Friday, March 30, 2012

Research Monkey

Click here, then read.

God has smote me with cystic acne, what can I say? But other than the occasional whopper, my complexion stays clear, so I end up walking around sporting a red clown nose next to my own, and sometimes on my forehead. One alone can grow so large that people come up and ask what its name is, if it’s a boy or a girl.

One particularly spirit-sucking incident happened at work many years ago: Yet another cyst had taken root next to my nose, and it had grown to great proportions, like a tomato. I had covered it with makeup as best I could, but evidently not well enough, because my boss came to sit next to me and whispered, “Hey, I’m worried about you. What’s wrong with your eye?” What’s wrong with my eye? That’s right: the cyst was so big it had pushed my left eye closed from the bottom. Total bummer.

Now I know (finally) that if I go to my dermatologist and have her shoot some steroids into that thing, it goes away in two days...not two weeks as usual, and without leaving a scar. So I went to my dermatologist today because I felt this ball simmering under the skin next to my nose, where I’m sure it intended to stay and grow until it became the child I never wanted.

I'm lying on the exam table and the doctor comes in with two residents. She tells them that I have "an interesting history" and urges me to tell it to them while she leaves to prepare the steroid stuff. I sit up to face two young Chinese women—both named Dr. Kim—and begin: “Well, I had mange on my scalp for a long time, but the injectable I take finally got rid of that. I'm on acne medication too, but sometimes I still get cysts. My liver is also compromised, but my injectable for the mange happens to promote liver function, so I lucked out there—one for the medical books, really…you can look me up. One of my cysts actually turned into a parasitic twin once, too, so when I came here, the doctor had to use a BB gun instead of steroids to get rid of it. Teeth and hair came out, and this little tail. I have the remains in a jar at home; her name is Lisa.”

The Drs. Kim listened intently to my story, taking notes. When I stopped talking, they started picking through my long hair. They were still disentangling themselves when my dermatologist walked back in.

“Didja tell them your history?” she asked.

“I sure did."

“Great!” she said, positioning me on the table so she could stick the syringe of steroid mix into my face. My dermatologist loves me because I’m such a special case.

“Are you ready?” she grinned, hovering over me and my wannabe cyst with a long silver needle.

One can never truly be ready to have a needle stuck into a festering wound on one’s face, but I agreed to it once again. I sat still, clenched my teeth, felt the needle scraping cartilage, and cried out. It was all over then, and I told the Drs. Kim that I wasn’t crying; my eyes were just watering.

I left with a huge round band-aid stuck on my face, such an improvement. I took the elevator down and loped pass the same security guard who always sits in the lobby. “Ooo ooo,” I chattered. “Ooo ooo, eee eee eee.”

“Yup, see ya next time!” she said.

The price of beauty.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Adopt A Pet

Click here, then read.

One tradition started in our family, by our mother of course, was the Telling of the Birthday Story. “Tell me about the day I was born,” we would beg, in the days before a third or fourth birthday, or—heaven help us—the days before a third or fourth sibling was scheduled to bump us.

My mother would always oblige. I never got tired of my birthday story and always wanted to hear it like it was the most important story of my life. Here is one version I remember:

“Well,” my mother said (I was four, on the carpet near the stereo, listening to Hansel and Gretel), “I just knew you were coming that day. So I went to the grocery store and did some laundry, and when your dad came home from work, I told him this was the big day!

“And the hospital was right across the street, so we just walked over and there you were, Katie Jane! I held you up to the third-floor window so your brother and sisters could see, and we couldn’t find your brother for hours after because he was barefoot on his bicycle, singing about having a new baby sister. All the neighbors gave him money and candy!”

My family knows that the-day-you-were-born-stories are the best. I think I can speak for most of us when I say that the-day-you-die stories simply don’t compare.

*

It’s spring most everywhere, pink and white blossoms. Some folks are considering having a human child. Some of us are considering adopting pets again.

In case you are considering adopting animals, you probably already know that you’ll have to tell a birthday story one day too. For me, it happened one bad night when the girls wanted everything at once: “Why did you pick me? Why did you pick her? She doesn’t even look like me! I hate her! I want to go home!”

Lucy and Sara never got along from the start. Three years ago, I got a Flying Wallenda and Elizabeth Taylor.

“Would you like to know your birthday story?” I said. I was trying to get them settled in bed. They circled and stopped circling.

“Who do you think came first?” I said. Sara splayed her limbs as if she could reach the moon.

“That’s right,” I said. “Who came second then?”

Lucy, my black one, blinked. She didn't know.

I prompted: “I was told to sit still in a room full of kitties and wait for anybody else who might like me to come over. Who came second?”

Lucy--with her big black eyes, her black noggin, her soft bear paws--softly head-butted my knee. I did, mama.

Of course you did, sweetheart.

*

Happy Birthday to Adopted Pets Everywhere.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better Be Quiet

Click here, then read.

I’ve been trying to find something funny to write about for days, weeks, months. My dad has been sick for weeks, months, years. I don't want to know how the cycle ends, but he's coming home from the hospital. Today.

It was an okay morning. One of my trees shook his head at me when I went out to get the paper, pine needling me so I’d water him. Cloud formations showed me that the nearby military base was practicing. I yelled hello (uselessly again) at the old lady who walks by my house every morning at 6:30. She can’t hear me; is she blind too? I don’t know why I try.

There is nothing worse than having a parent who is inaccessible.

