Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Roofmate

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It’s a Sunday, and for many Sundays over many years I would put my grading aside, powder my nose, throw on whatever I’d been wearing the night before and dash out the door so I could drive the ten minutes it took to get from my house to my friend Flossie’s condo. If it was a nice morning—and more often than not it would be, here in sunny Arizona—Flossie would be outside by the street, sitting on the bench part of her walker, wearing her Stevie Wonder sunglasses and enjoying the fresh air. “You’re only seven minutes late!” she would call out, or, “Hey hey, you’re on time today—what’s the special occasion?”

If it was chilly or rainy, I’d ring her bell and wait for her to answer, trying to see through the security door. “You in there?” I’d say through the metal screen when the inside door would finally crack open. Always trying to save on the light bill…

“Where did you think I’d be?” a voice would say in the dark. “Timbuktu?”

Dressed in her church clothes—a colorful blazer with a brooch, a nice slacks outfit and attractive but sturdy shoes—she would let me load her walker into the back seat then tuck her into the front passenger seat and buckle her in. “Hands and feet,” I would say, remembering what my sisters would say to their children so nothing important would get slammed in the door. “Are you in?”

“I’m in!” Flossie would say, and we’d be off. Mimi’s CafĂ© and its French bistro atmosphere was our hands-down favorite place for lunch. We would sit over quiche and tea and visit about my men and my family, my students and her bridge circle, her husbands and her years living in Alaska, and then sometimes the juvenile delinquents she would chase out of the neighborhood park (“That’s private property!"). One time we didn’t make it to lunch because Flossie had a story to tell me when I arrived: “I heard noise in the alley last night and when I went out to get the paper this morning, I saw egg on my car.” I went outside and sure enough, her Lincoln had been egged. I went back inside. “You want to call the police?” I asked, and she nodded…so we did. The report was filed.

I washed the egg off her car and hosed down her parking space, and when she finally let the tears slip, I told her she was perfectly safe. “You have to stop yelling at those kids in the park though,” I said.

“They don’t belong there and they’re smoking pot!”

“Call the cops instead,” I said, wiping her tears. “Call me. I’m only ten minutes away.”

*

I met Flossie in 1998, when I bought the condo in front of hers. I was 30 and she was 75, a twice-widowed snowbird from Wisconsin. We lived in a single-story building, sharing one thin wall and the roof. Flossie called us “roofmates”. Her hearing was great back then and she started schooling me almost immediately:

“You don’t need to slam your cupboard doors to close them.”

“You don’t need to rip your shower curtain back to open it.”

“Tell your boyfriend not to let the toilet seat drop so hard every time he goes.”

When I got married and moved to another part of Phoenix, I saw Flossie less, but when I got divorced and moved back, we became even closer. She turned 80, then 85, and she was still living on her own in that condo.

Flossie took great pride in her appearance and always wanted me to do the same. “I used to have the same fingernail problems as you,” she said one time over lunch. “Thin, splitting—ugly. I would never go back to that!” This was her way of suggesting I try a manicure. “My hair used to be dry and frizzy like yours,” she said another time, sporting a fresh perm. “I’d never wear it long in a climate like this. If I did though,” she said, eyeing my long, dry, frizzy hair hanging in my food, “I’d always pull it back.”

And memorably at Mimi’s, her wine lips glossy and her cheeks rouged: “Why don’t you wear make-up? It would do you good.”

“I am wearing makeup,” I said. I got raised eyebrows in return for that.

Flossie had closets full of clothes: pastel pantsuits for spring, white slacks and red sweaters for Christmas, oranges and deep greens for fall, and jewelry to match it all. “You need to wear more color!” she’d scold me. I would take her to shop for shoes and she’d insist, “Leave me to look and go find yourself a colorful top! I want you to buy something colorful! Get going!” I would slink off in my matching browns or blacks and come back with a bright pink t-shirt two sizes too big because I never liked to wear tight clothes. “That’s the idea!” Flossy would say. “That will look great on you!”

