waters of love.

“I lave you,” he says as he hugs me at the airport before leaving me there.

He’ll open a special present at Christmas time—maybe a framed picture of his five children, from all of us—and his eyes will well up. “I…uh…lave it,” he’ll say. “I’m going to hang that right next to my desk so I can see it all the time.”

My mother—still more a woman of love, not willing to give up the undeniable, fully rounded, and boundless depths of love—always sends me greeting cards on Valentine’s Day, my birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. My brother gets the same, since we're the only kids who still live far away. She always writes a little note at the bottom, personalizing further a special card she probably took many days in finding, the very right one. After her note, she always writes, “I love you, Mom.”

My mother leaves these cards out for my dad to sign before she sends them off in the mail. For so many years, all I got on mine was “Dad”. At least his handwritten signature let me know he was alive and well, out there somewhere, gardening or carving or building a birdhouse. Sometimes on the Thanksgiving card, he’d draw the antlered head of a buck with a gun pointing at it and write “bang”, smiley face, “Dad”.

Now that my dad isn’t as busy as he used to be—enjoying naps in his chair and rides in the country instead of planting huge gardens and building fences around them to keep the deer and rabbits out—he has a little more time on his hands. And those hands have a little more time to write in those cards that still come in the mail. There his handwriting will be, right next to my mom’s: “I lave you.” Smiley face. “Daddy.”

Thank you, Adam, wherever you are.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Monkey Do

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Like many people, I devote part of my weekends to taking care of odd jobs around the house, tasks that I’ve put off during the week, maybe even for several weeks. Yesterday I decided to order new checks. Checks are one thing I definitely don’t want to run out of because I haven’t yet leapt into the poopy waters of online banking. I would rather run out of toilet paper than run out of checks, because while many household items can be substituted for toilet paper, the same can’t be said for checks.

I noticed that the 1-800 number on my box of Artistic Checks could only be called during regular business hours, so I decided to go online and see if there were any new check designs that might appeal to me. I’ve been using the pastel Tropical Fish theme for several years now, which is far enough removed from my favorite color combination and list of probable pets that I think twice before writing a check, as I think one should, without considering the task unpleasant. Still, change can be good.

When I got online, I found 61 different types of check designs by Artistic Checks. Surely there would be something other than Tropical Fish that I could try out. I started looking through the offerings, starting with Betty Boop. No, Betty Boop won’t work. Who would order Betty Boop checks? Seriously. What else… African Silhouette checks…right, here’s my little monthly payment Mom and Dad toward the thousands of dollars I still owe you from the divorce, pay no attention to that black lady with the basket on her head, that was me once. Pretty Posy checks…hi Citibank, hi Wells Fargo, I’m on acid…Basic Blue checks—hi everybody, I can’t even afford a design on my checks, happy birthday kids, I love you, enjoy this five dollars. Cottages checks…here’s my money, this is all I can send this month, here’s the fantasy world I live in, that’s my unicorn. Brushed Floral checks…oh, that lady I used to work with who only wore muumuus. Thought I was doing her a favor when I tucked her tag back in but she was wearing it out on purpose to hide a mole on her neck the size of a tarantula.

I ended up staying with Tropical Fish.

Having wasted so much time sitting on my butt and with icky fresh images of the muumuu lady in my brain, I was doubly motivated to hit the road to my gym. Many years ago when I was just starting out as an English major, I remember someone saying something like, “All English teachers are fat; they take care of their minds but not their bodies,” and part of that stereotype stuck with me so that I ended up being a physically fit English teacher, give or take a disorder or two.

In the car on my way to the gym, a song came over the radio that I hadn’t heard in awhile. I was tuned to the country station and it was a man-singer, singing about love gone wrong but getting a new and better girlfriend. I had heard this song about a jillion times and always thought he was singing about going to the beach with his new girl and “wearing nothing but a sock”. I loved this image and imagined that if I were a man-singer freshly in love, I too would write a song about taking my new girlfriend to the beach and wearing nothing but a sock. It would have to be a very private beach and I would have to be in shape, and it would have to be a clean sock, and I would need my girlfriend to stir the pot every so often, but still…I would go.

It was only when I got home and finally gave in to the idea that no country song would ever contain the line “wearing nothing but a sock” that I Googled the lyrics, and discovered that the man-singer was actually “wearing nothing but a smile”…which seemed much more randy than my sock idea. Hm.

I know where my mind has been since 2005, the year I got divorced, and was relieved to know that in fact it hasn’t changed all that much over the years. I am still the sexual being I was all along.

You hear what you want to hear.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bring It On

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Today was my second day of Pilates, and it was more humiliating than the first. At least during the first session I had the good sense to hide in the middle of the group, plus we used small basketball-size balls to squeeze between our legs and roll around on (well, I used mine to fall off of, tiny suicides). This time—interested in excelling as usual, being the best and following directions too—I plunked my mat right in front, just feet away from the instructor Linda. My goal was to mirror every move she made.

“Everybody grab a BIG ball!” she called out. The twenty or so people in the room—again of all ages and shapes—quickly moved to the wall where the big bouncy balls were kept. They reminded me of the hippity-hop horsey ball I used to have when I was five, but without the handles. I imagined we’d be sitting on these large balls and bouncing up and down for some good exercise reason, or maybe thrusting and swiveling our hips like the guy I saw at physical therapy last month.