I call off school, I call off eating—all cleaning and chores go out the window. I am now consumed with worry about my parents getting along in their own home, if they need a lifeline, how my dad will survive this last part. I don’t worry so much about my mom; I worry about my dad getting in and out of the tub.

I've sent flowers. Welcome home.

Coming from a big family, plus being the youngest by far, I'm hoping for some kind of smoothing of fears and concerns. As it turns out, we are all nervous and telling bad jokes. My mom had each of us to make sure that the others had company. She could have had a million kids and we would have appreciated her, but our dad was always the one we wanted.

Always wanting the one who got away.

We all sit nervously in our various situations—me in Arizona, them in Minnesota—and wonder how Mom will react to this new Dad. What will she say about the new lift recliner that takes up half the TV room? What will happen when she can’t hear my dad fall on the opposite side of the house? This isn’t the hospital.

It’s home.

We have to buck up and not bother them: if you have a complaint, please submit it at the door and it will be addressed in time. Please, only good thoughts and kind words. But all good thoughts have been replaced by sad ones: What about the bathroom? I wonder. What about the tub? What about the back steps? What about outside?

I finally call my brother, who is cheery on the outside but worried like me. He also has a cat, like me. My brother is a contractor in charge of a lot; he's currently moving out of my parents' home into his own. I’m sure he never imagined he would be in charge of smoothing out this particular rough spot. He stops what he’s doing when I call.

“I think they’ll be fine,” he says, strongly.

“Should I spend the summer there?” I say, nervously.

We cave at the mention of cats, our cats—his one and my two. These are the family members we’ve managed to gather on our own. We know our mom doesn’t like cats…preferring human beings, somehow, to creatures who might steal food off the counter.

Spending the summer with my parents would mean leaving my cats behind, or—if I took them with me--subjecting them to a type of discipline they’re not used to. Thoughts of sucky summer camp invade my fragile mind. All I want to talk about is something familiar.

“Sara was totally interested in this huge mosquito-type thing through the screen this morning,” I say.

“Eddie will enjoy the lilacs outside my bedroom window,” my brother replies. “I’ll put a cat tree there for him.”

*

I am not new to sadness, but tears for sadness or love gone wrong are reserved for silence. They are the silent tears you read about being poured into a pillow.

My mind rings with the construction noises coming from next door, a new house for my neighbors and their kids being built and built and built. I shout on the phone to one of my sisters, “Is Mom and Dad’s house gonna be handicapped or what?” The new house coming up next door conflicts with the reality of what’s waiting for me, two thousand miles away.

*

I get online and order my ticket to go there, but I order a ticket to San Miguel too. I didn’t do everything up to this point in my life for nothing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Marinade Man

Click here, then read.

Some men know how to cook. Those who don’t, marinate. By the same token, some men know how to woo a woman and establish a firm foundation for a loving relationship. Those who don’t, date women on the rebound.

Marinade Man had been a casual acquaintance for a couple of years, some guy I occasionally ran into at the local sushi restaurant. Our friendship was based on a few sake bombers and the exchange of joke e-mails, nothing more. However, when I e-mailed him regarding the demise of my relationship with Gay Tim, he immediately suggested that we get together.

The question arises: Why would I even tell Marinade Man about Gay Tim? The fact was that I told anyone who would listen about Gay Tim, because it helped to talk. It also helped to drink, which Marinade Man also liked to do, so I began meeting him at the sushi bar on purpose, where he would buy me enormous beers and listen intently as I combed through every minute detail of my relationship with Gay Tim, and why it didn’t work.

One night at the sushi bar, Marinade Man asked if I would like to have dinner at his house sometime. I asked him if he was asking me for a date—a real date—and he said, why not? I told him plainly and simply that my heart was still broken and I was in no shape to enter into any kind of romance.

I told him that I was the absolute worst dating option for him at that point, because though I might show some signs of warmth, I was still cold and angry on the inside, and probably capable of doing mean things, like using him for company when my real friends were unavailable. None of this mattered to Marinade Man. He’d had a crush on me for a long time, and he was hell-bent on pursuing it.

Since I hated to be alone and had nothing better to do with my time, I finally took Marinade Man up on his offer. On the evening of our “date,” I sported a baseball cap because I hadn’t washed my hair that day, and threw on my regular t-shirt and shorts. When he opened his apartment door and stood there grinning at me, I was more turned off than I had ever been in my life.

Marinade Man was not a handsome man to begin with. He was large, the kind of large that you get from working out with weights for a long time and then stopping for a long time. He also shaved his big knobby head—a poor choice—and his teeth were the size, shape and color of a horse’s. To top it off, he was a self-admitted “toe-walker,” which meant that when Marinade Man walked around, he looked like he was prancing.

All of these physical attributes taken together were more than enough to alert my senses that we would never, ever sleep with Marinade Man. I already knew that before showing up on his doorstep, but his silk shirt, neatly pressed khaki shorts and leather loafers worked to cement my resolution. That he had taken the extra time to dress well for me was the ultimate turn-off. I couldn’t stand his desire.

He invited me in and made me a drink, and upon perusing his CD collection, I was reminded of why I liked Marinade Man in the first place. We shared similar tastes in music, humor, and were both honest and upfront, not to mention the fact that we both loved raw fish and the party atmosphere of sushi bars. I decided that I was glad to have a friend in Marinade Man, despite his flaws and ulterior motives.

When it was time for dinner, I sat down at the table and waited for Marinade Man to bring me my plate. When he set it down in front of me, everything looked normal and good: a steak, some asparagus, half a baked potato with some brown sauce on it, and a small portion of salad. We began to eat.