She wasn’t always my biggest cheerleader. She wanted the best for me, but realized I needed her guidance (how many times did I hear, “I’ve never seen such a book-smart girl so lacking in common sense”). I brought her several cartons of strawberries once that I’d found on sale; she looked at them, thanked me, then set them aside. The following week when I picked her up for lunch, I asked her what she did with the strawberries. “I had to throw them out,” she said, and I could tell she was a little sorry.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they had too much white. They weren’t ripe. Don’t buy strawberries unless they smell like strawberries.” Now I know that, and it’s a good rule.

We came back to my house after brunch one Sunday, to see my new landscaping and to visit. I stretched out on the couch while she rocked in my recliner. My cat jumped up to cuddle with me.

“You should do that more often, Kate,” she said.

“What?”

“Relax,” she said. How did she know I didn’t relax all the time?

*

I think of Flossie and I think of the six-pack of Grolsch beer she’d ask me to pick up for her every now and then. I think of her carefully selecting Christmas ornaments for her bazillion grandchildren while I waited for her in a store, plucking my arm hair out one by one to stay awake. I think of the time she wouldn’t let me back into her condo when I asked for one more hug goodbye. “Why not?” I asked through the security door.

“I farted,” she said.

I assembled her Christmas tree every December and took it down every January. It came in three pieces she kept stored in the closet. The entire process took about three hours from start to finish and necessitated the rearranging of furniture, the precise stringing of lights, and clean-up. She directed this production from her chair, and cried every year when we were done. “You’re so good to me!” she’d sniffle. “I can’t do anything for you in return!”

“Haven’t you spent your life helping others?” I’d ask.

Yes.

“Isn’t it your turn to let others help you now?”

It was. More tears. Then she’d shoo me out so she could nap before “the girls” came by to pick her up for cards.

*

Flossie always hand-mopped her own kitchen floor, sitting on a stool and scooting it around until she was done. She left sacks of potatoes in her car trunk and brought them in one by one as needed. If it took her all week to get one load of laundry cleaned and put away, “no great shakes, Kate”. Up until the last two years of her life, she refused any help in closing down the condo and packing up for her annual return trip to Wisconsin: “I like to do it myself. I have my own way.”

That she did.

On perhaps my most memorable outing with Floss, we had gone to our favorite discount shoe warehouse after lunch. I would have happily shopped alongside her, but she had her walker with the fold-down seat in case she wanted to rest, so she shooed me away as usual. Though the store was huge, I could see her across it: her fluffy white hair, her floral sundress, her big black purse hanging off the walker. When I noticed she hadn’t moved from one spot in awhile, I went back to check in with her. “Why aren’t you looking around?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” she said.

“Well then, let’s go,” I said.

“No, you’re not done shopping,” she said. “I can wait.”

“Well…,” I started, knowing she wouldn’t change her mind. “How about we find a comfortable place for you to sit then?” I looked around for the lounge area.

“I can’t sit down,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I peed my pants,” she stated matter-of-factly.

At this point there was a football-field long row of shoes between us, so I hustled down to the end and came up on her side. “If you peed, then we can go, really,” I whispered.

“No, I’ll just stand right here and wait.”

Usually I wouldn’t have argued with her, but this time I had no choice. “I’m not shopping for shoes if you peed your pants,” I said. “We’re leaving.”

She acquiesced. We made our way out of the store and towards my car, parked close by in a handicap-accessible spot because Flossie had remembered her decal this time. As usual, I opened the door for her, but she didn’t get in. “I don’t want to mess up your seat,” she said, looking up at me with those owl eyes that could be gray or green or blue, all depending. “You keep your car so nice.”

“I’m not strapping you to the top,” I said, reaching for my sun shade. “Sit on this. It’s waterproof.” So she did, and that was that. No complaining, no fuss.

Flossie always laughed more than I did. She had more friends, a better social life, a better outlook. She always chit-chatted with people in lines, much to my eye-rolling. “Kate! That might be the only smile or kind word that person gets all day! Loosen up!” She made me buy a throw pillow one day that I never in a million years would have bought for myself. “I can’t believe you like this pillow!” I said. “What do you like about it!?”

“The fake fur in the middle,” she said.

“Fine,” I said, putting it in the cart. “But this is your pillow at my house. I’m buying this for you.”

She clapped her hands like a girl.