As class began, I sat on my mat and stretched like Linda stretched, twisted like Linda twisted, and kind of down-dogged like Linda down-dogged. Mine was more of a playful puppy, but so be it. I’m a beginner.

All was going well until the big balls came into the picture. Linda instructed us to lie on them with our tummies against the rubber and our arms stretched out like we were flying. This was fine until she told us to pick up our feet and balance on the ball like we were “Superpeople!” I tentatively raised one foot and rolled off my ball onto the floor. Thud.

“That’s okay!” called Linda, still balanced perfectly on her ball like the rest of the students in the class. “Get back up there!”

I climbed back onto my ball and centered my stomach again, but by the time I had gotten into position, my ball had rolled about ten feet and I was eye to eye with the balancing act of Elgin, the only male in the room. Elgin hikes the Grand Canyon and does all of his gym workouts wearing a hundred-pound backpack.

“Hi,” I grunted, untangling our nose hairs. “Sorry.”

I carried my ball back to my mat and then heard Linda sing out new directions: “Lie on your mats, face up, and hold your ball behind your head, resting it on the floor.” This I could do, I was sure; I stretched out with my horsey ball squeezed between my hands, towering behind my head. I briefly thought that this would be a good time to get stabbed.

“Now,” called Linda, “sit up!”

What? She wanted me to sit up from this prone position? Without using my hands, holding a giant ball behind my head? Yes she did, as evidenced by the sitting-up of everyone else in the class. Elgin—holding his own personal super-ball the size of a small planet—was the first to rise. While everyone sat on their mats holding their balls high above their heads, I continued to lie on my back, struggling to get even my shoulder blades off the floor.

“I can’t get up!” I shouted over the flute music. “Why can’t I get up?”

“Your abdominals aren’t strong enough yet,” said Linda as she and the rest of the class repeatedly sat up and then slowly leaned backward, all while holding their balls over their heads. I continued to lie on my mat, still trying to sit up just once, my entire body shaking as if I was being electrocuted.

At the end of class—my long hair having escaped its neat ponytail and now covering my face like Cousin Itt—I approached Linda to tell her how much I admired her fitness, and how much I wanted to be strong like her.

“Keep practicing,” she said, “and pretty soon you’ll get there. Just keep coming to class.”

It was good for a teacher like me to hear those words. Humbling. For a moment, I thought what it must be like to be on the receiving end of my own instruction, and I knew I could do better—at teaching and Pilates.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


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I walked into the gym yesterday afternoon to do my usual routine: hop on the step-climber, ride the bike, cross-train myself into a frenzy, go home frothing at the mouth. But this plan changed when I ran straight into our massage therapist Tyrone, who happens to be the first black man to ever live in my hometown of Bemidji, Minnesota. We also attended the same college, Bemidji State University, so we were both Beavers. Well, technically, I was a Beaverette.

I didn’t know Tyrone back then because he's ten years older than me. He was a college football player and I was a Girl Scout. But because our mutual luck is wild and lovely, we both ended up in Arizona at this very gym. We recognized the Minnesota Nice in each other the minute we met three years ago, and have been friends ever since. Even though Tyrone is a born-again Christian and I’m a recovering Catholic—and even though he has a wife and children and I have an anxiety disorder—we are bonded.

Tyrone is the quiet in my storm, at least at the gym.

“Hey!” he called out when he saw me. My Tyrone magnet pulled me into his chest. He wrapped one arm around my shoulders and picked me up like a toothpick. I dangled at his side.

“Hey!” I said back, smiling for the first time in seventy three and a half hours. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fabulous!” he said as he put me down. “Can’t you tell?”

I could.

“What are you working on today?” he asked.

“Same stuff,” I said.

“Why don’t you try Pilates?” he said. “There’s a class starting right now! Change it up! I know the instructor too…here she comes. Her name is Linda.”

A well-toned woman appeared out of the crowd of old people and middle-aged women and sweaty businessmen on their lunch hour. Tyrone patted me on the back and I pitched forward into Linda. “This is Katie,” Tyrone said, catching me by the shoulders and straightening me up. “She’s family.”

I know that Linda and I exchanged greetings and I know she said she’d love to have a new student. I know I got swept up in a crowd of kind and helpful women as we moved from the lobby into the Pilates room. I know I was shown where the foam mats were, what ball and weights to get, and that I should take off my shoes.

But even though I did all of those things, my mind was elsewhere. Tyrone’s comment ran like a news ticker across my brain: “She’s family.”

They were the sweetest words I’d heard in days and days, maybe even weeks. The concept of family can be so convoluted. I was so glad to live up to Tyrone’s definition, and his words rang in my ears.

Today I can feel muscles I haven’t felt in years. That is what a new workout will do for you. My body is looked after and I have a lot more plans for it, but my spirit is waiting for the same attention. My spirit is on hold, a library book waiting to be picked up.

And then there is the case of my heart.

It too is tense. I can't decide if it's future or past, submissive consensual...or simply present. It's so used to the dominant insistent. It needs to get used to something else. Something progressive.

While I don't want to feel it ache like my other muscles, it would be nice to know it's in there somewhere.