I cut into my steak, which was oozing brown fluid, and put a piece into my mouth. It had a tangy flavor, not unlike barbeque sauce, though I had not seen Marinade Man using any sauce as he grilled the steaks. I chewed and swallowed, and moved on to the asparagus. Upon closer inspection I found that the asparagus, too, was tinged with a brownish fluid, and it too tasted quite tangy. In fact, there was no distinction in flavor between any of the foods on my plate: they were all tangy. Even my salad.

Marinade Man asked me, “So, how do you like everything?”

I said, “It’s all really good. I’m tasting something though, that I’ve never tasted before--something tangy. What is that?”

“Marinade,” said Marinade Man. “I marinate everything. Just throw the food in a zip-lock freezer bag, pour on the marinade, and let her sit all day. You can marinade vegetables in the same bag as the meat. Works good as a sauce, too. This one’s ginger soy.”

I now understood why Marinade Man’s teeth were so stained: he only ate marinated foods. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of his many years of bachelorhood, he had discovered the marinade section of his grocery store, and had taken marinating to grand new levels. No wonder he always ordered eel at the sushi restaurant; it came slicked over with brown, greasy teriyaki sauce, a.k.a. marinade.

Marinade Man lasted in my life for about four months, long enough for many more dinners at his house. I learned that anything that’s marinated long enough will eventually taste like something it’s not. Marinade Man could make beef taste like salmon, salmon taste like a citrus grove, and his chicken always tasted like a campfire. I don’t know why or how he ever started tossing the vegetables in there too, but I ate plenty of raspberry-flavored carrots and wine-soaked green beans. Nothing was right in Marinade Man’s kitchen.

Marinade Man cried when I told him over the phone one night that I couldn’t take advantage of him anymore. He said that it was just his luck, that he always dated girls who ended up breaking up with him because he was “too nice.” I reminded him that we were never really dating, that we hadn’t consummated our relationship, and that in fact we hadn’t even kissed. He responded by saying that this was as close to dating as he’d ever gotten.

I felt sorry for Marinade Man, but not sorry enough to keep seeing him. Unlike his meats and vegetables, I knew exactly who I was, and I couldn’t keep allowing Marinade Man to make our relationship into something it was not. I don’t feel bad about abandoning him when my broken heart had mended.

I had warned him, after all, that I was capable of being cruel.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Love Story

Click here, then read.


My eighth grade year had a definite beginning, middle, and end. The beginning had started out promising enough: my best friend Diane and I with our roller skating, the big shots at our kindergarten-through-eighth grade Catholic school, pre-boyfriends, all that. October brought trouble, though: my parents separated.

When I think back to that time in terms of physicalities, I remember my mother losing weight, and her fingertips—cracked and bloody—frostbitten from shoveling the snow off of our front walk. I remember my father’s hair, grown out long like Elvis’s, and the smooth white band of skin on his left ring finger where his wedding band used to be. After five months of living apart from me and my mother, my father returned with no apologies to reclaim his position as head of household. Life quickly returned to normal: we visited over dinner at the table each night, my parents came together to see my next school band performance, and my father started singing in the church choir again.

I knew that I should have been glad he was back, but anger had begun to brew inside me. I didn’t recognize these feelings at first, because I had never felt them before. I thought I must be feeling what my mother was feeling, and since she was glad that my father had returned, I assumed that I was, too. It was better than the alternative, right?

I knew that our lives would have taken a sad, sorry turn if my father had not returned. I assumed that instead of driving to see my siblings and their kids in my dad’s station wagon, we’d have to take the Greyhound bus. I assumed that instead of having big dinners with homemade dessert every night, my mother and I would continue to have small dinners with no desserts, since I didn’t have a sweet tooth anyway. Instead of having two parents in the house, I would only have one sad parent around. None of that was very appealing.

Plus, I loved my father, in the profound and inexplicable way that only daughters can love fathers. I had good memories of him: When I was three he’d take me onto his lap after dinner and draw farm animals for me at the kitchen table. When I got a little older, he always said yes when I asked him if I could bring a friend to the beach with us, camping with us, fishing with us. I remember digging potatoes out of the ground with my father, picking blueberries with my father, gathering firewood with my father. I’m certain that my mother was along for these events and outings, but I don’t remember her as clearly as I do my father.

My father swung axes and shot guns; my father came home with truckloads of wood, dead deer strapped to the top of his car, strings of fish he’d speared out of frozen lakes. My father jumped off of docks into chilly lake water, shouting and laughing, swimming straight to me under the water like a shark.

My mother just took care of me.

The end of my eighth grade year arrived in June of 1983, marked by a graduation ceremony and family breakfast at our church. My parents came together. Diane and I shined that morning: we had feathered hair, and wore peasant skirts with silver belts. I have faded Polaroid pictures of me and Diane standing by a tree with our hair blowing in the wind, our arms around one another, and one each of Diane and her mom, and Diane and her dad. Her parents had split up and stayed split up. I felt lucky on that day.

A few weeks later, my Saturday chores completed, I decided to work on my suntan. My sisters had always sunbathed on the flat roof outside their bedroom window, which was now the roof outside of my bedroom window, since I’d moved into that larger room. I put on my swimsuit and gathered together a blanket, a pillow, my baby oil, a glass of iced tea, and the book I was currently reading, Clan of the Cavebear by Jane Auel—the only book that has ever made me cry. I made a few trips through the window onto the roof, bringing all of my supplies out there, and finally settled on my stomach, my book laid out in front of me.