*

If today were the type of Sunday I had grown used to, I would be driving home from Flossie’s condo right now, having put her leftovers in the fridge and gotten her settled in her chair so she could field phone calls from her kids back in Wisconsin. Her eyes would have welled up with tears and she would have thanked me for being so good to her.

She’s been gone now for one year and one day.

My sweet ex roofmate, your pillow awaits.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Right Thing To Do

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I know I’m not supposed to be shopping at Walmart. The employees there don’t make squat, they can’t unionize to make more squat, and if you believe in shopping local, you’d have to travel to China to buy most of what Walmart sells…right? I mean, only poor people shop at Walmart. Rich, educated people are supposed to stay out of there to protest the oppressive working conditions and keep their own dollars “in the community”.

Well, I’m educated but I’m not rich. I haven’t had a raise in five years but my insurance costs a lot more, and so does food and gas. I am a one-income family with three mouths to feed, so I shop at Walmart.

Today I had a $50 gift card leftover from Christmas (Thanks Mom!) burning a hole in my pocket. That’s a lot of toilet paper.

To be perfectly honest, I had been to Walmart not long ago to use said gift card, but the check-out lady that time told me I’d pulled it out too late to count towards that purchase: “You need to show gift cards right away. We can’t take them after everything has been rung up.” Feeling stymied but wanting to play by the rules, I tucked my gift card away to use the next time, which happened to be today.

Oh Lord, I went to town—it’s not often that a girl like me gets loosed in a place like Walmart with fifty bucks to burn. I knew the toilet paper would be this shopping spree’s crowning glory, so I took my time pushing my cart down the good-memory aisles: Makeup and Hair, Fishing, Candy. I scolded myself for lingering too long in these frivolous places before taking a half-hour to select a prudent gift for me (a new birdfeeder) and then moving on to Cleaning, then exorbitantly priced Produce, and then to check-out.

I knew from my last experience to present my gift card at the start of check-out, so I presented it alright, like a peacock in heat. I practically did a rap dance showcasing my fifty dollar gift card: here it is, you know it, I have it, you want it. I stopped short of Eddie Murphy getting his ice cream…stopped short of framing my rightness and hanging it on the register.

When the lady was done ringing me up, she announced a price that was obviously fifty dollars too high.

“You forgot to include my gift card,” I said, just knowing what she would say next.

“I’m sorry, but you have to present your gift card at the beginning. I’ve already rung you up; you can use your card the next time.”

I’m sure I stared at her; what are eyes for? I’m sure I tried to hide my disappointment. But I had to rise to the occasion of Everywoman Shopper; anything less would have been unforgivable. “I showed you the gift card at the beginning and it’s been out here since you started ringing me up. I want to use this gift card now.”

I tapped it.

The check-out lady was new at checking out, and I knew she was flustered. There were people behind me, and I was frustrated, but more to the point, I was right.
It’s moments like these that usher the devil in. If you can survive them without making an error, tag, you’re God.

The lady called her manager, a very tall and physically intimidating woman. Without another word, this new woman started taking things out of my basket and ringing them up again. “What are you doing?” I asked, basking in the general ignorance of myself. “Like I already paid for this stuff. Are you ringing it up again?”

“No,” the woman said. “I’m subtracting purchases up to fifty dollars; you won’t be charged for them. Here’s your new slip.”

I watched as she took all the high-priced items out of my cart (my new birdfeeder, fifty pounds of bird food, my carton of blueberries) then subtracted them, then put them back into my cart. I left Walmart feeling like I had stolen something.

Something went wrong in there, I thought. You’re supposed to go in and get stuff for cheap, no problem. What’s the matter with you?

I went home for the unpacking and putting-away, which usually calms me, but still I felt strange. I usually know my good intentions, followed through with ease and letting fate take care of the rest, but today…well…going through my purse, I found the fifty dollar gift card that had not been counted at check-out.

I picked it up and looked at its greenness, so Walmarty and Christmassy at the same time. It shouted “Fifty Free Dollars!” at my face.

I studied it, and I mean I really looked at it, before deciding I can’t use you again, even though I didn’t really use you before. I snipped it apart over the garbage can, so it couldn't tempt another wannabe saint.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Evolution

A poem.