The story is about a beautiful little blonde girl from modern times who gets separated from her parents on a camping trip, then rescued and raised by a primitive band of ugly cavemen. The cavemen think Ayla is strange and unattractive, but she is loved and accepted by all except for the evil son of the clan leader, Broat, who is jealous of the positive attention that Ayla generates. Years later, Broat forces Ayla to have sex with him, resulting in the birth of her son, gentle Mandah. In the end, Ayla must leave the clan to rejoin the modern world, and she decides—with great sorrow—that it would be best to leave Mandah behind. The book ends with Ayla walking away from her clan and Mandah, the sound of her wailing child filling her ears.

I sobbed through the final pages of Clan of the Cavebear, my tears mixing with baby oil and sweat. I finally put the book down to wipe my eyes, and saw my father toiling in his garden below, his sleeves rolled up, his pants all dirty. I watched him pulling weeds, pruning his raspberry bushes, completely absorbed in his work. I thought to myself, I will never leave my child, and cried into my pillow like I had never cried before.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Traffic School

Click here, then read.

A camera has caught me going 67 in a 55 zone, so I must attend Traffic School or pay $223 to the State of Arizona plus take three points on my driving record. I only have to pay $180 for Traffic School and no points, so this is a no-brainer for me, girl scout that I am.

I walk into a small room on the third floor of a bank, quickly doing more numbers: while the room is no bigger than 13’ by 13’, there are 28 chairs plus the instructor’s desk up front. If everyone has paid what I’ve paid, that means this five-hour defensive driving course is generating over $5000 for the State of Arizona.

I make note of it. In fact, I decide to take notes on the whole class, just to be a butthead. I’m sure I’ll catch the instructor making some kind of mistake, then I can submit my notes to his supervisor and get my money back.

5:15 I’ve stood in line and handed all the required information to Paul Newman, our instructor. Apparently Paul never really died; he just went undercover as a Traffic School instructor. We also learn that he teaches golf and Bible School. His lavender polo is buttoned up all the way to the neck, a gold cross hanging on a chain under his collar, exposed. As you know, Paul is not tall and has a medium build, but could take down a rhino if he wanted to. Paul is focused and prepared. Paul has done this before.

5:30 With the League of Nations seated and quiet, Paul begins his presentation. “It is uniquely dangerous to drive in the state of Arizona!” he shouts. He clicks his laser mouse and all kinds of statistics show up on the wall, proving him correct. He will do this repeatedly throughout the night. “There are TBI warehouses all around the State of Arizona! Did you know that? Warehouses for people with Traumatic Brain Injuries. They can’t work, they’ve lost their families, they’re divorced. They are abandoned.”

None of us wants a TBI or to be abandoned, so we listen intently.

“Can anyone define ‘herd mentality’ for me?” Paul calls out. A man mumbles, “Go with the flow of traffic?” and Paul comes down hard on him. “No! It means ‘follow the impulsive, reckless PIG’! Do you want to be described like that?”

We all shook our heads. We weren’t impulsive reckless pigs. Were we?

5:45 “Wear. Your. SEATBELT!” Paul shouts. “Why wouldn’t you?” He shows us a brief video of a chubby taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel. The taxi driver’s eyes get wide just before he’s slammed into the front passenger’s seat then tossed into the backseat, where he is pressed like putty against the rear passenger’s door. “This is a flying object!” Paul says. “Do you think this 220 pound flying object could do damage to you or your children?”

Yes we did.

6:05 We have a State Farm representative in our group who got a ticket too. He’s a know-it-all, seemingly unaffected by Paul’s safety insistence. “What causes crashes?” Paul asks us. State Farm pipes up: “We had a situation not long ago where a young couple was coming back from Mexico and I guess the girl was ‘pleasing her boyfriend’ on the road, and they crashed.”

Not a snicker was heard, except from State Farm, who quickly snickered down.

“You’re on to something,” said Paul, his blue eyes void of humor. “What causes crashes is inattentive driving. That, and drunks. But we’ll get to the drunks later. Right now I want to focus on the concept of ‘right of way’.”

7:05 Paul is obsessed with this concept. He shows us a few videos of pedestrians getting kicked like footballs across intersections when drivers insist on having the right of way. Cars full of people also fly by, airborne, hit by other drivers utilizing their right of way. “Do NOT enter an intersection until it is clear and safe to do so!” Paul pauses, looking around. “When should you enter an intersection?” he asks.

When it is clear and safe to do so, we respond.

7:30 Paul lets us out on break. We herd to the restrooms across the halls, then herd back.

7:45 “Assume everyone on the road is drunk!” Paul barks. Some of us shift in our seats and glance around. Must we assume this? Was it you? “Your driver’s license is a guest pass, folks. A guest pass. Driving is not a right. You don’t even have the right of way.”

I feel like I’ve backed over my own child instead of driving 12 miles over the speed limit in the desert north of town.

I tiny-whisper to the girl sitting next to me, “What’d you do?”

She was going 11 over.

Paul sees us whispering. “Girls! Under what circumstances should you enter an intersection?”

“When it is clear and safe to do so, sir!” I say.

Paul seems pleased. “You understand what I’m driving at then. Stay out of a crash.”

8:15 Paul is angry again, even though our smart-aleck State Farm rep has apologized for popping off. We all gave Paul our money orders long ago and have already seen fiery crashes, people obviously getting killed. We are wondering what more Paul wants. Somebody else tests him: “So are we supposed to be clairvoyant or what?”

Paul shrugs like only Paul can do, gazing at all of us and each of us. “If that’s what it takes to stay out of a crash.” He picks his teeth with a fingernail, as if he eats.