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There is no question
that my parents stretched their early family dollars
to the snapping point, just like my father
pulled fishing worms apart in the garden
when he himself was a boy of four (“to make more,”
he told his mother, Lotus).

He and my mother always found creative ways to make it appear
that we had enough of whatever we needed.
One particular method of stretching dollars
came to the water bill.

When all of my sisters and my brother were old enough
to bathe themselves, I was still young enough
to require my mother’s assistance. Every other night
she would run a quarter-tub full of water
and take a quick bath herself. Then she would dry off,
get dressed, and call for me to come in.

Since she was interested in saving on the water bill,
she would simply add some bubble bath
to her own water,
and wash me up in that.

My bath was never too hot or too cold,
always the perfect temperature.
Afterwards, my mother would towel me off
with a big JC Penney towel, bigger than me even.
She always had my pajamas at the ready,
and she combed my short wet hair
into curly-cues with a kiss
before sending me out into the family fray.

I still believe that my baths were perfect
because my mother had been in the tub first,
warming the water for me. I know for sure
that my childhood days were perfect,
because I have chosen to remember them so.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Guns or Firecrackers?

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I’m not one to lose my temper, but I seem to be particularly on edge lately. This could be the result of my new green tea having an aftertaste like manure, or knowing that Arizona is one step closer to allowing guns on campus, or both. At least I can return the tea; I can’t return a bullet once it’s been used to pierce my skull: Here, this one left a mark. I’d like a fresh one please.

For me, the larger complications in life often make smaller problems seem more serious than they really are. Everything that goes wrong, no matter what its caliber, carries the same spirit-crushing weight. Like yesterday for example: Between not knowing what to get Arizona for its 100th birthday or how to thank Wells Fargo for lowering my mortgage payment by eight dollars, I was consumed with anxiety. With all of that plus having to fill in for Jesus on the cross a few times, I walked into the grocery store after school and assaulted a row of shopping carts.

It wasn’t like I started it. I approached the long row of metal carts, one nesting neatly inside the next, and pulled on the handle of the last one. The cart didn’t budge, so I yanked on it hard with both hands. After taking a moment to pop my bones back into the sockets, I grabbed the cart’s handle and yanked and yanked and yanked, finally freeing the last one, which came out fast, knocking me back. Then I shoved it, which I swear was in self-defense and that’s what I told the security guard as he escorted me out.

Back at home, groceryless, I was looking through the cupboards for something to eat when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I froze as my heart rate soared. Positive that my time had finally come, that I would soon be staring down the barrel of a gun, I turned in terror to look into the eyes of my cat Sara sitting on the kitchen island behind me, cocking her head. “Rah,” she said.

“You get down from there!” I bellowed. You would have thought she was waving my dirty laundry from the rooftop, clearly crossing the line. “You don’t belong up there and you know it!”

Sara didn’t move. “Rah,” she repeated, challenging my authority.

“You get down!” I yelled again. “Get down, on the ground, NOW!” I stomped my feet and clapped my hands, a square dancer gone mad.

Having managed to frighten Sara and her sister, but not anybody with a gun, I apologized with tuna and went to watch the sun set. It had been a gloomy, rainy day in Arizona—cold even—but the sun had finally come out. What had it been waiting for? Did the sun know that Arizona was celebrating its 100th birthday by trying to make it easier to bring guns to school? Whatever happened to centennial niceties like giving everybody a day off work?

Oh yeah: we don’t have jobs here anymore because the illegal immigrants took them all. That’s why everyone is going back to school…duh. And soon everyone can go with guns. Pop! Pop! At least with fewer teachers around, our runaway education budget can finally be reined in.

Happy Birthday, Arizona. Get well soon.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Damages

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Since it’s springtime in Arizona, I went to Home Depot yesterday for some yard and gardening supplies: potting soil, pansies, a gnome. I also needed to make an adult purchase: a wheelbarrow. My dad had told me several years ago that I wouldn’t have the strength to handle a real wheelbarrow, so I had taken his advice and settled for a hauling device he deemed more appropriate for his delicate girl: a gardening cart. This was basically the Big Wheel of yard work, made of thick green plastic with four thick wheels, very non-tippy.