9:15 “Getting a DUI in Arizona will cost you dearly,” Paul tells us. Obviously some of us know that, but some of us don’t. Some of us cringe; some of us perk up. Everybody likes to hear a good DUI story, but all Paul does is click and point to the offenses and penalties, projected for us on the wall. Apparently getting a DUI in Arizona is equivalent to attempted murder. “A DUI in Arizona will cause a gaping hole in your life for five years at the very least,” Paul intonates, reminding me of a priest in front of his parishioners.

I thought murder would get you more than that.

9:30 We all cringe as Paul gears up to show the videos again—the fat cab driver falling asleep behind the wheel, a pedestrian getting punted from the crosswalk to a boulevard, a speeding car caught on camera running a red light and missing two cars plus a mother and her children in the crosswalk by the grace of God. I am talking a split second. It’s an amazing video, the best part of the class.

We’re entranced again by other people’s stupidity and selfishness.

9:45 We know that the class is almost over, but nobody makes a move to leave. “Anger is temporary insanity,” Paul tells us. “We have to be the adults on the road, gracious on the road. Do we think that shaving five minutes or three minutes off a commute is going to make a difference? Me first, me first…are we caught up in a mindless race?” Paul pauses. “We’ve been swept up in a mindless fantasy, folks. A mindless fantasy.”

I line up to collect my certificate of completion, then ride the elevator down three floors to the parking lot, where my car gently weeps.

*

Three days later these words leave my mouth: “I think everyone should have to take this class every four years or as often as it takes to get it through their head that they should not enter an intersection, or even a relationship, until it’s clear and safe to do so.”

Such an easy convert.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Linguistic Hotdish

Click here, then read.

What is this word "hotdishing"? What language does she speak?

While you may not be able to find "hotdishing" in a dictionary, its root word ("hotdish") has a long and colorful history in Minnesota. Simply put, "hotdish" is the Midwestern term for "casserole", which usually begins with a cream of mushroom soup base and spills unto us from the Lord with everything from rice and noodles to mixed vegetables and Cheez Whiz. There are meated hotdishes, vegetarian, transgendered varieties—one for every mood and occasion, every fridge full of leftovers. Give me your tired, your poor, your intoxicated--there's a hotdish out there with your name on it.

I'm raising the word "hotdish" away from the confines of a lowly food noun, up and out of the kitchen to a freshly minted verb, "hotdishing": to write casually about seemingly disparate topics that all fit together. I'll try to do that here, keeping in mind that my mother is reading, and perhaps only my mother. Go easy on the hot.

Which brings up a new ingredient, a tryst worth considering: Who am I writing for, and why? For me, striving to connect with readers—to entertain them or persuade them—has meant different approaches over the years. Sometimes I was writing to impress my English teacher; other times I was trying to win a man's love. Sometimes it was both at once.

Sometimes I wrote to beg for money or mercy--and I got them, too.

Tonight I'm writing for you, cuddled as you might be on your couch, or erect in your office chair. I'm also writing for the cute and funny sports doctor who electrocuted the nerves in my left arm yesterday, testing my reflexes. I always have somebody specific whose mind I want to change, whose heart I want to break, or whose smile I want to see...when I write, that is.

Outside of that, I’m just a normal person buying groceries.

I hope the electrocutioner reads this and laughs--my favorite reward, what makes the work worth it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anniversary

Click here, then read.

Ten years ago today, I was getting married in a beautiful garden at a fancy resort. Probably at the very moment you’re reading this, I was either saying “I do” or hoping the mockingbird would pipe down or wishing my new step-son would look up or regretting that I’d forgotten about that glass-crushing part in my hurry to hustle down the aisle with my new husband so the party could begin. I mean, it wasn’t me who was Jewish, and the glass was wrapped up in cloth so I couldn’t see it. I don’t blame myself for that part.

I try to think of funny things that happened that day. I remember that my hair was dirty because my hairdresser had told me to show up with manageable and workable hair. The only way I could get it that way was to leave it unwashed, so I figured the more unwashed, the better. My hair was very shiny on my wedding day because it was greasy. The truth comes out…

Embarrassing can be funny, so I go with that thought. Apparently my dress had not been altered correctly, or perhaps we’d been eating too much spaghetti in the months before, because a spaghetti strap broke on my dress and my twins joined the reception. They were a welcome addition since my maid of honor had slunk away, back to her room, disinterested and uncompelled. Maid-of-honorless, I retreated to a back room with my resort-appointed servant who stitched up my strap and sent me back into the fray with a new glass of wine. As if I needed that…

We had worked hard to make sure that our family and friends were comfortable and honored and drunkity drunk drunk drunk. Some took more advantage of the open bar than others; if this rings a bell, honk. But beyond that, I regret missing the Hokey Pokey dance because of my broken strap—I hear it was the best part up to then. When I came back, I found my mother standing outside this beautiful venue, these beautiful buildings and gardens, smoking in the parking lot.

“Mom!” I howled. “You’re missing the longest married couples dance! You should be in there dancing with Dad!”

We walked back in together to find my oldest sister dancing with Dad, in place of my mom. We blanched and turned our stony faces into smiley ones. Such good Midwesterners…

There was one of my best girlfriends sucking on a chocolate-covered strawberry for the camera. There was my orange father-in-law, oddly colored by the sun in Florida. There was one of my loosey-goosey sisters, changed out of her bridesmaid dress into go-go boots and a fringed black top. Thanks a lot. Now everyone will think I’m a redneck too, my secret revealed.