My Big Wheel garden cart lasted about two years before the Arizona sun cracked it all to pieces, which I stuffed into my recycle bin because only bodies go in the Dumpster. I made do with a canvas tarp after that, tied to a rear belt loop and loaded down with mounds of clay and tools like shovels and spades. This I would drag between the front yard and the back yard, and sometimes out to the alley, fighting my way forward using all my strength. After a brief hospitalization I gave up this hauling technique, thus commencing my search for a grown-up wheelbarrow.

A very nice gentleman at Home Depot helped me look for one yesterday, which took a half-hour because as a new employee, he wasn’t sure yet where everything was located. I followed “Robert” from Lumber to Paint to Garden, and still we could not find the wheelbarrows. Finally we were directed outside to the front of the store where many wheelbarrows sat on display, chained together to prevent their escape. We couldn’t play with them until Robert found someone with a key.

With the wheelbarrows finally unlocked, Robert started to explain the positives and negatives of plastic vs. steel, wood handles vs. metal ones, a shallow basin vs. a deep one. “You wanna go with all-metal,” he said, pulling out the biggest and most expensive wheelbarrow of the bunch. “Wood handles will crack, and plastic is junk. Metal will last ya, especially if you keep it covered.”

My dad must have been napping back in Minnesota because his mind wandered into mine again. “Will I be strong enough to handle that without it tipping over?” I asked.

“I don’t see why not,” replied Robert. “Just put your heavy stuff towards the front and don’t go too fast.”

Then it was time for the question I hate but always have to ask, the question that sets me apart from macho guys everywhere: “Will it fit in my car?”

“What kind of car do you have?” asked the new employee Robert.

“A 2001 Hyundai Sonata,” I replied.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “I’ll help you load it.”

Robert pushed the wheelbarrow back inside the store so I could purchase it. I steered him away from the Returns counter when he tried to take me there and guided him towards the check-out area. “You really must be new!” I said.

“It’s only my third day,” he said, and it struck me then that Robert, in his late fifties, wasn’t used to working at a place like Home Depot. He didn’t look comfortable wearing the orange apron either.

Back out in the parking lot, Robert and I poked our heads into the trunk of my car and the backseat, looking for release levers and trying to determine which way the wheelbarrow would fit best. “Wow, your car is in really good shape!” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. I hear that a lot. “I think the wheelbarrow will fit in the backseat,” I said. “It’s amazing what I’ve gotten in there.”

“I think you’re right!” agreed Robert. He maneuvered the huge yellow wheelbarrow over to my open back door, lifted the tire onto the backseat, and pushed forward with all his might. The wheelbarrow got stuck about halfway in, so he made some adjustments and gave it another good shove, and then another. I stood and watched with a furrowed brow until I had to say something. “YA KNOW ROBERT!” I began. “ROBERT-ROBERT-ROBERT! I don’t think that’s going in there.”

“I think you’re right,” a sweaty and puffing Robert replied. “Let’s try the trunk.”
We worked together getting the wheelbarrow situated in the open trunk, where I held it in position while Robert ran to find some twine to tie it down. I expected him back in about an hour. As I waited, my gaze wandered from my shiny new industrial-sized wheelbarrow to my car’s back door, still standing open. Something odd caught my eye: my window appeared to have rips in it. Rips.

I disentangled myself from the wheelbarrow and rushed to inspect the inside of the window, much as a mother might kneel at the bedside of her sick child. The damage was obvious: Robert had scraped off some of the window tint, torn the rubber door seal, shredded the vinyl, scratched the door jamb, and chipped the paint. Numbers started battling in my brain: My car is over ten years old and not perfect, and this is only Robert’s third day. But before this there weren’t any nicks in the vinyl, and now there's a twelve-inch gash. I’ve been here for two hours and will leave with hundreds of dollars in damage. What price will Robert pay? I didn’t know what to say. I stood up to face Robert, who by then was standing silently behind me.

“Looks like I damaged your car,” he said quietly.

“I know. But it was my idea that you put the wheelbarrow in the back seat."

“I should have known better,” he said. “Let me get a manager."