Everyone would agree that the really best part of our wedding was the best man, my new husband’s twelve-year-old son. He stuck to his dad’s side like glue, doing the hokey-pokey with his grandma in a big circle (which I missed because I was fiddling with my dress strap). He read his own tribute to our new marriage, written out by his mom on a recipe card. I was there for that, and while it was touching and promising and made everyone cry, it wasn’t funny.

It was heartbreaking.

The most fun I had on my wedding day was when I danced with my father. He likes to push a willing woman across a dance floor, spinning her and dipping her, working up a sweat. My dad can waltz, two-step and give lessons in both all during one song, one spin around the dance floor. “I’m leading!” he would shout, picking me up and landing me on my feet somewhere else. “You’re following,” he would say. Give my dad a little alcohol and some Willie Nelson and he is on the road again, taking you with him.

When the night was over—my parents safe in their hotel room, my sisters safe in theirs—I walked back to my luxury casita alone. I slipped out of the dress and into the big fresh bed, such heavy covers for a mild night in March, but still, just right. My new husband lay cuddled with his son on a cot in the family area of our room. That’s how my wedding day ended, and I didn’t think I minded.

Today—ten years later—I filled my time with regular chores and errands. I made some phone calls so I would get some back. So much loneliness happens after you have to give up. You need to work your way back.

***

I wouldn’t have imagined, ten years ago, that I would be writing this. I thought I would be ensconced in true love, safe love, and that would be the end of the story.

But I’m more human now than I was back then. As I sit here, I wear the healing bracelet that I had given to an old friend, a memento her family gave back to me when she died. That’s not funny… Earlier in the day, I had a heartening conversation with the girls at the Oreck store, where I had gone to redeem a coupon. We spoke of Botox and other ways to keep pretty. Not really funny if you end up bruised… Because another pipe burst in my back yard this morning, I also had to call Noah, of Noah’s Ark Landscaping. He’s the world’s caretaker, if you didn’t know.

This man, a sunny outdoorsy guy--obviously not any kind of husband I was familiar with--decided to trim one of my trees for free.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it needs it. The tree will grow better. It’s called rejuvenation cutting,” he said. “Watch.”

I watched as Noah hacked down the old growth to let the new but tiny growth shine through, all green and young. I tried to furrow my Botoxed brow.

“No worries!” said Noah. “It’ll grow back stronger.” Then he barked out, “I’d like to take you out for the biggest margarita they make!”

I imagined the biggest margarita ever and only saw trouble. I accepted on the spot.

***

A friend wrote to me the other day with news of family duress; I asked what I could do. “More funny!” she said. I wracked my brain for funny; this is all I could come up with. Pearls returned, diamonds in the drawer, relationships severed, this is what I offer for a perk-up.

Good old dependable me.

Friday, March 9, 2012

To The Potential Wife of Pierre

A poem for sisters.

Click here, then read.


You're mushier than I am sometimes. I wonder how that can be.
Sometimes I run around in circles, hysterical,
and fall weeping into your long distance arms.
Because life demands it, I charge forth and keep charging,
taking no prisoners, and then sit there hiccupping
while you glow with sisterly warmth.

Only occasionally does your own armor slip--your custom armor--
and when it does,
I am privileged to help you readjust it into place.
In a former life, you were someone's most prized possession.
In this life, you are my so very much prized friend.

Because we are sisters,
I will always love you in a way that Pierre cannot.
I will have loved you all my life.

Nothing against Pierre.
Always yours,

Babette

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Being Verklempt

Click here, then read.

When I was just a child of 21, I became romantically involved with a man who was 18 years old than me. Soon we were living together at his house in the woods, on a lake, in our home state of Minnesota. I knew exactly what I was doing, and even though our May-December romance presented its share of predictable glitches, I loved the older man so much that I ignored naysayers and shooed away the CPS agents who would show up on our doorstep, dangling younger men and beer bongs in front of me to entice me out. No no, I would say—I’m perfectly fine. I love it here.

One day, “Pa” (as I liked to call my sweetheart) was driving us around to do errands. When we returned to his house, I saw a guy in the backyard—a really cute guy who had been all the rage at the local college I still attended. Evidently he had dropped out and was now pumping septic tanks, more specifically and more importantly Pa’s septic tank right at that moment. This glorious specimen of a young man—a former football player, a guy my friends and I could only dream of dating—shouted a friendly hello and waved from where he stood by his service truck as I sat there in my tizzy, wondering how I was ever going to bring myself to get out and carry groceries into the house: a sure give-away that I was living there.

Suddenly overwhelmed with the stigma of dating a much-older man, which according to me was a private matter and not for super-cute guys my age to know about, I blurted out, “I hate it already!”

Pa, sitting next to me in his car, laughed. He intuitively sensed my displeasure at having been discovered, and he found my frustration amusing.

I don’t often say “I hate it already” anymore. It’s not the right thing to announce before entering work meetings, or any room really where there are new people, like at parties. Now I try to approach challenges with an open mind. However, in stifling my verbal outbursts, I developed a different way of expressing my frustration with situations over which I had no control: I began to growl.

I was unaware of my growling until yet another boyfriend pointed it out, several years ago down here in Arizona. He had just told me that he would be unable to finish installing an irrigation system in my barren backyard before my parents arrived for their long-awaited visit.

“So I can’t buy any trees or bushes to plant?” I asked. “So it’s still going to look like a vacant lot when my parents get here?”

Boyfriend nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “I just ran out of time.”