He walked away and disappeared inside Home Depot while I stood in the parking lot and fretted. He emerged not long after with another man of about the same age. The manager did what managers do: frowned, pulled out his clipboard, and gave me some paperwork to fill out. As I did that, I overheard him say to Robert, “Wheelbarrows do not fit in the back seat.” Robert didn’t say anything. The manager added, “And neither do lawnmowers, if you’re wondering.”

There was no satisfaction in having to fill out a complaint form listing Robert as the culprit while he stood nearby getting scolded. He had only done what I’d suggested. But in fact it was his mistake, and he had caused this damage. It was simply too late for me to be a better person, if in fact I even could have been. I had missed my chance again.

I drove home slowly with a red hazard flag sticking out of my trunk, deserving of nothing more or less.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Fourth Little Pig

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I live in the house made of dust, as if the three little pigs had an evil brother whose construction efforts the wolf overlooked. After thirty years, my walls and roof have all settled sufficiently to resemble a normal house made of wood. However, every time I hang a picture or somebody knocks on the front door, one of those years swirls into a dust cloud and my house gets younger for awhile. I live in a freaky house that probably scared the wolf away.

I’ve tried everything to keep the dust down in here: feathers on sticks, store-bought sprays, expensive furniture wipes, even my own remedies like Grandma’s Homemade Mustard-on-a-rag, which made my house smell like a deli. I can dust the whole house one day and write my name on a table the next. My cats weigh more after they’ve napped due to the dust that has settled on them. Under the beds, I don’t have dust bunnies because the dust elephants have crushed them.

And people can be unkind about dust build-up, even here in the desert where you might expect to see it. I have seen “Clean Me” written across a bookshelf’s fuzzy white coating after a “friend” has come and gone. My cousin came for dinner one night too, and while I thought we had an understanding (what happens in the dust house stays in the dust house), she called my mother in Minnesota to tell her that something must be terribly wrong with me because I was apparently content to live in filth. Luckily that cousin was drunk when she talked to my mom, so my mom didn’t believe her. Whew.

A few days ago, when I was outside raking and thinking, I thought I had my dust problem solved. I wasn’t out there raking leaves or grass, after all: I was raking my dirt, like a lot of us here in Arizona do. Plumes of dirt rose around me and if I hadn’t known better I might have thought the Lord had called my name, ashes to ashes and all that. But I did know better, especially since this happened every time I tried to tidy up outside. The forty tons of decorative crushed gravel that I’d spread over my property in 2006 had disintegrated, leaving me with forty tons of minute granules surrounding my house, waiting outside of every crack and screen to come on in. Maybe my house wasn’t made of dust after all.

Today I finally called a landscaping service that specializes in crushed granite (and tops of mountains that can be sliced off and delivered to your yard for a jillion dollars per ton, if you want a really natural look). A young man came right over and his name was Sven Johansen.

“Let me tell you the truth,” I said to Sven, shaking his hand and leading him to the barest spot in my yard. “I’m lookin’ to solve a dust problem. Look at this dirt. That’s all it is: dirt! My granite was small to begin with—a billionth minus—but now you can hardly see any.” We both looked around at my sea of dirt, little mounds of remaining granite pushed together here and there by stray cats who use my yard as a litter box. Those were landmines.

Sven spoke up: “Ya know, I gotta be honest with ya here. No amount of rock is gonna solve your dust problem. I could tell ya that it would, and sell ya four thousand dollars’ worth, but that’s not the way I do business.”

My best idea shot down so quickly. Desperate, I dragged Sven over to the side of my house and howled, “The windows then! It must be the windows! They’re thirty years old, they’re single-paned, they must be letting the dust in, I need…to replace…them allllll.”

Sven shook his head no and helped me up from where I’d collapsed at the thought of how much new windows were going to cost. “It’s not your windows.”

“What is it then?” I asked, sniffling.

As we slowly walked back out front, Sven explained: “Ya got turbines on your roof to ventilate the attic, right?” Right. “Ever open the windows for fresh air?” Of course. "Ya know the bathroom fan?“ Yah. "Have any pets?” Sure. “And look here,” said Sven, pointing at my front door standing wide open, the screen door letting in even more fresh Phoenix air. “That brown cloud hangin' over the Valley? It's goin' inside your house right now, right through your front door. Der are even more particles in the air dat you can’t even see.”