At that point I must have made my special noise because Boyfriend looked at me and said, “You know, you make the same noise that your mother makes when she’s frustrated.” Boyfriend had met my mother before, so he would know.

“What noise?” I said.

“That humming noise in the back of your throat that sounds like the first warning a cornered dog gives before he bites you. Do it again.”

I cleared my throat and attempted to reproduce the growling sound.

“That’s it!” Boyfriend said. “That’s the noise your mother made at Thanksgiving when she couldn’t get everybody to sit down for dinner at the same time.”

“Well it’s frustrating to make a big dinner for a whole family and then have everybody running around!” I countered.

“I know it is,” Boyfriend said. “I have four children. But I don’t growl at them.”

His point made sense: In fact I had heard my mother emit this mini-growl at times, and I'd probably been doing the same. I didn’t like feeling cornered with no choices, but I'd learned that “I hate it already!” was no longer an option. I had most likely taken to growling as a more socially-acceptable way of expressing my angst.

I never claimed to be perfect.

Since I have gotten my blurting and growling habits under control, it was with few defenses that I sat down at my own kitchen table with a signing agent the other day to officially refinance my home mortgage, getting a 15-year instead of a 30, and a lower interest rate. However, at the last minute, I realized that my monthly payment was going up $200, not down $8 as I had been led to believe. “Up” two hundred vs. “down” eight made me…verklempt.

The signing agent sat there, waiting for me to sign. I knew logically that this was still a better deal than the crazy-bad one I’d had, and I could still afford it, but part of me felt wronged. Maybe bullied. Maybe cornered, again. $208 a month is a chunk of money, any way you cut it.

Suddenly, I snorted. This used to be my father’s reaction to his children’s idiocy—to anything undeniably wrong, but unfixable and out of his control. Like stupid changes at his work.

My father used to snort a lot. It was an involuntary act, just like my mom’s growling. Just like my blurting.

So I snorted in disgust and signed the new mortgage papers, always improving as a human being, always evolving, getting better and better with time.

In my mind.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Siblings for Barry

Click here, then read.

I moved into this house six years ago and was still unpacking when the City decided to rip up all the old pipes in my neighborhood and replace them with new ones. Base camp was in my backyard, where city workers would sit on my cinder block walls and yell to one another over the pounding of jack hammers. This went on for three months, day and night, weekends too, and I knew why my neighbors didn't bring “welcome to the ‘hood' cookies" to my door": they didn’t want to cross the “caution” tape strung from tree to bush to the front pillars of my home, and they probably didn’t own industrial-strength ear muffs either, like I did.

And then, a couple years ago, a freak hail storm pounded Phoenix; people were getting new roofs left and right due to hail damage. Everyone in my neighborhood got a new roof except me: that time, my house outsmarted the storm by having twelve impenetrable and buoyant layers of shingles on it, thanks to the previous owners. At first I was proud of my roof for shrugging off all the hail that could have earned us a new one…What a strong roof you are… but I soon recognized my naivety, as did my insurance company. No roof for you.

Finally—if anything is ever final—a wind storm blew through last week, culminating in my backyard of course, where all disasters do.

I watched from inside as it kicked up plastic watering pots and other lightweight stuff, until it apparently got bored and started to wrestle with my oleanders. My oleanders—planted in a row all the way around the inside of my backyard—are just now reaching the height where they're starting to offer the privacy that they were intended for. However, the wind had other ideas and pushed some of them over from the base, not breaking them—just showing them who’s boss.

I studied these bent-over oleanders for several days, wondering what to do. I went out to speak with them, asking if they weren’t ready to get off the floor and act like big boys, but they wouldn’t look at me. It seemed like a matter for their dad to handle, but they’d never really had a dad since I brought them straight home from the nursery when they were still in buckets. I would have to take the matter in hand myself.

Yesterday was the big day. I happened to have a ten-foot wooden post in my garage, along with a small sledgehammer and a three-step utility stool. I picked up all of these objects at the same time and started to make my way haltingly across the front yard in order to reach the back. I wasn’t five feet into this awkward journey when the pole drove a sliver into the pad of my thumb. The sliver was long and thick and black, running from my left thumb up to my elbow, right under the skin. I’d been splinted before injury—either a happy accident or a warning from God.

Unable to bend my left arm anymore, I swiveled my shoulder to shrug off my supplies and went to put gloves on. I picked up the stool, the pole and the sledgehammer and dragged everything over to the drooping oleanders.

I know one trick regarding the insertion of posts into the hard Arizona earth: you should water the dirt first to soften it up. I had indeed been watering the dirt, and felt confident that it was soft enough by then to happily receive the sharp end of a stake and keep it standing so that I could tie up my fallen oleanders. Me and my dirt, partners in crime.

I leaned the post against my cinder block wall, climbed up on my kitchen stool with the sledgehammer in my good hand, and—using my splinted left arm to hold the post straight—gave it a good tap. Nothing. I tapped it again from where I stood on the top step of my stool, but still nothing. Tap tap tap. I quickly realized that I didn't have the leverage or strength to pound that stake through the moist soil and into the hard clay that lay beneath it. I climbed down from the stool with my dad’s words ringing in my ears: Kathryn, you’re going to hurt yourself.

With the sun going down, I left my tools in the backyard and went to see about the “splinter” shoved under my precious layers of cells, resting tightly in there, all bold. This is what you get for trying to bury my family, it seemed to be saying.

Some slivers—if you get a good hold on them with tweezers—will slide right out. Not this one. The near end was buried too; I had to dig a hole in my thumb just to reach it (and no, I did not water it beforehand). Through the blood that bubbled from my thumb, I could see the black tip of the sliver, but I couldn’t get a grip on it. I took out all my excavation tools: sewing needles of various sizes, a razor blade, a nail file. I poked and prodded to no avail, blood everywhere, heart pounding. Stuck between fight or flight, I was my own enemy and savior at the same time. I knew that scenes like this have played out across America, and that sometimes movies are made based on the experience.

I finally took the razor blade and sliced through the top layer of skin that was keeping my splinter in place, screaming the whole time. It finally allowed me to grip it and pull it out. I named it Barry and propped it in the corner.

I filled the tub with hydrogen peroxide and got in, a red and frothy bath.

Since men are scarce these days, the next day I lured one of the construction workers from next door over to my house by showing him my gaping splinter wound, which had me wearing a bikini top because it was the only piece of clothing I could get into without having to bend my wounded arm. He motioned that he would be right over after he powered down his mud agitator. He strode into the backyard and assessed the stake situation in seconds. “Okay,” he said, a man of few words.

He grabbed the sledgehammer, climbed up the step-stool, grabbed the pole and slam, smashed the top with the flat side of the hammer. Smash he hit it again, over and over, splinters flying everywhere, siblings for Barry. In a frenzy, this man gripped the pole and whapped it over and over again, until finally it appeared to be getting shorter…finally penetrating the soil I had so diligently moistened.

The man climbed down covered in sweat. I started to prattle and he put a finger up, silencing me while he caught his breath. Heaving, with hands on his hips, he finally gasped, “You need…metal…Home Depot,” then he drew a figure in the gravel: a post pounder. I thanked him very much, and he returned to agitating his mud.

I stood in my backyard, looking at my stake standing up all by itself. I whispered to the lazy oleanders, “Don’t you want to stand up tall like the stake?” before calling it another Saturday night. I hope when I get out there today that the earth has gripped the stake as firmly as my flesh gripped the splinter. It would only be fair.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Uneasy Writer

Click here, then read.

I had lunch yesterday with Jim Cervantes, a retired colleague—a poet, teacher, and former English department renegade—who is now pre-diabetic, not the sexiest adjective to add to that list, but hey, we all got somethin’. Jim’s doctor now has him counting carbs, which Jim does vigilantly. In fact, I’ve never seen a man so interested in carb levels.

But there we were, sitting at a table at Pittsburgh Willy’s, a gourmet hotdog establishment, both of us pounding down the Greek Willy with sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese and kalamata olives. Jim also had a Coke and examined the label for the number of carbohydrates: a whopping 39! He smacked his forehead. “39! I’m not drinking this whole thing. I’ve already had 25 for breakfast and 15 for my snack, and there’s about 15 in this bun and not much in the hot dog. That puts me at about 60 for the day without the Coke, 100 for the day with it.” Jim shook his head and glugged down his Coke, the old-fashioned kind that comes in a cold glass bottle. “That’s pretty tasty. I guess I’ll be okay,” he said, setting the Coke down, nearly drained. “I like to stick to the low counts and even with stir-fry tonight, I won’t go over 180.”

I admire Jim’s ability to stick to his low-carb diet, and happily so: He seems to enjoy having control over this part of his destiny. However, more than that, I was with him from the moment he discovered the Coke’s high carb level, through the glugging, all the way to the moment the empty bottle sat there, one-eighth of an inch left in the bottom to prove he was capable of denying himself.

I am not so good at that.

Case in point: Though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, every so often a craving will arise late in the evening when I’m already in my jammies and home for the night. Hm, what’s in the pantry? Look look, bob, weave. Oh, how about those raisins? Bet those would be good. A half-pound of them later on The Night of the Raisins, I went to bed and slept like a baby. Over the next few days, however, I made a few extra and at times unexpected deposits, wherever I found myself when the raisins became so much more than just a snack. Disappointed in myself for being unable to eat just “some” raisins, I’ve decided to never purchase them again.

The same kind of thing happened with Balance Bars, whose name I think is ultimately misleading. Balance Bars are sold as health food; they promise a healthy blend of carbs, proteins, and fats. I bought them by the boxful for years; they were my first choice for an on-the-go snack, and they came with me everywhere: to work, to the car wash, to the Middle East. I didn’t leave home without them.

But then another craving came upon me—just a couple weeks ago, back when raisins were still allowed in this house—after dinner, when I was sitting in my chair watching TV with my cat. I tossed my cat aside and went to stand in front of the pantry again. Raisins? No, raisins are no fun. I know, how about a Balance Bar? Maybe two. I ate six Balance Bars that night in about a half-hour, fulfilling about three-fourths of my caloric needs for the following day including four times as much as the recommended protein. I lay in bed that night with a stuffed and solid belly, as if I’d eaten a medium-sized animal. Every time I turned over, my guts went “thud”. The only good thing that came from that binge was that I wasn’t hungry for much of the following week. I guess if you want to eat like a snake with jaws unhinged, Balance Bars might be for you. I don’t buy them anymore, though—too dangerous.

Cravings, binges, obsessions…we all have them. Like Jim watching his carbs but salivating at the sight of the Coke, we are all hard-pressed to ride whatever wagon we’re supposed to be on. There aren’t any magic tricks or secrets; it just takes discipline and persistence. So the next time your belly is bulging from a bag of chocolate macadamia nut cookies, a pound of cheese and crackers, and/or a family-sized platter of chicken enchiladas, don’t blame yourself.

Blame your inner Python.