I sheepishly closed the door—grimy with dust and sprayed with cat urine towards the bottom--and stood with Sven on my front step. “You live in the desert,” he said. “It’s dusty here.” He didn’t have to say “get used to it”. That phrase is embedded in my Minnesota DNA, along with “get over it,” “stop complaining”, and “too bad”.

I thanked my desert landscaping expert of Norwegian descent and went back inside, looking for other sad stories with happier endings.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Heat Is On

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An old friend came to visit me yesterday—an unusually cold day in Arizona, not even 70 degrees. We sat in my warm, cozy living room drinking tea, and we would have gossiped, but since she’s in a relationship and I’m not, she has grown kids and I don’t, and we run in different circles now, we have nothing to gossip about anymore. So I just listened as she put her cell phone on speaker and played the best of her wealthy ex-husband’s hateful messages:

1. “My son needs you to look after him! He doesn’t understand things like insurance and paying bills! That’s your job as his mother. He's only 23 for God's sake!”

2. “You need to get a better job! You’ve always been lazy! There’s no reason for you to work part-time now that the kids are old enough to take care of themselves.”

3. “All I hear from you is complain, complain, complain about that house you’re living in that I'm still paying for. I don’t want to hear about exposed wires or a leaky roof. Fix it! You come from a farm in Alabama; you should be glad you're not living in a trailer.”

After fifteen years of hearing this ass spew vitriol over the phone, I’m still taken aback every time I hear his most recent efforts to strip my friend of dignity and self-confidence. Her ex is 64 years old and showing no signs of going anywhere anytime soon, except on his next African safari.

Verbal vomit comes with my own territory of teaching, but at least I get fresh stuff from new people, not the same old abuse. Several years ago I had twins in my class, a bright young woman and her bright but sleepy brother. She wrote all of his papers for him, and I caught them. “You both just failed this class,” I said one day after everyone else had left. Their grumbled duet of the B word and F word provided a nice soundtrack to the scene where they backed out of the classroom sneering at me, invisible sabers slashing me to bits.

Of course, writers who put themselves out in the public eye also have to expect some level of backlash from those readers who can’t contain their loathing, right? Like in my case, if I write about a cockroach who skitters across the kitchen floor during an otherwise lovely dinner date—or the termites who would eat my home if I didn’t renew our pact every year—some reader somewhere is going to send me a comment calling me a filthy whore. And I’m not filthy.

Interestingly, sometimes writers themselves get caught up in lashing out at people or groups of people who don’t deserve the bad publicity. Case in point: Now that Tucson schools have banned a bunch of books and stopped offering a Mexican-American studies class, some writers are publically denouncing the entire state of Arizona and all the people who live here. Sherman Alexie is one of them: “I'm also strangely pleased that the folks of Arizona have officially announced their fear of an educated underclass,” he recently wrote in The Progressive. “You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world.”

Arizona is not full of “racist folks” (another Alexie term). We have some of those, like any state does, but mainly we are full of people from all over the country and all over the world who have come here for a new and better life. That’s what I hear in my community college classrooms from the brown kids who have left the reservation, or Mexico…or any of the Midwestern kids who just want a tan in February. That’s what I see at my gym when the elderly members of our Silver Sneaker club come in for ice cream socials, yakking in their New Jersey and Alabama accents about core strength and stability. That’s what I know from living here for over twenty years, getting an education here myself, and spending lots of time and money exploring the forests up north, the desert wilderness down south, and…oh yeah…the Grand Canyon.

We are so much more than that ignorant group of people who canceled a much-needed class in Tucson. Nobody I know supports the cancellation of Mexican-American studies or the banning of any books, and I know a lot of people because remember: I’m a filthy whore.

The State of Arizona currently suffers from poor leadership, yes. We have a bad foreclosure problem on top of our immigration issues, yes. But we have these problems because so many people want to be here in the first place. Not only are we hosting the relatives of the world who want a free place to stay on vacation, we’re leading the way in all things immigration because it’s a fact of our daily lives: we have to. We’re not doing a perfect job, but we non-racist folks are trying and voting for better.

Don’t throw the good people of Arizona out with the bathwater. Keep the bathwater too—hey, we use that to water our lawns this time of year.